Description of sea terms; also some terms related to colonial San Domingo.
© 2007 Broos Campbell. All rights reserved.
This a draft of the glossary that appears in the back of The War of Knives. A number of the terms have to do with colonial Haiti rather than seamanship, or are merely definitions of archaic or regional words that Matty uses.
aback, contrary to a normal arrangement, as when the wind presses a sail against a mast.
abaft, to the rear of a vessel.
abeam, toward or from the side of a vessel.
aft, after, toward, in, or from the stern.
alee, away from the wind.
alligator pear, avocado.
amidships, toward or in the center of a vessel.
astern, toward the rear of a vessel.
avast, ’vast, given as a command to stop what one is doing: ’Vast heaving!
beam, one of the major horizontal supporting timbers of a vessel. The widest part of a vessel. Abeam: From the side. On her beam-ends: When a vessel is pushed so far over as to be nearly on its side.
belay, to make secure, as with a LINE to a BELAYING PIN. Also given as a command to disregard a previous command.
belaying pin, a usually wooden dowel of about 18 inches long, fitted through a rail along the inboard side of a bulwark or at the base of a mast, and used to secure the RUNNING RIGGING.
bend, to attach securely but temporarily, as a sail to a SPAR.
binnacle, a cabinet that houses a ship’s compass.
bit, an eighth of a REAL.
black vomit, YELLOW FEVER.
boarding net, a rope latticework meant to keep enemies from coming over the rail.
boarding pike, a naval polearm, about six feet long and sometimes kept in racks at the foot of the masts.
boom, a SPAR to which the foot of a FORE-AND-AFT sail is attached. Also a pole used to push a hazard away.
bosun, or boatswain, the senior WARRANT OFFICER charged with the care of a ship’s boats and rigging, and often with disciplining the enlisted men.
bosun’s mate, a PETTY OFFICER who assists the BOSUN and FLOGS the men as required.
bow, or bows, the forward part of a vessel.
bowse, to lift or drag using ropes and pulleys.
bowsprit, a heavy SPAR to which the foremast STAYS and HEADSAIL gear are attached.
brace, a line attached to the end of a yard and used to trim it fore or aft.
brail, a line used to haul the foot of a sail up or in.
broadside, a vessel’s artillery considered as a whole, or the GUNS along one side. Also completely from the side.
cable, a heavy ROPE to which an anchor might be attached or that might be used to MOOR a vessel. In the U.S. and British navies its length was calculated at 100 FATHOMS, which was conveniently close to a tenth of a nautical mile.
cable tier, the place in a vessel where a CABLE is stowed.
can, a tankard.
cane knife, a machete.
canister, a projectile made of small shot packed with sawdust in a metal case.
Cap Français, the principal city and former capital of SAINT-DÓMINGUE: Cap-Haïtien (or Kapayisyen), Haiti.
capstan, a vertical winch, useful for moving heavy objects such as anchors.
captain, the top commissioned rank in the U.S. navy, equivalent to an Army or Marine major, lieutenant-colonel, or colonel, depending on his seniority; by convention, the commander of any vessel. Also the senior man at a given station, as captain of the foretop.
carbine, a short musket meant for cavalry use.
carronade, a short-barreled, short-range cannon, usually mounted on a slide rather than a carriage.
case shot, canister.
cat, a heavy timber projecting from the bow and that keeps an anchor from damaging the side of the vessel. Also, CAT-O’-NINE-TAILS.
cat-o’-nine-tails, a whip of nine strands, each about 18 inches long and affixed to a hempen or wooden handle.
chains, the gear that secures the base of the SHROUDS.
chain shot, a ROUND SHOT cut in half and reconnected by a chain.
channel, from chain-wale, an outboard platform on either side of each mast that serves as the lateral base for the SHROUDS.
chasseurs à cheval, soldiers armed as light infantry but mounted on horses. In some services they were armed as HUSSARS but were considered inferior to them.
cheer’ly, quickly, with a will.
chef-de-brigade, a French rank equivalent to a colonel or brigadier general.
cheval-de-frise (pl.: chevaux-de-frise), a piece of timber with sharpened stakes put through it, laid horizontally in front of a defensive position to guard against cavalry.
Chips, U.S. Navy: a ship’s carpenter.
clew, either of the lower corners of a SQUARE SAIL or the aftermost one of a FORE-AND-AFT sail.
coatee, a close-fitting jacket with a high waist and short tails.
commandant, the rank of major in the French army.
commodore, the temporary commander of a naval squadron. The U.S. Navy had no admirals until the Civil War.
companion, companionway, a stairwell aboard ship.
conn, to steer or direct the steering of a vessel.
cook, the WARRANT OFFICER who supervised the cooking of the enlisted men’s food. Officers had their own cooks.
corvette, a SHIP-rigged MAN-OF-WAR with a single row of GUNS, FLUSH-DECKED and smaller than a FRIGATE.
coxswain, a man in charge of a boat and its crew; he usually steers as well.
Creole, a French or Spanish colonial born in the Americas, sometimes but not always of mixed race. Also a patois of various European and African languages; or Kréyòl, a modern language evolved from French Creole and spoken in Haiti.
cuirassiers, heavy cavalry equipped with a steel helmet and breastplate and mounted on large, powerful horses.
cutlass, a short heavy-bladed sword used by sailors.
cutter, a fast-sailing single-masted vessel, used to carry dispatches or for reconnaissance. Also a broad ship’s boat that could be rowed or sailed.
Damballah, in VOUDOU, father of the LOA, represented by a snake.
dirk, a long dagger carried by midshipmen as a badge of rank.
Doc, U.S. Navy: a ship’s COOK.
dogwatch, either of a pair of two-hour WATCHES, from 4 to 6 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m.
dragoons, light cavalry that could fight on horse or on foot. They carried SABERS and CARBINES, and often wore a crested leather or brass helmet.
fathom, a unit of measure equal to six feet. To fathom something is to understand it.
flush-decked, having the entire WEATHER DECK of a uniform height.
fo’c’s’le, loosely, the forward part of the WEATHER DECK. From forecastle, a fighting platform once carried on a warship’s bow.
fore, toward or associated with the front of a vessel.
fore-and-aft, trending along a vessel’s centerline. Fore-and-aft hat: a bicorn worn with the points to the front and rear.
frigate, a fast SHIP of war usually armed with 28 to 50 GUNS that were carried, in theory, on a single deck, and which was meant to cruise alone as a scout or marauder.
fusiliers, lightly armed infantry, often used as skirmishers.
gaff, a SPAR to which the head of a FORE-AND-AFT sail is attached.
gaff sail, a FORE-AND-AFT sail bent to GAFF at its head and often to a BOOM at its FOOT.
garrote, a piece of rope or wire used for strangling.
gen du couleur, lit. “person of color,” a MULATTO.
gig, a small ship’s boat often reserved for the CAPTAIN’s use.
grand blanc, a white French colonist of the upper class.
grape shot, an artillery projectile made of small shot in a bag or wired around a dowel.
great gun, a piece of artillery firing shot of at least three pounds.
grenadiers, elite infantry, originally composed of a regiment’s largest men and used to lead assaults. By 1800, steadiness and experience were considered of greater importance than size.
griffe, a person who is of one-quarter European and three-quarters African descent.
grog, watered-down booze.
Guadeloupe, a French island in the Lesser Antilles. American prisoners were kept there during the Quasi-War.
gun, a cannon; GREAT GUN.
gunner, the senior WARRANT OFFICER charged with the maintenance of a ship’s artillery and small arms. Loosely, someone who operates a GUN.
gunroom, the cabin where the junior WARRANT OFFICERS lived.
gunwale, the topmost part of a vessel’s side, so called because guns were once mounted there. Pronounced “gun’l.”
gwo bla, CREOLE for GRAND BLANC.
handspike, a length of wood used to move a GUN laterally or turn the CAPSTAN.
hanger, a sword of medium length and weight designed to hang comfortably at the side of a man on foot; it was the weapon of choice among naval officers.
haul, to haul one’s wind: to sail to WINDWARD, particularly to avoid an enemy to LEEWARD.
hawse, the place between a vessel’s BOW and where its anchor CABLE enters the water. To cross someone’s hawse: to provoke unwisely.
hawse-hole, a hole in the bow through which the mooring CABLE passes.
head, the foremost part of a vessel; a toilet, because sailors relieved themselves there.
headsail, a sail set between the BOWSPRIT and the forward mast.
heave to, to hold a ship in place by setting one or more of its sails ABACK; past tense is hove to.
Hispaniola, the large island lying between Cuba and Puerto Rico and containing the colonies of SAINT-DÓMINGUE and SANTO DOMINGO.
hogshead, a large barrel for holding liquids, about 63 gallons by U.S. measure.
holystone, a block of sandstone used to clean a deck by scraping it.
houngan, a VOUDOU high priest, also called a papa.
hussars, elite light cavalry, known for élan and fancy uniforms.
jack, Jack Tar: a naval sailor. Every man jack: everyone present. Foremast jack: an enlisted man.
jib, any of the outer FORE-AND-AFT HEADSAILS.
jib-boom, a moveable SPAR extending from the BOWSPRIT.
Johnny Crappo, U.S. slang for a Frenchman. From Jean Crapaud (“John Toad”).
jolly boat, a small rowboat with a wide stern, carried aboard a sailing vessel and used for light work.
katye jeneral, a military headquarters (CREOLE).
knot, an analogous measurement of a ship’s speed, calculated by letting out a LINE knotted at certain intervals (usually 47 feet three inches) for a certain amount of time (usually 28 seconds).
ladder, a stairway aboard ship.
ladder of promotion, the theoretical route by which a COMMISSIONED OFFICER rose in rank.
langridge, loose pieces of metal or glass used as ammunition.
larboard, to the left of a vessel’s centerline; loosely, to the left.
lead, a lead weight attached to a LINE used for measuring depth; also the entire apparatus. Often it had a concave tip that could be loaded with wax or clay for determining the composition of the sea floor.
Le Cap, CAP FRANÇAIS.
leg, to make a leg: to bow deeply with the forward leg extended.
Legba, in VOUDOU, the intermediary between humans and the LOA.
lieutenant, a COMMISSIONED OFFICER ranking below a CAPTAIN and above a WARRANT OFFICER.
lieutenant-de-vesseau, a French grade of SEA LIEUTENANT.
line, a ROPE that is attached to something.
loa, a VOUDOU spirit, similar to a saint or angel.
loblolly boy, an assistant to a naval surgeon.
lobster, a jeering word for a REDCOAT.
log-line, a knotted ROPE (the “line”) attached to a wedge-shaped piece of wood (the “log”), used to determine a vessel’s speed in KNOTS.
lubber, an ignorant or clumsy person.
magazine, a room where gunpowder was stowed and where cartridges were made.
mainmast, the chief mast when there’s more than one.
mainsail, the principal means of propulsion in a sailing vessel.
man-of-war, an armed vessel belonging to a government navy.
marine, an amphibious soldier. U.S. Marines stood sentry at sea, but did no actual shipboard work.
marlinespike, a long blunt iron needle used for splicing cordage.
master, the commander of a merchantman; see also SAILING MASTER.
master commandant, a sometime rank in the U.S. Navy between LIEUTENANT and CAPTAIN.
master’s mate, a senior MIDSHIPMAN or PETTY OFFICER, often but not necessarily an assistant to the SAILING MASTER.
mechanic, an artisan or machinist.
merchantman, a private trading vessel.
mess, a cabin where food was eaten, or a group that customarily ate together. The officers’ messes often contributed a set amount toward making large purchases, as for livestock or liquor.
messenger, an endless ROPE passing around a CAPSTAN and to which a heavier one, such as an anchor CABLE, might be attached.
midshipman, a (usually young) WARRANT OFFICER training to be a COMMISSIONED OFFICER.
mizzenmast, the one behind the MAINMAST.
monkey, a mug made of wood or tarred leather.
moor, to fix a vessel in place by means of a ROPE or ropes.
mulatto, loosely, a person of mixed race; specifically, half European and half African.
murdering piece, a SWIVEL GUN.
nankeen, a lightweight cotton fabric.
octaroon, a person who is of one-eighth African descent.
paw-paw, papaya; also an unrelated fruit native to the southeastern United States.
petit blanc, a white French colonist of the middle or lower class.
petty officer, a noncommissioned officer usually specializing in a particular task, as bosun’s mate or quartermaster.
picaroon, a West Indian privateer of questionable legality.
piece of eight, a Spanish silver coin, slightly larger and heavier than a U.S. dollar, that circulated widely in the Americas and East Asia and was worth eight reales. It was commonly chopped into eight BITS, each worth twelve and a half cents American (hence “two bits,” a quarter dollar), although smaller coins were also minted.
pinnace, a boat of moderate size that could be sailed or rowed.
Port-Républicain, Port-au-Prince (or Pòtoprens), Haiti, during the French Revolution.
Porto Rico, the U.S. name for Puerto Rico.
post captain, an officer holding the rank of CAPTAIN and entitled to command a SHIP of more than 20 GUNS.
privateer, a private armed vessel authorized in time of war to seize the ships and goods of the enemy; a LETTER OF MARQUE.
quadroon, a person who is of one-quarter African descent.
quarter, mercy, as in not killing a defeated opponent. Also, either of the after quadrants of a vessel.
quarters, the place where a man sleeps or fights, depending.
quarterdeck, the after part of the WEATHER DECK, from which the CAPTAIN and his officers CONN the ship.
quartermaster, a PETTY OFFICER who helps to CONN a vessel.
quarter-gunner, a PETTY OFFICER who assists the GUNNER; in theory one was allowed for every four GUNS.
rate, status assigned to a man according to his skills.
ratlines, horizontal ropes strung between the shrouds and used as footholds for going aloft; pronounced “ratlins.”
razee, a large SHIP made smaller by removing its upper deck.
real, an eighth of a Spanish silver dollar. See PIECE OF EIGHT.
redcoat, a British soldier or marine.
reef, to reduce a sail’s area by partly furling it.
rope, a LINE that isn’t attached to anything.
round hat, i.e., without the brim turned up as in a tricorne, which it began to replace around this time; it often looked like a low-crowned top hat.
round jacket, a short coat without tails.
round shot, a (usually) solid ball of iron or (sometimes) lead.
royal, a mast, YARD, or sail above the TOPGALLANT.
running rigging, ROPES used to control the sails and SPARS.
saber, a long and heavy cavalry sword, sometimes but not always curved.
sailing master, the WARRANT OFFICER charged with a vessel’s navigation, equal in rank but subordinate in command to a LIEUTENANT.
sailmaker, the WARRANT OFFICER charged with the care of the ship’s canvas.
Sails, U.S. Navy: a ship’s SAILMAKER.
Saint-Domingue, the French colony in the island of HISPANIOLA. Now the Republic of Haiti.
Saint Kitts, a British island in the Lesser Antilles, where there was a large naval base.
San Domingo, the U.S. name for SAINT-DOMINGUE.
sang-mélee, a French colonial term for a person whose racial heritage is part African and mostly European.
Santo Domingo, the Spanish colony in HISPANIOLA. Now the Dominican Republic.
schooner, a FORE-AND-AFT-rigged vessel with a narrow hull and usually two masts, common to North America and the Caribbean.
scuttle, a porthole.
sea lieutenant, “sea” to distinguish him from an Army or Marine lieutenant, whom he outranked.
servant, a seaman who cooked and served an officer’s meals, cleaned his cabin, and tended to his clothes. It was also a euphemism for “slave.” Marines might serve as mess attendants on formal occasions.
sheet, a LINE attached to a CLEW and used to haul a sail taut.
ship, a SQUARE-RIGGED vessel with three masts; loosely, any vessel large enough to carry a boat.
shroud, a piece of STANDING RIGGING in lateral support of a mast.
sloop, a single-masted sailing vessel.
small-sword, a light, straight-bladed sword carried by gentlemen as a sign of social status and for sticking into rude fellows.
sojer, a derogatory word for a soldier, specifically a Marine; to sojer, to perform a repetitive and often pointless task, as for punishment.
splice the mainbrace, to have a TOT of GROG.
square-rigged, fitted primarily with SQUARE SAILS.
square sail, actually trapezoidal, but set “square” to a vessel’s centerline.
standing rigging, lines used to support masts and SPARS.
starboard, to the right of a vessel’s centerline; loosely, to the right.
stay, a FORE-AND-AFT piece of STANDING RIGGING in support of a mast.
staysail, a FORE-AND-AFT sail set to a STAY.
stem, the upright timber at a vessel’s BOW.
stern, the rear of a vessel.
stiletto, a narrow-bladed dagger often worn concealed in a sleeve or waistband.
studding sail, a sail set outboard of a SQUARE SAIL in light weather.
stuns’l, STUDDING SAIL.
subaltern, a junior army officer.
surgeon, a ship’s chief medical officer. Surgeons of the day were not usually physicians, who held a much higher social rank.
surtout, a long, usually close-fitting coat.
swivel gun, a small GUN mounted on a bulwark and used usually to discourage boarders; also called a MURDERING PIECE.
tack, to come about with the wind across the BOW. Also, the lower corner of a sail’s leading edge. On a (STARBOARD or LARBOARD) tack: sailing with the wind on that side.
taffrail, the rail at a vessel’s stern.
throw weight, the amount of metal that a gun could fire, or the amount that a vessel could fire from all of its guns in one go.
topgallant, the mast, sail, or yard above the TOPMAST.
topmast, the second mast above the deck, as the foretopmast or maintopmast.
topsail, a sail carried on a TOPMAST yard, in the case of a SQUARE SAIL or gaff sail, or from a TOPMAST STAY in the case of a STAYSAIL.
tot, a small serving of booze.
vomito negro, YELLOW FEVER.
voudou, the ancestral West African religion as practiced in SAINT-DOMINGUE.
wardroom, the cabin where the senior officers ate.
warrant officer, an officer who held his rank by warrant rather than commission, meaning he was off the LADDER OF PROMOTION. Senior warrant officers included the SAILING MASTER, SURGEON, BOSUN, and GUNNER. Inferior warrant officers included the COOK and SAILMAKER.
watch, a stint on duty, usually four hours. See DOGWATCH.
watch below, the men off duty.
watch on deck, the men on duty.
wear, to come about with the wind across the stern.
weather deck, a deck exposed to the elements.
windward, in the direction of the wind.
Windward Passage, the channel between HISPANIOLA and Cuba.
yarn, a long and often intentionally preposterous story.
yellow fever, an acute infectious viral disease that occurs in the warm regions of Africa and the Americas and is spread by mosquitoes, so-called because of the jaundice that sometimes accompanies it.
yellow jack, YELLOW FEVER.