slippery words list

A Glossary in Two Parts

Part I: Historian-speak, including, but not limited to, terms and concepts from Historical Materialism and Human Geography.

This is a collection of words that are common in the sort of social history that I read and write, but that are sometimes ill-defined, which is problematic because words are not static, their nuances of meanings change over time. The meanings given here are not definitive — other historians might understand the words differently. The list is merely an indication of what I mean when I use these words, and from or by way of whom my understanding was adopted or enlarged.

Agency: “The proposition that human beings think about the intentional actions they perform and the resources they need to achieve their ends.” The general claim for human agency holds that human beings act independently to make choices and impose those choices on the world. In doing so, human beings are ‘active agents’ – as opposed to passive subjects of either natural forces, or of the determining constraints of social structures.

Ann M. Carlos and Stephen Nicolas supply another sense in which agency is a theme in their study of Hudson’s Bay Company structuring, noting “The origins of the term lie in the legal and commercial distinction between principal and agent, in which the latter is granted the capacity to act autonomously on behalf of the former. An agent in this sense may sign contracts or manage property autonomously, while still bound to serve the interests of a principal. The nature of such relationships continues to be a subject of considerable interest in sociology, economics, and political science, where it draws strongly on rational choice models of individual and firm behavior and is generally referred to as agency theory.”

Allan Pred regards human agency as intrinsic to communication, and therefore to project and process.[1]

Biography: an individual’s lived history. From Allan Pred, who relates biography to an individual’s ‘path,’ in that “each of the actions and events consecutively occurring between birth and death of an individual has both temporal and spatial attributes. Thus, the biography of a person is ever on the move with her and can be conceptualized … as an unbroken, continuous path through time-space.”[2]

Construct: “Anything constructed, esp. by the mind; hence spec., a concept specially devised to be part of a theory.”[3]

Dialectic: theoretically, “the existence or working of opposing forces, tendencies, etc.”[4]

Experience: E.P. Thompson presents experience as a category of historical analysis – albeit an “imperfect” one – that provides a “way of handling … social being’s impingement upon social consciousness.” Thompson’s definition of experience is broad: roughly ‘lived history.’ He notes that, “it comprises the mental and emotional response, whether of an individual or a group, to many inter-related events or to many repetitions of the same kind of event” and considers the limits of experience to be less important than “the manner of its arrival” which is predicated on “the dialogue between social being and social consciousness.”[5]

Historical Materialism: an approach to the study of society and economics, derived from what Marx described as the “materialist conception of history.” Historical materialism as an explanatory system looks for the causes of developments and changes in the means by which human societies collectively survive, taking into consideration everything that co-exists with the economic base of society – including ideas. E.P. Thompson states that historical materialism:

offers to study social process in its totality; that is, it offers to do this when it appears, not as another ‘sectoral’ history – as economic, political, intellectual history, as history of labour, or as ‘social history’ defined as yet another sector – but as a total history of society, in which all other sectoral histories are convened. It offers to show in what determinate ways each activity was related to the other, the logic of this process and the rationality of its causation.[6]

Historiographer: a history writer who may or may not be trained in historiology as a historian.[7]

Institutional Project: a project pursued by an institution. According to Pred, institutional projects that are dominant within a geographical area (take, for example, that of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s ‘Rupert’s Land’), have a “place-specific impact …  on the daily paths of participants, their imprint upon the landscape, and the power relations out of which they come and to which they contribute.”[8]

Location: “a particular position within space” which might be arbitrarily determined according to a mathematical grid system and known as “absolute location,” or determined relative to the location of one or more other places, in which case it is subject to variation and is known as “relative location.”[9]

Metaphysical: of the realm of ideas. My use is idiosyncratic: I use metaphysical to avoid the term ‘philosophical’ unless referring to an idea or concept that has been subject to disciplining by way of engagement in the formal, academical discourse(s) of Philosophy.

Ocean arc: signifies a continuous, travelled, watery plain over which ships sail as though on a ‘path.’ It serves to highlight the existence of a ‘place-space dialectic’ at sea. I use the term: a) to acknowledge that prior to the advent of technology that allowed the kind of mapping that is taken for granted today, mariners understood the routes they sailed differently than in the present; b) to signify oceanic spaces of human activity – specifically that of sailors following a route with ships.[10]

Ocean sea: I use the term is used to underscore the coextensive actuality of maritime space, and to acknowledge the circumfluent aspect of the planet’s hydrosphere. It signifies ‘space’ in the sense outlined below.[11]

Path: Allan Pred sets out the premise that “each of the actions and events consecutively occurring between birth and death of an individual has both temporal and spatial attributes. Thus, the biography of a person is ever on the move with her and can be conceptualized … as an unbroken, continuous path through time-space.” Pred explains how individual paths give rise to biography formation – meaning a lived history, congruent with what Thompson described as experience – “as a reflection of the elements of the structuration process in place.” Institutional projects also have paths.[12]

Place: derived from a humanistic strand of geographical inquiry of the 1970s and “typically understood as a distinctive (and bounded) location defined by the lived experiences of people” See for example, Yi-Fu Tuan, and his suggestion that “place does not have any particular scale associated with it, but is created and maintained through the ‘fields of care’ that result from peoples emotional attachment … his work alerted geographers to the sensual, aesthetic and emotional dimensions of space.” See also Edward Relf, who suggested that “it is important to move beyond the idealisation of an objective analysis of space to strive for a more human-centred and empathetic understanding of the lived experience of place.” Pred describes place “not as something that stands on its own, but as a phenomenon that is part of the becoming of individual consciousness” and argues for “describing behavior and biography in time and space,” through analysis of place. Areal study, therefore, may serve as a means of understanding the conditions, conjunctions, and consequences that gave rise to historical process.[13]

Process: “a series of changes with some sort of unity, or unifying principle, to it. Hence ‘process’ is to ‘change’, or ‘event’, rather as ‘syndrome’ is to ‘symptom’.”[14]

Processual: In the social sciences: “Relating to or involving a process rather than discrete events.”[15]

Region: an abstractly constructed classification of a land mass, whereby large areas are divided into “smaller areas that exhibit a degree of unity”; regions are “human landscapes that reflect their occupancy and that differ from other landscapes.”[16]

Region process: a “region process … transcending time” is the theoretical ‘making’ of a region, observable in the historical record as changes in naming and the shifting of boundaries. Geographers also refer to such changes as “temporally layered” and indicative of the process of “becoming place.” Thus, between 1508 and 1920, such geographically and temporally nonspecific designations as the ‘Northwest,’ and such temporally finite – if geographically mutable – designations as ‘Rupert’s Land’ eventually gave way to ‘Western Canada.’[17]

Space: “sets of distances” which can be measured “in terms of time and money” and differently conceived according to “physical, time, economic, cognitive and social” concepts. Marxists and materialist accounts written by geographers of the 1970s that explored relations of domination and resistance conceived space as: “socially produced and consumed.” For example, Henri Lefebvre, and his ‘philosophy of the everyday,’ described space as “‘made up’ through a three-way dialectic between perceived, conceived and lived space. Here, place emerges as a particular form of space, one that is created through acts of naming as well as through distinctive activities and imaginings associated with particular social spaces.”[18]

The above conceptions of place and space were devised and adopted by theorists dissatisfied with existing ‘empirico-physical’ or ‘spatial science’ conceptions that suggested “the world was essentially a blank canvas, and, rather than playing an active role in shaping social life, formed a surface on which social relations were played out.” Place and space form a dialectic: “place is often equated with security and enclosure”; “space is associated with freedom and mobility.” In cultural geography, place and space “are made and remade through networks that involve people, practices, languages and representations. Hence, we might usefully conceive of both space and place as constantly becoming, in process and unavoidably caught up in power relations.”[19]

Social: refers to what is sometimes designated ‘the social,’ a contraction of ‘the social world of human beings,’ or ‘human society.’[20]

Social reproduction: is “that which must take place in the lifeworld – cultural reproduction, social integration, socialization,” or “the processes by which societies reproduce their social structures and social institutions.” The term has purchase in social history because the Marxist view of ideology as an instrument of social reproduction – achieved through what Antonio Gramsci described as hegemony – has been an important touchstone for historical theories about ‘the social.’ For my purposes,  social reproduction occurs by way of the process theorized by Allan Pred.[21]

Society: “the agglomeration of existing institutions, the activities (practices, or modes of behavior) associated with those institutions, the people participating in those activities, and the structural relations occurring between those people and institutions, and between institutions.”[22]

Structure: a contraction of ‘social structure,’ the term refers:

to any recurring pattern of social behaviour; or, more specifically, to the ordered interrelationships between the different elements of a social system or society. Structure is generally agreed to be one of the most important but also most elusive concepts in the social sciences … Unlike the structure of a building or an organism, a social structure is not directly visible. It is evidenced in the observable movements and actions of individuals, but it cannot be reduced to these. The core institutional norms and meanings are cultural phenomena that exist only as shared ideas and representations in the minds of individuals. For this reason, socialization into a culture is central to the maintenance of a social structure. Writers on structuration have emphasized that social structure is carried and has its effects because it is embodied in individuals through their socialization and provides them with dispositions and tendencies to act in particular, structured ways. Thus, a recent discussion has emphasized that the concept of social structure must be seen as resting upon this ‘embodied structure’ … Some structural theories have emphasized the determining capacity of social structure as against human agency. Talcott Parsons, for example, has been criticized for overemphasizing socialization in a common cultural system and, therefore, depicting human actors as lacking in any freedom or autonomy. They are seen as passively acting out the roles into which they have been socialized. This is not, however, inherent in a structural approach. Marxism, for example, recognizes clashes and contradictions between elements of social structures, and active human agency is essential in resolving these contradictions.”[23]


A concept devised by, and central to, the sociological theory developed by the British social theorist Anthony Giddens. Structuration theory is a social ontology, defining what sorts of things exist in the world, rather than setting out laws of development or suggesting clear hypotheses about what actually happens. It tells us what we are looking at when we study society rather than how a particular society actually works. Giddens criticizes and rejects theories such as functionalism and evolutionary theory, which he regards as closed systems, insisting that social phenomena and events are always contingent and open-ended. He attempts to transcend the traditional division in sociology between action and structure by focusing on ‘social practices’ which, he argues, produce and are produced by structures. Structures, for Giddens, are not something external to social actors but are rules and resources produced and reproduced by actors in their practices. He also emphasizes the importance of time and space for social theory and social analysis: his historical sociology then explores the different ways in which societies bind these together.

Allan Pred regards people as “fundamental,” to the social reproduction of structuration – where structure is understood as the spoken and unspoken, but ultimately binding norms, or rules, and events of interaction that are generated by the interrelation of parts of an organized whole in a given time and space. In other words, “people both create and in turn are socialized by societal structures,” which comprise a ‘system of rules’ that both enable and constrain.[24]

Time: George Frank observes that:

The events whose course historiography is constructing carry two dates: the date of their real occurrence and the date of their actual reconstruction. Events that carry two dates cannot be ordered unambiguously in one-dimensional time. A good deal of historiography consists in reviewing, criticising and correcting former historiography. Since historiography has no immediate access to the process it describes, the course of known history is epistemologically encapsulated in the evolution of historiography. This encapsulation means that known history is a process embedded in another process. The processes reconstructed and the process of reconstruction run in different times. An evolution consisting of different processes running in different times is inconceivable in a one-dimensional continuum of instants. Historiography is working with a concept of time that is mainly narrative, relying on the grammar of tense rather than on formalisation, this heavy epistemological implication has rarely been accounted for.[25]

Value added: refers to the additional value of a commodity over the cost of commodities used to produce it from the previous stage of production. Hudson’s Bay Company profit depended on a financial surplus generated by value added through the transoceanic transport of furs.[26]

Part II: Seafaring Terminology:

Barque/Bark: originally:

a general name given to small ships: it is however peculiarly appropriated by seamen to those which carry three masts without a mizen top-sail. Our northern mariners, who are trained in the coal-trade, apply this distinction to a broad-sterned ship, which carries no ornamental figure on the stem or prow.

Later barques used in the grain trade could be very large, four and five-masted, with square sails on all but the mizzen [back] mast which was ‘fore-and-aft rigged’, meaning it carried angular, as opposed to square sails.[27]

Barquentine/Barkentine: a term variously, and inconsistently, applied to late nineteenth-century three or four masted vessels, rigged with square sails on the foremast alone, the others being ‘fore-and-aft rigged’ [carrying angular sails].[28]

Bayside: adjective meaning “on or near the shore of a bay.”[29]

Bend: to fix, fasten, tie.[30]


Lithograph, “ HM Ship Dorothea Beset in Ice June 11 1818.” Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-2123 Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana.

Beset: closely surrounded by ice.[31]

Berth/Birth: “A sleeping place. A ship’s station at anchor, or alongside a quay.”[32]

Blink: optical phenomenon that looks like a white to pale yellow bright patch in the sky and indicates snow over land (white, ‘land-blink’ or ‘snow blink’), or a large expanse of sea ice (yellowish, ‘ice-blink’), in its direction.[33]

Blue Peter: signal flag meaning ‘all aboard.’[34]

Boats: “Small Vessels – those belonging to Ships are – the Long Boat, the Launch, the Cutter, the Yawl, and the Jolly Boat.”[35] Usually open, meaning without a deck.

Boatswain: “The Officer who has the charge of the Cordage, Boats, Rigging, &c,” and supervises the work of the deck crew.[36]

Bows: “The round part of the Ship forward.”[37]

Bowsprit: “A Mast projecting over the Stem” [front] of the ship.[38]

Brig/Brigantine: Willaim Falconer’s Universal Dictionary of the Marine of 1780, covers both terms with the following:

a merchant-ship with two masts. This term is not universally confined to vessels of a particular construction, or which are masted and rigged in a method different from all others. It is variously applied, by the mariners of different European nations, to a peculiar sort of vessel of their own marine. … Among English seamen, this vessel is distinguished by having her main-sail set nearly in the plane of her keel; whereas the main-sails of larger ships are hung athwart, or at right angles with the ship’s length, and fastened to a yard which hangs parallel to the deck: but in a brig, the foremost edge of the main-sail is fastened in different places to hoops which encircle the main-mast, and slide up and down it as the sail is hoisted or lowered: it is extended by a gaff above, and by a boom below.

Later, brig and brigantine took on distinct meanings. The Oxford English Dictionary, supplies citations from 1720 to 1854 to define brig as a vessel:

(a.) originally identical with the brigantine (of which word brig was a colloquial abbreviation); but, while the full name has remained with the unchanged brigantine, the shortened name has accompanied the modifications which have subsequently been made in rig, so that a brig is now (b.) A vessel with two masts square-rigged like a ship’s fore- and main-masts, but carrying also on her main-mast a lower fore-and-aft sail with a gaff and boom. A brig differs from a snow in having no try-sail mast, and in lowering her gaff to furl the sail. Merchant snows are often called ‘brigs’. This vessel was probably developed from the brigantine by the men-of-war brigs, so as to obtain greater sail-power.

In American usage, a brigantine was referred to as a “hermaphrodite brig.”[39]

Bulk-heads: “Partitions in the Ship.”[40]

Bulwark: “The raised woodwork running along the sides of a vessel above the level of the deck.”[41]

Cape Fly-away: an illusion “on the horizon, mistaken for land, which disappears as the ship approaches.”[42]

Careen: “To heave a vessel down upon her side by purchases upon the masts. To lie over, when sailing on the wind.”[43]

Cat: the arrangement of rope or chain and block or pulley – if more than one pulley, the ‘tackle’ — by which a ship’s anchor was raised to the cathead [a projecting piece of timber at the bow of a ship] in preparation for either stowing or letting go; also abbreviation of cat-o’-nine tails.[44]

Cat-o’-nine tails: instrument for flogging seamen made of nine lengths of braided cord with three knots in each, ending in a larger rope that served as handle.[45]

Clear water: portion of sea without ice.[46]

Conn/Con/Cond/Cun: “derived from the Anglo-Saxon conne, connan, to know, or be skilful. The pilot of old was skilful, and later the master was selected to conn the ship in action.” To “cun” a ship is “To direct the Helm’s-man how to steer” – hence ‘conning’ a ship through ice from atop a mast.[47]

Dead Reckoning: “Determining the position of a vessel by adding to the last fix the ship’s course and speed for a given time”[48]

Deadweight: “A ship may be designed to carry a specified weight of cargo, plus such necessary supplies as fuel, lubricating oil, crew, and the crew’s life support). These combine to form a total known as deadweight.”[49]


the last position on a chart, when a ship is leaving land, fixed from observations of shore stations. Thus a ship, when starting on a voyage takes her departure not from the port from which she sails but from the position where the last bearings of points ashore intersect on the chart.

The point at which reckoning of a voyage begins. It is usually established by bearings of prominent landmarks as the vessel clears a harbor and proceeds to sea. When a navigator establishes this point, he is said to take departure.”[50]

Dhobie/dobie/dhobi: “laundry,” (Royal Canadian Navy), “To wash clothing or linen. Origin from Indian sub-continent where a Dhobi is a washerman.” ‘Dhobie day’ was often a Sunday, customarily the sailor’s rest day, when clothes could be washed and mended.[51]


two-masted fishing vessel … somewhat resembling a ketch, used in the North Sea deep sea fisheries: formerly applied to English craft as well as those of other nations, but now practically restricted to Dutch fishing vessels (though out of use in Holland itself). In the 17th and 18th c. they frequently acted as privateers.[52]

Drift-rail: general name for the outer rail on the upper decks of a ship, though various sections of rail had specific names.[53]

Engineer: in steamships of the early 1800s, an engine keeper, with “no marine specific qualifications or formal training … usually employed on the recommendation of boiler makers and engine works ashore.” By 1862, engineers were certified and training included time at sea.[54]

Fenders: “Pieces of rope or wood, or a quantity of cork, covered with canvas or worked over with rope, hung over a ship to protect her sides … A boat’s fenders are usually made of leather, and stuffed with oakum.”[55]

Fireman: crew tasked with shoveling coal into the boiler of a steam engine.[56]

Fo’c’sle/Forecastle/Fore Castle: “A short Deck in the fore part of the Ship”; “In a merchant ship it signifies the place forward, where the crew live.”[57]

Frame: “A built-up rib of a wooden vessel.”[58]

Frigate: “a vessel of larger size.”[59]

Full-rigged ship: a vessels with three or more masts each carrying at least three, and sometimes four courses of square sails.[60]

Grapple: “to hook or hold fast to.”[61]

High Seas:

those parts of the sea not under the sovereignty of adjacent states. Claims have at times been made to exclusive dominion over large areas of the sea as well as over wide margins … The action and reaction of the interests of navigation, however, have brought states to adopt a limitation first enunciated by Bynkershoek in the formula ‘terrae dominium finitur ubi finitur armorum vis.’ Thenceforward cannon-shot range became the determining factor in the fixation of the margin of sea afterwards known as ‘territoral waters’(q.v.). With the exception of these territorial waters, bays of certain dimensions and inland waters surrounded by territory of the same state, and serving only as a means of access to ports of the state by whose territory they are surrounded, and some waters allowed by immemorial usage to rank as territorial, all seas and oceans form part of the high sea. The usage of the high sea is free to all the nations of the world, subject only to such restrictions as result from respect for the equal rights of others, and to those which nations may contract with each other to observe.[62]

Hold: “the very lower Apartment or Division in the Bottom of the Ship … where all Goods, Stores, &c. lie.”[63]

Hoy: “A small vessel, usually rigged as a sloop, and employed in carrying passengers and goods, particularly in short distances on the sea-coast.”[64]


Bay-ice: new formed ice on the sea surface.

Bay-floe: newly formed floe of ice.

Bight: also ‘bay’: an indentation in an ice floe.

Black sheet: thin, snow-free ice that is dark in appearance, easily confused withopen water at night, commonly found between older ice pans.

Bore: to enter ice under sail [or steam] and force a ship through, separating the ice in the process.

Butting: also ‘ramming’, or ‘backing’: running a ship at ice to bore through.

Calf: an underwater ice tongue which breaks loose and rises to the surface “with violence.”

Calving: ice forming a ‘calf.’

Closed-ice: densely concentrated pack ice composed of floes mostly in contact.

Collar ice: rigid ice firmly frozen to a shore.

Decker: ‘rafter’ at a pressure ridge (Newfoundland).

Dock: either a small naturally occurring bight, or a square space cut in a floe sufficient to shelter a ship “from the danger of external pressure.”

Field: very thick and extremely large sheet of ice — seeming to extend almost to the horizon.

Floe: a field whose limits are clearly visible.

Growler: also ‘large ice’: piece of ice broken from an iceberg or old floe ice, washed and rounded to differing degrees.

Hole: also ‘pool of water’, or ‘swatch’: small space of ‘clear water’ in an otherwise ice-covered sea.

Hummocky ice: ice piled unevenly to form a continuous body of thick ice.

Land-ice: also ‘land-floe’: either floes frozen to land, or heavy masses of ice grounded near the shore.

Lead: channel through ice. To ‘take the right lead’ is to follow a channel to more navigable sea. A ‘blind lead’ terminates against solid ice.

Lolly: new, loose ice.

Nip: to be pressed by ice.

Nipping: ice that begins to close due to wind or currents, preventing passage.

Open-ice: “Pack ice in which the concentration is 4/10 to 6/10, with many leads … and the floes generally not in contact with one another.”

Pack-ice: also ‘ice pack’: a large expanse of solid ice made up of separate masses of ice lying close together and impossible to pass.

Packed ice: small pieces held close together by larger ice, or currents.

Pan: an ice mass small enough to be moved by a ship.

Pancake-ice: new ice, formed of numberless rounded patches of ‘sludge,’ so that the sea surface appears paved.

Patch: a smaller variety of pack-ice, around which open water is visible.

Porridge ice: small, finely ground ice.

Pressure ridge: ridge of ice thrown up by rafting ice.

Rafting: the edges of two pans meeting with force break off and rise on top (as ‘rafters’), or drop under the pans.

Running abroad: ice which opens out or ‘slacks away’ and becomes navigable.

Sailing-ice: masses of ice separate enough that a ship can sail among them.

Sally: an operation in which the sailors run from side to side onboard a ship, causing a ship to roll and thereby free it from young ice.

Sish/Slish: new, young ice in thin sheets.

Slack ice: masses of ice separate enough that a ship can be worked through.

Slacking: ice that is beginning to open and become navigable.

Slatches: large pools of open water in ice.

Slew: to force a ship against a piece of ice well off centre, causing it to swing aside.

Slob: floating snow, freezing into ice.

Sludge: ice of a honey-like consistency that does little to impede a ship, but thattends to solidify into a ‘bay-floe.’

Stream: long, narrow and generally continuous collection of loose ice.

Tongue: underwater ice projecting from an iceberg or floe, differing from a ‘calf’in remaining fixed to the larger body.

Track: to follow along the edge of an ice pack.

Waking: directly following the path of another ship through ice.

Wash: also ‘rote’ (Newfoundland): sound of the sea breaking on ice.

Young-ice: similar to ‘bay-ice,’ but more recently formed.[65]

Jacob’s Ladder: “A ladder made of rope, with wooden bars for steps.”[66]

Jonah: named for Jonah of the Old Testament, a bringer of bad luck to a ship.[67]

Ketch: a vessel with two masts, ‘fore and aft rigged’ – meaning it carried angled, rather than square, sails.[68]

Land Sky: also ‘land blink’: dark streaks or patches of greyness in the sky above the horizon, not as dark as ‘water sky,’ but might be confused with a ‘blink’ caused by ‘black ice.’[69]

Landward: on, or towards land.[70]

Leeward: “with the Wind, or on that Point towards which the Wind blows” – hence lee-shore.[71]

Lighter: “A large flat bottomed boat, used for conveying stores from the dockyard to the ships.”[72]


has several Words peculiar to it. The Mizen-mast is that which is abaft,or nearest to the Stern [back] of the Ship; and from thence, every thing belonging to that Mast is distinguished accordingly, as are all the other Masts, and their Rigging, &c. So therefore the Mizen-sail is called the Mizen.[73]

Oakum: fibrous material “for caulking the seams of a deck, &c.”[74]

Offing: “to the Sea-ward from the Land; as, when a Ship, or a Fleet, is said to lie in the Offing, it means, that they from whom that Expression has come, were in a Ship which lay in Harbour, or were near the Shore, when the others were to the Seaward of them.”[75]

Orlop deck: lowest deck in a ship.[76]

Pink: a “square-rigged ship with a narrow and overhanging stern.”[77]

Pinnace: a small two-masted sailing vessel with square sails; also large “fast oared boats.”[78]

Plain/Plane Sailing: “straightforward and easy. The origin of the term arose from the plane charts of the 16th century which were drawn on the assumption that the earth was flat, even though by then all navigators knew it was not.”[79]

Points/Reef-points: “short lengths of small rope” secured to a sail and used to ‘reef’ or gather up the sail to reduce the amount exposed to wind.[80]

Poop deck: short deck at the stern of a ship, the roof of the captain’s cabin.[81]

Quarantine: “All communications cut off from any ship, boat, or shore that has any sickness on board, as fever.”[82]

Quarter deck: section of upper deck between the mainmast [middle] and mizen mast [back], just in front of the captains cabin and the poop deck.[83]

Reach: “the Distance between any two Points of Land, that lie in a right-line from each other.”[84]

Rigging:”all the ropes, wires, or chains used in ships and smaller vessels to support themasts, raise, and position sails.[85]

Road: “any Place near the Land, where Ships may ride at Anchor; from whence a Ship so riding, is call’d a Roader” [italics in source].[86]

Schooner: a vessel with at least two masts, usually not rigged with square sails.[87]

Scuttle: To scuttle a ship is “To make holes in her bottom to sink her.”[88]


AB – ‘Able-bodied ~’ were “able to perform all the duties of a seaman.”

OS/OD – ‘Ordinary ~’ were subordinate to an AB.[89]

Seaward: towards the sea.[90]

Shallop: a sloop, or large boat with one or more masts carrying fore-and-aft (angular) sails.[91]

Sloop: single mast vessel carrying angular sails.[92]

‘Son of a Gun’: mildly pejorative phrase for a male child conceived, or born, aboard ship in the relative seclusion of the space between cannons on a ship’s gun deck.[93]

Sound: “to try with a Line, or other Thing, how deep the Water is.”[94]

‘Swallow the Anchor’: to leave seafaring and live ashore.[95]

Tack: to tack is:

the operation of bringing a sailing vessel head to the wind and across itso as to bring the wind on the opposite side of the vessel. During this manouevre the vessel is said to be in stays or staying, or coming about. When a sailing vessel wishes to make up to windward, she can only do so by tacking, crossing the wind continuously to make a series of legs, of which the net distance gained is to windward.[96]

Tilt Boat: a passenger vessel with a large canvas cover to protected passengers and cargo from the elements. It also featured two small masts “rigged with spritsails, a sailing rig that is still used by Thames sailing barges today.”[97]

Tramp steamer: a merchant vessel without a regular route and subject to diverting as needed.[98]

Wales: also called bends, “strongest Planks in the Ship’s sides, on the broadest Part.”[99]

Warp: “to carry [a vessel] against the Wind, by means of carrying out an Anchor in the Boat, and dropping it; then to hawl upon it and so carry out another Anchor, after the Ship is come up to the first Anchor. [100]

Watch: “A division of the Ship’s company who keep the Deck for a certain time. One is called the starboard, and the other the larboard Watch” [italics in source], “on deck and below alternately.”

Middle watch: “The watch between midnight and 4 a.m.”

Morning watch: 4 am. to 8 am.

Forenoon watch: 8 am. to noon

Afternoon watch: noon to 4 pm.

Dog watch: “Two half watches of two hours each, from 4 to 6, and from 6 to 8, in the evening.”

First watch: “The portion of the crew on deck duty from 8 p.m. to midnight.”[101]

Water-sky: optical phenomenon that looks like a dark, or bluish patch in the sky and indicates ‘clear water’ in its direction.[102]

Wear: to wear is:

the operation of bringing a sailing ship onto the other tack by bringing the wind around the stern as opposed to tacking when the wind is brought round the bow. It has been suggested that the word originated from veer, which has a similar meaning, but the term to wear a ship is the earlier of the two. In the past tense, a ship is wore, not worn.[103]


Fair ~ “A wind which aids a craft in making progress in a desired direction.”

Foul ~ “The wind heading a ship, so as to prevent her laying her course.”[104]

York boat: a large boat, about thirty-six feet long, eight feet wide, and three or four feet deep. Both ends were pointed and ‘raked’ – “They leaned out, that is, forward and backward four feet from the end of the keel. This made it easier to push them off rocks and shoals.” York boat crews were made up of six middlemen at the oars, a bowman, and steersman. “The oars, or sweeps, were very large, and to balance them the oarsman was placed on the opposite side of the boat to that on which the oar lock was. He stood up to push the oar forward and sat down as he pulled his stroke.” The boats had a removable mast that carried a single square sail.[105] According to HBC lore, Chief Factor William Sinclair, oldest brother of Captain Colin Sinclair, standardized their design.


[1] “agency,” Dictionary of the Social Sciences, ed. Craig Calhoun, Oxford University Press 2002, Oxford Reference Online [ORO] <; (accessed 14 November 2008); see also “agency,” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology, ed. Timothy Darvill, ORO. Ann M. Carlos and Stephen Nicholas, ““Managing the Manager: An Application of the Principal Agent Model to the Hudson’s Bay Company,” Oxford Economic Papers, n.s., 45, no. 2 (April 1993); Allan Pred, “Social Reproduction and the Time-Geography of Everyday Life,” Geografiska Annaler, ser B, 63, no. 1 (1981): 18; Allan Pred, “Place as Historically Contingent Process: Structuration and the Time-Geography of Becoming Places,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 74, no. 2 (June 1984): 285.


[2] Pred, “Social Reproduction,” 9.

[3] “construct,” Oxford English Dictionary Online [OED] <; (accessed 28 August 2008), as in “1.b. gen.”

[4] “dialectic,” OED, as in “ b. In … general use.”

[5] E.P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 7, 8, 32–33.

[6] Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy [1859] <http://www.> (accessed 14 November 2008). Thompson, Poverty of Theory.

[7] See “historiography,” A Dictionary of Sociology, ed. John Scott and Gordon Marshall, ORO; also Penelope J. Corfield, “How to get Back,” review of Why History Matters by John Tosh, The Curse of History by Jeremy Black, Making History Now and Then by David Cannadine, and The Historians’ Paradox by Charles Hoffer, History, Times Literary Supplement, New York Times (21 November 2008): 22.

[8] Pred, “Place as Historically Contingent Process;” 292.

[9] William Norton, Human Geography (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1992) 48.

[10] See Martin W. Lewis, “Dividing the Ocean Sea,” Geographical Review 89, no. 2 (April 1999): 204.

[11] Ibid., 188–214, esp. 199, 203.

[12] Pred, “Social Reproduction,” 5, 9. Thompson, Poverty of Theory, 7, 8, 32–33.

[13] David Atkinson, ed., Cultural Geography: A Critical Dictionary of Key Ideas (I.B. Tauris, 2005), 41–42. Pred, “Social Reproduction,” 5. See also Norton, Human Geography, 49.

[14] Roger Teichmann, “process,” The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ORO.

[15] “processual,” OED, as in “2. a.”

[16] Norton, Human Geography, 2.

[17] Kathleen E. Braden, “Region, Semple, and Structuration,” Geographical Review 82, no. 3 (July 1992): 239; see also Thomas Bender, “The Boundaries and Constituencies of History,” American Literary History 18, no. 2 (summer, 2006): 268.

[18] Norton, Human Geography, 49, 325–33, 349. Atkinson, Cultural Geography, 41–42, 47.

[19] Atkinson, Cultural Geography, 41–42, 47.

[20] See Lorne Tepperman, and R. Jack Richardson, An Introduction to Sociology: The Social World (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1991).

[21] See Ellsworth R. Fuhrman, “social studies of science,” in Science, Technology, and Society, ed. Sal Restivo, ORO; “social reproduction,” The Oxford Dictionary of Sports Science and Medicine, ORO; Pred, “Social Reproduction,” 5–20.

[22] Pred, “Social Reproduction,” 6.

[23] “structure,” Dictionary of Sociology, ORO.

[24] “structuration,” Dictionary of Sociology, ORO; Braden, “Region, Semple, and Structuration,” 239.

[25] Georg Franck, “Time, Actuality, Novelty and History: Some Facets of a Phenomenon Still Awaiting Comprehension,” in Life and Motion of Socio-Economic Units, ed . Andrew U. Frank, Jonathan Raper and Jean-Paul Cheyan (London: Taylor & Francis, 2001), 111–23.

[26] See Eric W. Sager, Seafaring Labour: The Merchant Marine of Atlantic Canada, 18201914 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989), 9; J.M. Blaut, The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History (New York: Guilford Press, 1993), 169.

[27] William Falconer, “William Falconer’s Dictionary of the Marine” <; (accessed 6 November 2007). Peter Kemp, ed., The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 61–62. See also Jenny Bennett and Veres Laszlo, Sailing Rigs: An Illustrated Guide (Annapolis MA.: Naval Institute Press, 2005), 7.

[28] See Bennett and Laszlo, Sailing Rigs, 7, 33–37.

[29] “bayside,” OED.

[30] Darcy Lever, The Young Sea Officers Sheet Anchor; or, a key to the leading of rigging, and to practical seamanship [1808], transcribed by Lars Bruzelius, A Maritime Dictionary: Or, An Explanation of the most usual Sea-Terms, digested into Alphabetical Order <> (accessed 8 February 2009); William Mountaine, The Seaman’s Vade-Mecum, and Defensive War by Sea: Containing the Proportions of Rigging, Masts and Yards Weight of Anchors, Sizes and Weight of Cables and Cordage, List of the Navy. The Exercise of the Small Arms, Bayonet, Granadoes and Great-Guns, Duty of Officers, &c. also Shewing how to prepare a Merchant-Ship for a close Fight. Chasing; … Defensive-Fighting; … Naval Fortification; … An Essay on Naval Book-keeping [1756], transcribed by Lars Bruzelius, A Maritime Dictionary: Or, An Explanation of the most usual Sea-Terms, digested into Alphabetical Order <; (accessed 8 February 2009). Also Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 78.


[31] William Edward Parry, Journal of a Second Voyage for the Discovery of a North-West Passage From the Atlantic to the Pacific, Performed in the Years 18212223, In His Majesty’s Ships Fury and Hecla … (New York: E. Duyckinck, G. Long, Collins & Co., Collins & Hannay, W.B. Gilley, and Henry I. Megarey, 1824), xiv; Nathaniel Bowditch, The American Practical Navigator: An Epitome of Navigation, [1821] 1995 ed. online (Bethesda MA.: National Imagery and mapping Agency, 1995) <http://www.irbs. com/bowditch/> (accessed 10 March 2008).

[32] Charles Burney, “Vocabulary of Sea Terms,” The Young Seaman’s Manual and Rigger’s Guide, 1876/1901, transcribed by Lars Bruzelius < (1901)_dict.htm> (accessed 8 February 2009); Lever: The Young Sea Officers Sheet Anchor; Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 80.

[33] Parry, Journal of a Second Voyage; William Wakeham, Report of the Expedition to Hudson Bay and Cumberland Gulf in the Steamship ‘Diana’ under the Command of William Wakeham, Marine and Fisheries Canada in the year 1897 (Ottawa: S.E. Dawson, Printer to the Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty, 1898), 5–6; Bowditch, American Practical Navigator.

[34] Jim Croft, “Meanings of International Maritime Signal Flags,” Australian National Botanic Gardens <; (accessed  12 February 2009).

[35] Lever: The Young Sea Officers Sheet Anchor; Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 92.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid. Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 102–3, uses the term ‘spar’ rather than ‘mast.’

[39] “brig,” OED, “1.a.” See also Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 109.

[40] Lever, The Young Sea Officers Sheet Anchor. Also Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 117.

[41] “bulwark,” OED, “3.”

[42] William Falconer, An Universal Dictionary of the Marine: Or, A Copious Explanation of the Technical Terms and Phrases Employed in the Construction, Equipment, Furniture, Machinery, Movements, and Military Operations of a Ship, new ed., corrected (London: T. Cadell, 1780), online, South Seas, Web Academic Resource, 2004 <; (accessed 7 January 2008); W.H. Smyth, The Sailor’s Word Book: An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms, Including Some More Especially Military and Scientific, But Useful to Seamen; As Well As Archaisms of Early Voyagers, etc. revised, ed. E. Belcher (Glasgow and Edinburgh: Blackie and Son, 1867), 159, 310.

[43] R.H. Dana, The Seaman’s Friend: Containing a Treatise on Practical Seamanship, with Plates; A Dictionary of Sea Terms; Customs and Usages of the Merchant Service; Laws Relating to the Practical Duties of Master and Mariners, 6th ed. (Boston: Thomas Groom & Co., 1851) online <http://www.> (accessed 23 September 2008); also Burney, “Vocabulary of Sea Terms.” Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 139.

[44] Dana, The Seaman’s Friend; Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 144–45. See also Alan H. Hartley, “Sandahl, Middle English Sea Terms, vol. 1–2,” Maritime History Citations for the OED < _v.1-2.html> (accessed  8 February, 2009); and Burney, “Vocabulary of Sea Terms.” Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 144–45.

[45] Robert McKenna, The Dictionary of Nautical Literacy (Camden ME.: International Marine, 2001), 61; Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 147; Burney, “Vocabulary of Sea Terms.” Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 147.

[46] Parry, Journal of a Second Voyage.

[47] Smyth, Sailor’s Word Book, 209; Lever: The Young Sea Officers Sheet Anchor. Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 193.

[48] Bowditch, American Practical Navigator; also Burney, “Vocabulary of Sea Terms.” Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 234.

[49] “deadweight,” Encyclopedia Britannica, online < topic/54313/deadweight > (accessed 12 September 2007). Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 235.

[50] Bowditch, American Practical Navigator. Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 240.

[51] A.R. Williamson, “Voyage of the ‘Discovery’ 1911,” part II, The Beaver 63, no. 1 (summer 1983): 22; Peter H. Spectre, The Mariner’s Book of Days 2008 (Sheridan House, 2007), 74; Fraser, “Nautical terms and Slang,” Blue Star on the Web <; (accessed 12 September 2008).

[52] “dogger,” OED, “1.”

[53] See Peter Goodwin, The Construction and Fitting of the English Man of War, 1650–1850 (Naval Institute Press, 1987), 57; and Franke, Technological Dictionary Containing the Technical Terms used in Manufactures and Arts, Building, Civil and Naval Architecture, Military, Civil and Mechanical Engineering, Artillery, Navigation, Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and Mineralogy etc. vol. II (New York: Westerman and Company, 1885), 167–68.

[54] K. Hamblin, “Challenging the Old Order: Exploring the rise of the engineer in commercial shipping in Britain, Germany and France since 1830,” unpublished paper, Economic History Society, Exeter University, ca. 2007 <> (accessed 13 February 2009), 6; see also Frank T. Bullen, The Men of the Merchant Service : Being the Polity of the Mercantile Marine for ‘Longshore Readers (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1900), 305–16.


[55] Burney, “Vocabulary of Sea Terms.”

[56] Bullen, The Men of the Merchant Service, 317–27.

[57] Lever: The Young Sea Officers Sheet Anchor; Burney, “Vocabulary of Sea Terms.” Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 320.

[58] Richard M. Van Gaasbeek, Wooden Boat and Ship Building: The Fundamental Principles and Practical Methods Described in Detail (Chicago: Frederick J. Drake & Company, 1941), 213.

[59] “frigate,” OED, 2.

[60] See Bennett and Laszlo, Sailing Rig, 7–12.

[61] Burney, “Vocabulary of Sea Terms.”

[62] “High Seas,” Classic Encyclopedia. Based on Encyclopedia Britannica 1911 <http://www.> (8 February 2009). Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 388.

[63] Mountaine, The Seaman’s Vade-Mecum. Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 391.

[64] “hoy,” OED.

[65] Bowditch, American Practical Navigator. William Coats, The Geography of Hudson’s Bay: being the remarks of Captain W. Coats, in many voyages to that locality, between the years 1727 and 1751, ed. John Barrow (London: Hakluyt Society, 1852), 21; Parry, Journal of a Second Voyage, xiv. Schwatka. William Wakeham, Report of the Expedition to Hudson Bay, 5–6.

[66] Burney, “Vocabulary of Sea Terms.” Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 424.

[67] Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 434.

[68] Ibid., 447.

[69] Coats,  Geography, 21; Thomas M’Keevor,  A voyage to Hudson’s Bay, during the summer of 1812 : containing a particular account of the icebergs and other phenomena which present themselves in those region : also, a description of the Esquimeaux and North American Indians, their manners, customs, dress, language, &c. &c. &c. (London : Printed for Sir Richard Phillips and Co., 1819), 5n; Bowditch, American Practical Navigator.

[70] “landward,” OED, “1.b.,” and “2.”

[71] Mountaine, Seaman’s Vade-Mecum. Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 473.

[72] Burney, “Vocabulary of Sea Terms.”

[73] Mountaine, Seaman’s Vade-Mecum. See also Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 552.

[74] Ibid. Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 610.

[75] Mountaine, Seaman’s Vade-Mecum; Burney, “Vocabulary of Sea Terms.” See also Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 614.

[76] Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 618.

[77] Ibid., 648.


[78] Arthur Herman, To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005), 8; Burney, “Vocabulary of Sea Terms”; Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 649.

[79] Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 652.

[80] Ibid., 696.

[81] Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 659.

[82] Burney, “Vocabulary of Sea Terms.” Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 677.

[83] Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 679.

[84] Mountaine, Seaman’s Vade-Mecum. See also Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 695.

[85] Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 707.

[86] Ibid.


[87] Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 759.

[88] Lever: The Young Sea Officers Sheet Anchor. See also Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 763–64.

[89] Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 1, 617; McKenna, Dictionary of Nautical Literacy, 272.

[90] J.W. Carlin, ed., “Seaward,” A Naval Encyclopædia: Comprising a Dictionary of Nautical Words and Phrases; Biographical Notices, and Records of Naval Officers; Special Articles of Naval Art and Science (Philadelphia: L. R. Hamersly & Co., 1880), 728.

[91] “shallop,” OED, 1; see also Daniel Vickers and Vince Walsh, Young Men and the Sea: Yankee Seafarers in the Age of Sail (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 15.

[92] Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 809.

[93] Evan Morris, “Word Detective” < html> (accessed 6 May 2008); Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 816.

[94] Mountaine, Seaman’s Vade-Mecum. Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 816.

[95] W. Nelson Francis, review of Hakluyt’s Voyages: An Epic of Discovery, by Richard Hakluyt, The William and Mary Quarterly 12, no. 3, 3d series (July 1955): 448.

[96] Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 853.

[97] “Gravesend tilt boat (SLR0360),” Ship Models, National Maritime Museum <http://www.> (accessed 18 February 2009).


[98] Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 885.


[99] Lever: The Young Sea Officers Sheet Anchor. Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 923.

[100] Mountaine, Seaman’s Vade-Mecum. Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 924–25.

[101] Lever: The Young Sea Officers Sheet Anchor; Burney, “Vocabulary of Sea Terms.” Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 926.

[102] Parry, Journal of a Second Voyage, xiv; Wakeham, , 5–6; Bowditch, American Practical Navigator.


[103] Kemp, Oxford Companion to Ships, 929.

[104] Bowditch, American Practical Navigator; Burney, “Vocabulary of Sea Terms.”

[105] W.L. Morton, “The York Boat,” Manitoba Pageant (January 1957), Manitoba Historical Society <; (accessed 11 February 2009).  “The York Boat,” The Beaver 11, no. 2 (September 1931): 281–82.


2 Responses to slippery words list

  1. David N Docherty says:

    First let me praise your wonderful site; it is an excellent resource. Now my query: I just discovered that my gr-gr-gr Grandfather was a “slooper” with the HBC (Columbia District, 1832-36). I have not heard the term before so I have turned to ‘googling’, yet to no avail. I encountered mention of the term a couple of times in your papers, however I have no clarity yet as to what exactly a “slooper” was, or did on a ship. can you shed some light???

    • hallnjean says:

      Ah the things that escape one’s notice! I will have to post a definition – after I figure out where the term was common and where it was not, certainly the HBC used it all the time. A slooper sailed on sloops — which were single mast vessels carrying angular sails. Identifying someone as a slooper does not shed any light on what position they held aboard the vessel — could have been anything from Master/ Captain, to navigator/ pilot, to mate, crew, or ‘boy’. The vessels were relatively small and usually operated ‘bayside’ (meaning in Hudson Bay, James Bay, or Ungava Bay into Hudson Strait, running between posts or from a post out to a ship anchored a distance away) rather than on the ocean. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were smoother to sail though.

      Thanks for the question 🙂

      Oh, and the explanation above uses examples from Hudson Bay and associated waters, just substitute bays and ports from the Pacific coast instead for thinking about sloops and sloopers in the Columbia district.

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