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So full of inaccuracies and made up explainations that you can't trust it
on 22 October 2014
I recently found this little book languishing on the bookshelf at home, literally gathering dust, and wondered why I hadn't actually read it. So I gave it a go. Within a dozen pages, the reason that I had abandoned the book came back to me...
I ploughed my way through the first section; nautical origins and (bear in mind I am no expert) spotted half a dozen glaring errors, bordering on made up.
Take the first; "caught between the devil and the deep blue sea". Yes, the Devil is a reference to a seam in a ship’s hull. It is the longest seam between planks on a ship to make waterproof and the origin of the phrase "the devil to pay" which refers to the act of hammering new caulking (treated rope to seal the seam) into a seam to make it waterproof. The act of letting out a length of rope is called paying, and paying the devil is having to re-seal the longest and most difficult seam on the ship... not something that was relished by the sailors, hence the phrase.
You can't really tell from the author's attempt to describe its location, but it is traditionally considered to be the one between the top of the last hull plank and the start of the decking, but no you can't “fall into it” and “be trapped halfway down the side of the ship”. What rubbish. In this context it is more likely that it is a reference to the activity of sealing all the seams on the hull, hanging over the hull on a swing like seat, with the lower seams ones putting you close to the waterline and at risk of drowning, while the higher up the hull you get, the closer you get to doing the worst part of the job, the difficult devil seam. Therefore neither extreme is appealing and you are caught between. Either way, it has nothing to do with falling in a gap in the hull and being trapped.
How about the explanation for "Copper Bottomed" agreement. According to the author, adding copper to a ship below the waterline was to add strength to the hull, protecting it from "floating debris, coral reefs, rocks and icebergs". Rubbish! It was added to stop the Teredo worm (amongst creatures) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teredo_navalis) from boring into the wood of the hull and to inhibit the growth of seaweed on the hull. The worm damages the hull, while the seaweed would slow down a ship significantly. To be copper bottomed meant to be fresh out of the yard, in top condition, or to perform excellently because of the cleanliness of the underside.
Here's another pearl; "to knock seven bells". Apparently it stems from “the eight bells on board a ship..." and to silence seven of them is to damage the ship but stop short of complete destruction. Really? First off, there was only usually a single bell on board; "the ship's bell". Each shift on a ship (watch) lasted 4 hours and was divided into half hour segments, with one hit of the bell for each half hour past. So seven bells is almost, but not quite, all the way to the end of the watch (shift). So to knock seven bells means to not quite kill someone, or destroy something, which eventually came to mean to put a great deal of effort into an activity without actually completing the task (or being able to).
And don’t even start me on “broad in the beam”!
I could go on...
As a book of theories of phrase origins, or nice made up stories, it is fine, but I want to know (within reason) that these really are where the phrases came from. As these were fairly easy to spot, I started wondering "just how many of the rest of the explanations that I know less about could be trusted or were they fictional or ignorant distortions of the facts?"
What upsets me the most is that none of the examples above required much research to verify, and simply illustrate that the author has not understood, or bothered to understand, or simply mis-represented something, and that is just SHODDY. I can understand that the absolute answer could be lost in the mists of time (ooh look, there's one) but that can be mentioned, but some of real bloopers appear to be just laziness.
It put me off reading the rest as you just can't trust the integrity.
... and there we are...
The reason the book has sat on my shelf for over a year. So I am going to give it to charity to make sure it doesn't catch me again