A Sea of Words. A Lexicon and Companion for Patrick O'Brian's Seafaring Tales. Second edition. 1997. Dean King, with John B Hattendorf and J. Worth Estes. An Owl Book, Henry Holt & Co. New York
"Your mariner is an honest fellow, none better; but he is sadly given to jargon." - Stephen Maturin, Post Captain
"When reading the Aubrey-Maturin novels, the question "How much vocabulary do I really need to know?" inevitably arises, and it recurs again and again. If you're anything like me¾ a certified lubber¾ you raced through the first three novels glued to the plots, inventing definitions, or what you convinced yourself were at least reasonable approximations, and reassuring yourself at each instance of Maturin's touching lubberliness." p xvii, Foreword
Through the device of Stephen Maturin, physician, the O'Brian novels usually give us enough definitions and clues about 18th century naval cant to follow the action, but it's not enough to really understand the details. This lexicon does a good job, but not a great job, of filling in the details. The first chapter has a concise history of the era¾ the interactions of the Royal Navy with revolutionary and Napoleonic France, and the organization of the Navy. The second chapter is a description of the medicine of the era¾ competing theories, naval medicine, surgery. Then there is a section of illustrations¾ maps, ship types, rigging. I did not find this section satisfactory, because the pictures lack detail, and not all the defined boats are shown. The pictures are 18th or 19th century drawings, and must lose something in the translation to another book and across the centuries. The pictures should have captions that explain how a given type of boat differs from apparently similar ones, and what the range is to describe something (as a lugger vs. a chasse-maree, for example - the pictures are nearly identical). And I have the impression that the definitions were sometimes vague, and depended on the nationality and experience and education and time-period of the describer.
The main part of the book is the lexicon itself, nearly 400 pages of words from the novels with their definitions. I learned much from reading this, but reading such lists is rather tedious, so it took months to finish. I ended with just one degree greater understanding of the terminology, rather than several degrees more, because there is a necessity to use jargon to describe jargon, and it soon all gets hazy. New technical drawings for the many items of sails, rigging, yards, timbers, etc. would be enormously helpful. There are pronunciation guides for a few words, but many more should have them. Not that I'll be trying to use any of the words in my daily conversation, but I do mentally sound them out.
David Kew 8/26/00
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