What’s in a name?

What we might be tempted to refer to as a long handled gardening tool with a spatulate metal blade Paul Monahan wants us to call a spade.

The inland waterways have a rich, colourful and expressive vocabulary all of their own, which is an important part of their history. Unfortunately, this is being lost as more and more people use terminology associated with motor-cruisers and sailing boats, or even cars – as in ‘driving’ the boat (as opposed to the horse or steam engine, which would be correct) and ‘parking’. ‘Nearside’ and ‘offside’ are similar imports from the world of wheels; it should be ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, from the position of the towpath, please.

Motoring expressions can sometimes be excused as the result of lack of knowledge, but yottie-speak is often used by those who really should know better. The RYA does not avoid blame as a consequence of its introduction of ‘helmsman’s’ courses and certificates but, sadly, certain commercial magazines do not escape either. One of their regular contributors peppers his reviews with such choice blue-water terms as ‘pulpit’, ‘dodger’, ‘sole-plate’, ‘prow’ and many other unwanted fugitives from the deep. Possibly the most irritating is ‘helm’. I hope prior to every issue that he will have used the phrase: “the helm was helming at the helm”, but thus far I have been disappointed.

Every part of a canal boat has its own name as does every item on it and sometimes this agrees with nautical terminology, but that should never be assumed. For example, there are no ropes on a canal boat – rope is what you use to make something else; lines, strings, snubbers, snatchers, or straps. Even words specific to canal boats are often misused; ‘cratch’ is a good example. The trapezoidal wooden board at the front is not the cratch; that is a ‘deckboard’. The cratch refers to the whole structure.

Consider too the regional variations. Would you recognise only the word paddles, or would you talk of sluices, slackers, ranters, cloughs (jack, screw, box, or scissor) or even types? Pounds, pools, or reaches? Gates or pointing doors?

Please, let us all keep alive the language of the waterways; as George Orwell said (1984), “If the words do not exist, it is impossible to express an idea.”