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Saturday, 7 September 2013

A variety of ships

Sydney is going to be invaded by a huge fleet in a couple of weeks.  I rather think it's to do with the centenary of the Royal Australian Navy, but for some odd reason (given that they are all on the water), these vessels will cause traffic jams.  All the would-be audience, I suppose.

Anyhow, it's a while since I wrote: I have been busy with literary lunches for children, re-editing Not Your Usual Bushrangers, soon to be an e-book, and getting the Teachers' Notes done for The Big Book of Australian History, which will be both a print book and an e-book. How the world changes!

But that coming invasion got me thinking about ships.

"Scholarships not battleships" was once a political slogan, created with mischievous misuse of two different types of 'ship'. Such a play on words is a venerable one, and when Sir Joseph Porter explains how he became First Lord of the Admiralty in H. M. S. Pinafore, he sings (in part):  
Of legal knowledge I acquired such a grip
That they took me into the partnership.
And that junior partnership, I ween,
Was the only ship that I ever had seen
But that kind of ship so suited me,
That now I am the ruler of the Queen's Navee!
 The marine sort of ship in Old English was a scip — still pronounced like 'ship', but spelt that way, and Sir Joseph's first ship was not. Somewhere along the way, the word scip divided up into two pronunciations: 'skiff' and 'ship', with a size difference entering into calculations, so that any craft which could be hauled on board another craft was a boat, and any craft too large for that was a ship. It is not such a good definition now we have cranes that can lift even an ocean-going vessel onto the deck of a still larger ship.

Captain Donovan's brig Vision was definitely a boat, but I leave it to the reader to look that one up.

The division in pronunciation also happened with scyrte, an item of clothing which was a short garment, what we would now call a kirtle originally, but it developed into two forms and the meanings of the two pronunciations diverged, so that scyrte gave us both 'skirt' and 'shirt'.

Mind you, the OED disagrees about skiffs, saying that the French have an esquif, while the Portuguese have an esquife, and the Italians have a schifo, all with similar meanings, but then it traces all of these back to the Old High German word scif, which is a ship or a boat, so we are just about back where we started.

Usually a skiff is a small light boat, well suited to sailing or rowing, but the term can also be applied to a long skinny boat of the sort only used in rowing races. Some people call these boats 'sculls', but this is a transfer of name from the oars, which are properly 'sculls', probably because the race is sometimes referred to as 'lightweight sculls'. 'Sculling', though, is done by one oar, over the stern of a small dinghy, with the blade travelling in a figure-of-eight. This is hard to do, which is why boating people do it, to cock a snook at landlubbers.

Now back to our scholarships, battleships and partnerships. The '-ship' ending that we see in marksmanship and dictatorship is an old English ending equivalent to -scape in landscape, or -shape in shipshape, for that matter. It comes from three Old English endings: sciepe, scipe and scype. It comes originally from an Old Teutonic form skapiz, meaning to create or ordain or to shape something. In fact it has come to be used in a variety of ways, as in 'hardship', 'authorship', 'lordship', 'courtship', and the like.

In English place names, we find yet another form of 'ship', where the word is a corruption of 'sheep' (scéap in Old English), so Shipbourne is a 'sheep burn', a stream where sheep were washed, and Shipmeadow needs no explanation at all. But Shipton is not, as many people assume, a town with many sheep — the '-ton' ending on English place names actually means 'enclosure', so Shipton is a sheep enclosure.

The word 'township', on the other hand, is a carry-over from Old English, when it was túnscipe, the only surviving example of a way that the Anglo-Saxons made a new word by adding '-ship' to make a collective: in this case, the inhabitants of a town.

Which possibly sheds a new light on the expression 'ship of fools'.

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