Middle English Nautical Terminology


Kendall Shields


copyright 2004


            Our understanding of many medieval shipbuilding records is made more difficult

            by the obscurity of some of the Middle English or Norman-French sea terms to be

found in them. The interpretation of some of these is problematical, and in the first instance must be the concern of the etymologist.

Ian Friel, The Good Ship: Ships, Shipbuilding and Technology in England 1200 – 1520




Much of our knowledge of the vast Middle English nautical lexicon comes from three series of records preserved at the Public Record Office: The Army, Navy and Ordnance section of the Various Accounts of the King’s Remembrancer, the Foreign Accounts of the Pipe Roll, and the Rolls of Foreign Accounts. Although these documents were written mostly in Medieval Latin, “the Middle English element is sometimes surprisingly strong” (Sandahl, vol. 1, 12). The more technical the document, the less likely a clerk was to know suitable Latin or French translations for its obscurer terms. M. S. Giuseppi explains in his Guide to the Manuscripts preserved in the Public Record Office that “[i]t appears to have been the practice of the various officers rendering their accounts at the Exchequer to bring with them a roll of Particulars of their Accounts, entitled ‘Particule Compoti’ . . . . From this the Account itself, or ‘Compotus’ proper, was drawn up and examined by the Auditors whose names appear at the head of their account” (qtd in Sandahl, vol. 1, 12-3). These particulars of accounts “were sometimes kept by the master shipwright himself; in other cases it may be taken for granted that the person in charge of the building or repairing [the ship] also supervised the clerk in keeping the account” (Sandahl, vol.1, 13). The technical terms contained therein “may therefore be regarded as accurate” (13) in the view of Bertil Sandahl, whose three-volume Middle English Sea Terms remains the standard study.



Loan Words: Old Norse, Low Dutch, Low German and French


Like the Middle English lexicon generally, Middle English nautical terminology is characterized by a great influx of loan words. “More than most words,” Sandahl writes, “sea terms have a tendency to migrate from one country to another . . . a technical innovation adopted from abroad was frequently known by the foreign name that went with it” (vol. 3, 3; see also David Trotter’s “Oceano Vox.”) Many basic nautical terms borrowed from Old Norse remain in the language today: bitt, bow, carling, halse (hawse), keel, kelson, scarf, skeg, and stern. Sandahl proceeds from a broad definition of “sea terms,” and includes in his study several carpentry terms that relate closely to the nautical terms, among them the Low Dutch wood words clapholt, cog-board, deal, knorholt, righolt, wainscot and the Low German nail words anned, need, boyspikar, crame, grope-nail, middle-nail, scot-nail, tingle, and wrakling. Other important Dutch loans are bollard, boying, dol-beam, filling, foting, futtock, lask, lene, needle, sheltbeam, and orlop. “Sailors are a polyglot race,” Sandahl writes, “with a fondness for a foreign turn of expression” (vol. 1, 23).


            Unlike these Old Norse, Low Dutch and Low German borrowings, surprisingly few French loans into the Middle English nautical lexicon are originally nautical in meaning (Sandahl, vol. 1, 23). The French nautical lexicon “is largely of Mediterranean origin” (vol. 1, 23), but only handful of these terms of Mediterranean origin – castle, poop, calfate – have entered the English seafaring vocabulary. Overwhelmingly, French loans occur in nautical Middle English as “native English (or Anglo-Norman) adaptations and combinations of words borrowed from the French in non-nautical senses” (vol. 1, 23): aile, alouor, bilge, fender, foil, harpoun, plank, transversayn, transyn, gudgeon, talon, clow, cabin, hoard, hurdis, rail, chess-tree, and summer-castle are but a few of the many.


The -ing Ending


Word formation in the Middle English nautical lexicon is a subject toward which Sandahl hopes to turn once “the entire material has been sifted” (vol. 3, 5); to date, he has but noted without substantial commentary “the predilection of seaman for the ending -ing” (vol. 1, 24). The -ing ending is common among terms relating to all aspects of the ship: binding, boying, carling, ceiling, filling, foting, halkessing, halsing, harping, hecching, kelsing, lering, rivesing, sharping, spiking, spurketting, transyng, weveling, wilding and wrakling all refer to parts of the ship’s hull; berling, knotting, louring, reveling, trussing, twisting, welling, woolding, wyning to masts, spars and sails; bowling, gerthing, girdeling, girding, gording, lifting, marling, mooring, putting, ratling, redelyng, rigging, steting / steding, stoting / stoding, swifting, tackling, tailing and tricing to rigging. This list will no doubt be expanded upon publication of Sandahl’s fourth volume of Middle English Sea Terms, which takes as its subject cordage and equipment.


Multiplicity, Redundancy


In the third volume of Middle English Sea Terms, which takes as its focus standing and running rigging, Sandahl observes that “our first impression when considering Middle English rigging terms as a whole is one of multiplicity, even redundancy”; there are, quite simply, “too many terms for a fairly limited number of fittings” (vol. 3, 1). A representative example of this phenomenon is steting (a kind of brace), which also occurs as steding, steding-line, stotings, stodings, stothe, stode, stethe, stete, stete-rope, steting-rope and stod-rope. Sandahl offers three possible explanations for this redundancy: i) the influence of other languages through loan words, as discussed above; ii) regional variations and idiosyncrasy in rigging; and iii) technical developments in “the construction of ships and the art of rigging” (vol 3. 1) throughout the period. Ian Freil’s The Good Ship: Ships, Shipbuilding and Technology in England 1200 – 1520 provides is a thorough examination of these technical developments.



For Further Reading


Freil, Ian. The Good Ship: Ships, Shipbuilding and Technology in England 1200 – 1520.     London: British Museum Press, 1995.


Mainwaring, Sir Henry. The Sea-Man’s Dictionary. 1644. Menston, England: The Scholar                   Press, 1972.


Sandahl, Bertil. Middle English Sea Terms Volume I: The Ship’s Hull. Upsala: Lundequistska Bokhandeln, 1951.

– – – . Middle English Sea Terms Volume II: Masts, Spars and Sails. Upsala: Lundequistska Bokhandeln, 1959.

– – –. Middle English Sea Terms Volume III: Standing and Running Rigging. Upsala: Acta              Universitatis Upsalensis (Studia Anglistica Upsaliensia 42), 1982.

Sayers, William. “The Etymology of Middle English Oreven ‘Oar Blank.’” Mariner’s Mirror 84:3 (August, 1998), 322-25.

– – – . “Some International Nautical Etymologies.” Mariner’s Mirror 88:4 (November 2002), 405-22.

– – – . “Two Nautical Etymologies: Killick ‘Small Stone Anchor’ and Drake ‘Male Duck.’” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews 12:3 (Summer 1999), 3-6.

Trotter, David. “Oceano Vox: You Never Know where a Ship Comes From. On Multilingualism and Language-Mixing in Medieval Britain.” Aspects of Multilingualism in European Language History. Ed. Kurt Braunmuller and Gisella Ferraresi. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2003. 15-33.