Logophiles know that odd nautical terms have made it into our daily lexicon
Q. In the late 1600s, French King Louis XIV complained that he was losing more territory to his astronomers than to his enemies. What, by Jove, did he mean? A. In 1610, using a primitive telescope, Galileo discovered several of Jupiter’s moons. Io, the closest, orbits the planet very regularly, about once every 1.8 days. Anyone observing Io from anywhere on Earth sees it eclipsed by Jupiter at the same time. So observations of Io allow accurate synchronization of time measurements between distant places. For example, if one had the expected eclipse times for Paris, then these could be compared to local eclipse times to estimate longitudinal distance from Paris. In fact, this was the most accurate way of estimating longitudinal distance in the 1600s.
King Louis XIV, seeking to make his country the world leader in science, commissioned astronomers to use measurements of Io’s eclipses to improve the map of France, says Tyler Nordgren in “Sun, Moon, Earth: The history of solar eclipses from omens of doom to Einstein and exoplanets.” “It was the most accurate map ever produced up to that time, and it revealed that many roads and distances were actually shorter than had been believed.” Ergo: France was smaller than had been believed. Q. Aeolian (ee-O-leeuhn) processes: The name is both poetic and instructive. What does it signify? A. Visit California’s Death Valley to view the sand dunes and you’ll see its handiwork. Named after the Greek god Aeolius, keeper of the winds, Aeolian processes pertain “to the godlike ways wind can sculpt a landscape,” says Lacy Schley in “Discover” magazine. “Over time, fine sediments such as silt or sand are picked up and deposited, building dunes or scouring rock bare.” Active in shaping exposed areas in deserts and along coastlines, Aeolian processes are likely responsible for many of the formations on the surface of Mars and other planets as well. Q. How is the drone “Helper” living up to its name as the new member of a rescue team? A. At Biscarrosse beach, on the southwest coast of France, a lifeguard team with an airborne division can come to the rescue of distressed swimmers more quickly than a solo lifeguard, reports “IEEE Spectrum” magazine. Helper, a remotely operated surveillance drone, can fly out to those in danger of drowning and drop them a life buoy, giving the lifeguard precious extra minutes to run across the sand, dive into the surf and complete the rescue. Q. Ahoy, all you “logophiles” (word lovers) out there: Can you explain the nautical nature of “jettison,” “jury-rig,” “offing,” “pinchgut,” and “slush fund”? A. “Jettison,” meaning to cast off something unwanted or burdensome, originally comes from throwing goods overboard to lighten a ship in distress (earliest documented use 1426), says Anu Garg on his “A.Word.A.Day” web site. “On a sailing ship, a ‘jurymast’ is a temporary mast, rigged when the original is damaged or lost,” so to “jury-rig” is to fix temporarily using whatever is available. And something “in the offing” means “in the near future”; “in nautical use, ‘offing’ is the part of the sea visible from the shore but beyond anchoring ground.”
The compound word “pinchgut” might suggest being miserly, and in fact it originally referred to “someone who didn’t give enough food to a ship’s crew.” Finally, a “slush fund,” as you may know, is established for illegal activities, especially in business and politics. But did you also know that in a ship’s galley, “slush” was refuse fat? Thus, a “slush fund” was money raised from the sale of slush to buy small luxuries for a ship’s crew.