Down To The Sea

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The computer is just the latest in a line of technological innovations and revolutions that have changed our language. Obviously the new technology demands a specialized vocabulary for the engineers themselves. But certain words—“glitch,” “interface,” and “to program” are ones that come to mind—are sure to be incorporated into everyday language by people who can’t tell a microchip from a cow chip. The ages of herding and agriculture gave us “bellwether,” “a long row to hoe,” and scores of metaphors derived from sowing and reaping. The ages of steam and machinery put us “in gear” and fashioned “safety valves” for everything from urban riots to executive headaches. Radio, aviation, telegraphy, astronomy, chemistry, electricity, and photography have all made their mark.

But there has been no more profound influence on our language than the era that was necessary for the discovery of America itself—the age of navigation. Its terms are so pervasive in our speech that often we don’t recognize their nautical sources. Not many are aware, for instance, that to be “taken aback”—to be surprised, disconcerted, flabbergasted—derives from a sudden shift of wind making a ship unmanageable. Still, you don’t have to be an etymologist to appreciate the usefulness of hundreds of words and phrases that originated in the sailor’s trade. Many will recall starting a new job and being uplifted or chilled by the greeting “Welcome aboard!”—perhaps to be followed in time by “Shape up or ship out!” or even “Shove off!” Throughout our lives, after “clearing the decks for action,” we “launch” our businesses, love affairs, and novels, often to see them “becalmed” in the “doldrums” or “sunk without a trace.” There are times when we seek “any port in a storm” and are lucky to “have enough leeway” not to “run aground” or to be “marooned.” It would be wonderful if life were always “smooth sailing,” but there’s always that “loose cannon on the deck.” By now you’re either “all at sea” or have caught our “drift.”

Like the language it has permeated, marine history runs parallel to our history as a nation. In the pages of the special section on seafaring that follow, you’ll go back as far as 1609, when the British ship Sea Venture , heading for Virginia with a load of colonists, was wrecked on the Bermuda coast. This story is not only a tribute to the intrepid survivors (they built a seaworthy vessel in a wilderness), it also is a parable of antiauthoritarian politics. Other stories in this section feature a great warship in the midst of a dramatic battle at sea, a whaler that was destroyed in a freak accident and became the inspiration for what many consider America’s greatest work of fiction, and a minelayer involved in one of the most dangerous, ambitious, and little-known naval operations of World War I. All these stories of ships and seafarers, as well as others, are offered for your enlightenment, of course. But we hope they may also serve as reminders of what we owe to those who have gone down to the sea in ships from our earliest sheet-hauling days to the computerized naval present.