Sea Grammar

May 26, 2010

This post is about Captain John Smith’s Sea Grammar of 1627, itself an enlargement of his 1626 An Accidence, or a Pathway to Experience, Necessary for all Young Seamen. Smith was an experienced seaman, and his Sea Grammar was mostly taken from Sir Henry Mainwaring’s ‘Nomenclature Navalis’, which was circulated in manuscript form in the 1620s to naval officers and other nautical elite.

The idea of Smith’s book is to offer a vernacular guide to terminology pertaining to the sea and naval activities. There is a section on ‘stearing, sayling, or moring a Ship in fine weather, or in a storme’ which introduces the novice to likely spoken instructions such as:

Let fall your fore-saile. Tally! That is, hale off the Sheats. Who is at the Helme there? Coile your Cables in small fakes! Hale the Cat! A Bitter, . . . belay, . . . loose fast your Anchor with your shank-painter! Stow the Boat!

And explanations of other procedures with particular vocabulary such as:

One to the top to looke out for land!
The man cries out Land to!, which is just so farre as a Kenning, or a man may discover, descrie, or see the land. And to lay a land is to saile from it just so farre as you can see it. A Good Land fall is when we fall just with our reckoning; if otherwise, a Bad Land fall. But however how it beares, set it by the compasse, and bend your Cables to the Anchors.

It also explained sequences of connected vocabulary like this:

Flood is where the water beginneth to rise, which is young flood as we call it; then quarter flood, halfe flood, full Sea, still water, or, high water; so when it Ebbes: dead low water, every one doth know; and also that as at a spring tide the Sea or water is at the highest, so at a Neape tide it is at the lowest.

There is an interesting modern edition of Smith’s book by Kermit Goell (London, 1970) containing a useful introduction. Goell reproduces images of some of the objects named in the book, such as ‘A Murderer’, which is ‘an iron breech-loading anti-personnel weapon’.

Sea Grammar also features a great chapter (XV) on nautical information-storage systems, including ‘what Bookes and Instruments are fit for a Sea-man’, and ‘the use of the petty Tally’, which is the means of allocating and recording the ship’s allowance of alcohol, food and other supplies.

Sea Grammar will be useful for anyone interested in early modern nautical matters, but it also sheds light on the development of specialist vocabularies. In 1625 Gervaise Markham had published The Soldier’s Accidence, a specialist introductory vocabulary for the military man. It can remind us that much measurement and description to do with the sea developed out of naval, military priorities, as well as fishing requirements.


5 Responses to “Sea Grammar”

  1. I agree, this is a fascinating manual, a must for anyone writing a book or making a film of nautical doings in that era, or nautical history buffs.

    Kermit Goell, who edited the 1970 edition, was my father, and a life-long fan of John Smith.

    Where have you found the original?

    Julie Goell

  2. ofsmith said

    Hello Julie! Wonderful that you have found my post. I was looking at a seventeenth-century edition of Smith’s book in the British Library and then looked at another on Early English Books Online. I thought your father’s edition was very helpful and the introduction was illuminating. I gather the Maritime Museum holds copies of the first prints of both books.

    All best,


  3. nickhuntscrutiny said

    I know nothing about early modern nautical matters, and a little more (but still not much) on the development of specialist vocabularies. The reason I like these extracts from Sea Grammar is simply the beauty of the words.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: