If you gets cranky without your silk hanky...
A couple of weeks ago, I watched with great enjoyment a television documentary about the Great Fogo Island Punt Race. It’s 16 kilometres from Fogo to Change Islands and back, rowing in two-person traditionally built wooden punts. It was a joy! Absolutely excellent! The race is another one of the exciting things happening these days on that beautiful island off the northeast coast of the beautiful island where I live.
The photography was spectacular, no great surprise since a person on Fogo can close their eyes, aim a camera in any direction, start shooting and wonderful results are pretty well guaranteed. There were cameras mounted on the punts so each pair of rowers could be photographed throughout the event and more importantly, the viewer could eavesdrop on their conversation. There were also interviews with competitors and boat builders, often the same people, as they prepared the craft and themselves for the race.
The bulk of the show highlighted the unscripted comments of the par- ticipants. The pacing was set by how fast or slowly people talked. The pauses between their sentences were not edited out. What a delightful departure from the staccato, rapid-fire tempo that television imagines demand.
At this pace, each word can be savoured.
The word repeated most often in the film was “cranky” and that became the title of the hour-long show.
When I heard this beforehand, I wondered. Cranky! People from away have certainly heard the word, but may not understand the particular meaning as it relates to small boats. I do, because I learned it from a frightened neighbour who nearly fell overboard from my punt when he discovered, suddenly, that my boat was dramatically less stable than he was used to.
Now that I’ve seen Cranky, I know that probably means I could beat my neighbour in a race, because slim boats are tippy but fast.
I wanted to know where that particular use of the word cranky came from, so I went to the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. To my surprise I found nothing, but the Oxford Dictionary yielded a wealth of different meanings.
I found the nautical definition I expected, with the word used in a sentence from the early 1800s, “Beg pardon sir, but the boat is very cranky, if you goes on so, she will be over.”
That’s basically what my neighbour said about my boat, but he didn’t use the word sir, and I can’t quote his precise words because children may have access to this newspaper.
I discovered another definition of cranky, one that refers to human behaviour, was also pretty much what I expected: “of capricious or wayward temper, difficult to please, cross-tempered, awkward, cross.” Nothing surprising there really, a favourite saying of parents when I was a kid, particularly when you weren’t doing what you were told.
Or if you disagreed with your playmates, “out of order, working badly shaky, crazy, mentally out of gear, crotchety, queer, subject to whims or cranks, eccentric or peculiar in notions of behaviour.” Pretty damning stuff, but not entirely unexpected.
The next definition from 1788 was though. “A checked or striped, heavily knit woman’s apron, a blue pattern on a white background.” Figure that one out if you can! Beats me! Possibly it’s simply a misprint. It can happen, even in the Oxford Dictionary.
Then, out of the blue, a final definition that seems a complete contradiction of everything that has gone before, except maybe the apron thing.
It is so puzzling, so utterly out of line, but for all that, this final definition of cranky may point more fittingly to the spirit of the Fogo Island Punt Race than any of the others.
I know that “Cranky” the title of the punt race movie refers to a speedy, tippy boat, but “ brisk, merry, lively, sportive, sprightly and disposed to exult” sum up perfectly the people from Fogo and Change Islands who appear in the film. There is a sense of gentle teasing and camaraderie that links them all in this contest on the high seas. The race has little reward save bragging rights, but I can imagine the competitors sharing long evenings in the future, recounting cranky yarns of punting, memories of their tiny boats pushed across the vast surface of the ocean by gales of laughter.