Galactic Topography and the Evolution of Nautical Slang

    There is a location on every seafaring vessel rather unluckily dubbed the “poop deck.” I encountered this term on occasion—always with a chorus of giggles—while stumbling through Mutiny on the Bounty in seventh grade. I imagined then, quite vividly, an open area composed entirely of human feces. Later that year, when the Cleveland Tall Ships Challenge commandeered the beaches of Lake Erie, I was alarmed to discover that, far beyond not being made of poop, the poop deck didn’t even denote a place upon which poop was kept. Upon it, in fact, no pooping of any kind happens at all.

    Its name is derived from the French la poupe, or “stern,” which traces its origins to the Latin puppis. Puppis is the largest of four constellations into which the ponderous star cluster Argo Navis was split. Evidently, it was just too huge. It occupied a massive chunk of real estate in the southern sky. Were it recognized as a single constellation today—it’s the only one of Ptolemy’s original list of 48 which no longer officially is—Argo Navis would be the biggest in that vast canvas of night we vaguely label “outer space.”

    Sometime during the 17th century, Johannes Hevelius sketched a lovely rendering of Argo Navis amid a nebulous orgy of other constellations. He embellished it with extensive detail, which is preposterous for its extrapolation: It demonstrates how distantly related constellations are with the figures they are alleged to represent.

    Hevelius has oars and ropes and ribbons flying every which way from this massive star-ship. He’s got a crooked mast with dangling crooked sails. There are shields with faces painted on them ornamenting the side and some kind of animal sprouting from what appears to be a harp on the bizarrely vertical bowsprit. Every variety of maritime pageantry has found its way to Hevelius’s drawing, and it has all been interpreted from a smattering of stars—only loosely, one would suspect, to scale. Around these, the illustrator has drawn little circular suns, lest the elaborate sketch fail to indicate their position on its own.

    Doesn’t all this constellation business seem like a little bit of a stretch? Take Hydra for instance. The serpent? This is an assembly of stars that someone has drawn squiggly lines around and called it a day. It’s currently the biggest constellation out there, and if you connect the dots, it looks more like I-94 from St. Paul to Helena than anything else. Squigglum Interstatis.

    Like I’m supposed to gaze upon Hevelius’s drawing with anything resembling recognition. Should I be able to see the great vessel of Jason and his muscular Argonauts within these several specks? And beyond that, should I realistically be expected to identify this boat by its distinct architectural features? Ah yes, that twinkling trio there—separated by billions of light years and stars—is clearly Puppis.

    Give me a piece of paper with six polka dots on it, and I’ll draw you a nuclear power plant. I’ll draw you a prom dress if you’d like. I will draw you a poop deck. But I certainly will not argue that, without the cues from my colored pencils, people should recognize those six dots as anything other than six disparate dots.

    * * * * *

    The poop deck. Are naval architects and sailors actually still using this term in common discourse? And if so, do they appreciate how ridiculous it sounds? They must. Perhaps I’m the one who’s out of touch, or simply immature, but how can these men keep a straight face when they’re talking about it? Imagine, for instance, how much steam a captain would lose if forced to mention it while doling out punishment.

    —This behavior is inexcusable. You’ll be flogged two dozen times I say! Boatswain-
    —Here sir.
    —Take this man to be flogged. Two dozen lashings.
    —Whereabouts shall I administer the flogging, Captain sir?
    —Why, the poop deck of course.

    A decent argument stands to be made that language, or at least identifiers, eventually deviate from their etymological roots if they become associated with certain vulgarities or cultural taboos. As a slightly tangential (and admittedly childish) example, no decent set of parents with the last name “Horn” would ever name their son Gabe. (Say it.)

    Sailors, though, are hardly endowed with a hypersensitivity to language. “To talk like a sailor”—that is, to swear with energy, with extravagance, and indeed, with creativity—has become a cliché on land, which betrays, if indirectly, an acceptance of the harsher life one faces on the open sea. There, the paramount value–as indicated by the Sailors’ catalogue of Nautical Slang–seems to be bluntness.

    Stained coveralls used by sailors for particularly dirty work, what typical land-dwellers might call painting clothes, the sailor happily labels poopie pants. A sailor’s penis is his pork sword. His doctor is his pecker checker. (This is not to be confused with the hospital corpsman, who is known fondly as the penis machinist.) Human beings, sailors refer to simply as pukes. Beer is piss.

    Popular acronyms, too, have become so regular in their usage as to now permanently reside in the arsenal of sailor slang. The English Royal Navy and, distantly, the Royal Navy of New Zealand have been integral in the formation of them. The omnipresence of acronyms in military lingo—POW, MIA, AWOL, etc.—established a convenient mold out of which sailors seem to have had a dandy time breaking. PFM, for example, stands for ‘Pure Fucking Magic’ and is used when a seaman can’t explain how something works. SAPFU, also, which is hard to say, refers to an action which ‘Surpasses All Previous Fuck-Ups.”

    Though I tend to have less tolerance for violent cursing than many of my friends, I am less bothered by the crassness of the sailor because their profession is strangely alluring to me. And unlike the embellished illustrations of renaissance astronomers, the sailor’s language is potent in that it is simple. It is obscene at times, granted, but it leaves nothing to question because it has already reduced everything to its simplest terms.

    The sailor, incidentally, also had a better view of the night sky than anyone else on earth. He probably knew where every constellation would be every night of the year. But the sailor probably wouldn’t have cared much for proper Latin names or fancy sketches. He’d probably emerge from his hammock at o’dark-thirty, trudge to the poop deck to take his shift at the helm, cast an upward glance for a moment and behold the sky he’d seen every night and every morning for years. He’d probably only acknowledge one vast, sparkling constellation. And he’d probably call it ‘blanket’.


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