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Old 19-03-2015, 10:22   #1
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Nautical Terminology in the Big Apple

The New York Times crossword puzzle today had, as a clue, "Sheets on a ship".

The answer was "sails".

I know that somebody somewhere (me, for one) has used a sail as a sheet on occasion, and that some small child has doubtless used a sheet as a sail on a homebuilt raft. But is there any way this can qualify as anything but an obvious mistake?
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Old 19-03-2015, 17:22   #2
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Re: Nautical Terminology in the Big Apple

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But is there any way this can qualify as anything but an obvious mistake?
Yes.


1. In Modern English, the word 'sheet' has been misused for sail in literature several times. Most of the usual examples are in poetry and include well-known poets: Dryden and Pope, for example.


Those misuses were mainly in the 17th and 18th century: Dryden in 1725, Pope in 1666.


So one possible explanation for the NYT xword use is 'a reference to literature'.


2. Another possible explanation is etymology.


Sheet (a sail-rope) and sheet (a broad expanse of textile or woven cloth) diverged in Old English and the separation into two words was cemented in Middle English (most etymologists use the year 1150 CE as the easy divide between Old English and Middle English).


By 1336 (i.e. in Middle English) schetes was 'sail ropes' and schetis or sheetes was 'napkin, cloth, broad expanse of woven textile'. You will immediately see the problem: if you use an alphabet-based language, you cannot tell the difference by inspection, especially when orthography or spelling lacked standards (i.e. before printed word lists or dictionaries). An ideographic language, such as Chinese, has advantages: words that sound the same look different in writing and those written differences are clues to meaning differences.


In Old English about 725 CE, the difference between sceata 'sail rope' and sceat 'broad expanse of woven textile, and including especially the corner of a broad expanse of woven textile) is tiny - but it's there if the spelling is careful (as it was when done by careful scribes, who were largely well-trained clerics). It's a difference of declension: sceata is a weak masculine noun; and sceat is a strong masculine noun.


Both sceata and sceat are traceable to the same root: proto-Germanic *skatjon, to throw, to project, to shut, a woman's bosom (the * signifies that no written record of this word exists; etymologists have reconstructed the word, arguing that it must have existed to have given rise to the written words that do exist); and the even older proto-Indo-European *skaud, to project, to shoot, to throw. Etymologists usually suggest that proto-Germanic was current around 500 BCE and proto-Indo-European about 3700 BCE.


Note especially the definition I gave for sceat, including 'especially the corner of a broad expanse of woven textile'. That's the key point. A sheet-line (or sail-rope) is attached to the corner of a sail.


3. Of course, when we consider the usual causes of anything, a third alternative exists. And that is that the person creating the xword was not evil, just stupid.


Take the example of the Hollywood movie 'All is Lost'. It's a movie that was set on a cruising sailboat. But the director etc clearly knew and cared naught for sailing and accuracy. In the same way that Hollywood movies in the 1920s included scenes with people sitting in and driving automobiles, but the drivers paid no attention to driving, just turned the steering wheel randomly while looking into the eyes of their passenger. So in 'All is Lost', the lead actor acted in a way that no cruiser would (e.g. the priority just before a squall hits was for the male actor to be clean shaven, not any of a dozen jobs associated with the boat).


So alternative answer #3 is that all is lost, the xword composer was just not nautically aware, and that the answer to your question is No.


Al
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Old 19-03-2015, 19:29   #3
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Re: Nautical Terminology in the Big Apple

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Yes. Al
Alan - Beautifully done. Since I posted, there has been a long discussion about this on the Times crossword blog in which both your #1 and #2 answers were discussed, though not, in regard to #2, with such depth or clarity. Well done and thank you.

I'm still going with #3, though. I wouldn't go so far as to say "stupid", but somebody made a mistake and they're trying to cover it up.
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Old 19-03-2015, 20:20   #4
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I thought an Italian with food poisoning...
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Old 20-03-2015, 01:42   #5
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Re: Nautical Terminology in the Big Apple

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I thought an Italian with food poisoning...
No, that would be sheets on a sheep.
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Old 20-03-2015, 02:58   #6
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Re: Nautical Terminology in the Big Apple

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Alan - Beautifully done. Since I posted, there has been a long discussion about this on the Times crossword blog in which both your #1 and #2 answers were discussed, though not, in regard to #2, with such depth or clarity. Well done and thank you.
Bill, do you have a URL for that crossword blog?


I'm of course an NYT subscriber, but I've never explored the Xword on line.


I found my way to WEB's New York Times Crossword Solution @ NYTCrossword.com and the unsatisfactory answer "37. Sheets on a ship : SAILS
The term “sheet” can be used for a sail on a ship. A rope used to trim a sail is also called a sheet."


I never found the blog discussion. But just out of interest I'd like to read the discussion.


Al
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Old 20-03-2015, 03:26   #7
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Re: Nautical Terminology in the Big Apple

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Bill, do you have a URL for that crossword blog? Al
Here's the direct URL:

http://wordplay.blogs.nytimes.com/20...61824:14465332

but I think you need a (separate) subscription to see it. Give it a try and see what happens.

If that doesn't work, go to the front page, go to "Crosswords", then "Wordplay", then click on comments for Thursday's puzzle. This may not work either, but it will at least show you where the paywall is.
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Old 20-03-2015, 03:30   #8
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Re: Nautical Terminology in the Big Apple

Thanks. Your URL worked perfectly. Reading the blog now.

Al
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Old 20-03-2015, 04:20   #9
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Re: Nautical Terminology in the Big Apple

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Thanks. Your URL worked perfectly. Reading the blog now.
I've not sat down with the sources, but I did pull a couple of books from my shelves and had a quick look at Ortolang (Outils et Ressources pour un Traitement Optimise de la Langue) on-line


--
If you're interested, Ortolang has the entry, for écoute, of:


Etymol. et Hist. 1155 (Wace, Brut, 11225, éd. I. Arnold : Estuïns ferment et escotes). Empr. à l'a. nord.skaut, « angle, coin; angle inférieur de la voile », puis, p. ext. « câble attaché à cet angle » (De Vries Anord.,Valkh., p. 122;Falk, p. 64). Cf. all. Schote, angl. sheet, néerl. schoot, suéd. skot..


--
I'm confident that what I wrote earlier stands up. But I cannot go further without a day in the library to look at the Old English usages of sceata (sheet = sail rope or sail corner).


I don't have a digital index to Beowulf, which is one of the earliest Old English works that discusses sailing. I don't remember a usage of sceata = sail rope or sail corner, or a usage of sceata = sail in Beowulf but my memory is increasingly less reliable. A quick browse led me to line 75 where sceata is used to mean 'broad expanse, surface' referring to the surface of Middle Earth in which a better grip/location could not be found.


I lean towards the crossword constructor being mislead by Webster. And I think Webster's entry for sheet might better read sheet = sail (poetic).


Al
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Old 20-03-2015, 05:17   #10
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Re: Nautical Terminology in the Big Apple

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Etymol. et Hist. 1155 (Wace, Brut, 11225, éd. I. Arnold : Estuïns ferment et escotes). Empr. à l'a. nord.skaut, « angle, coin; angle inférieur de la voile », puis, p. ext. « câble attaché à cet angle » (De Vries Anord.,Valkh., p. 122;Falk, p. 64). Cf. all. Schote, angl. sheet, néerl. schoot, suéd. skot..
The point of that being that French etymologists see a Nordic origin of the French equivalent of sheet = sail corner and date the import into French at 1155.


I have seen etymologists arguing that sheet (either sheet = sail corner or sheet = sail rope) entering English before Norman Conquest 1066 and all that.


And that sits uneasily with the notion that sheet = sail rope is first used in English in 1336.


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Old 20-03-2015, 05:56   #11
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Re: Nautical Terminology in the Big Apple

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... 1066 and all that.
Al
“N.B. – Do not on any account attempt to write on both sides of the paper at once.”
From my favorite history book:
'1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England'
comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates
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Old 20-03-2015, 06:49   #12
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Re: Nautical Terminology in the Big Apple

NYT has been caught out too frequently in the last few yeard not researching or outright fabrication of articles. I would not use them as a point of reference
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Old 20-03-2015, 07:24   #13
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Re: Nautical Terminology in the Big Apple

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I don't have a digital index to Beowulf, which is one of the earliest Old English works that discusses sailing.
.................................................. .................................................. ...
I lean towards the crossword constructor being mislead by Webster. And I think Webster's entry for sheet might better read sheet = sail (poetic).
Al
I've only read Beowulf in Heaney's translation - can't handle the Old English, although I did used to date Grendel's mom.

I think you're right about the constructor, but that doesn't make him a bad guy. I just got annoyed because of being a sailor, and I think all the citations in the blog came after the fact.

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From my favorite history book:
'1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England'
Gord - don't know how I missed that one along the way. But I've found a few excerpts, and I think there's just room for it on my Kindle. Thank you.

My lazy high school self would be disappointed to learn that it's not nearly as funny if you don't know the serious stuff.
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Old 20-03-2015, 08:53   #14
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Re: Nautical Terminology in the Big Apple

Been my experience with crossword puzzles to not take them too literally. I don't know that the puzzle designers are I'll informed... they seem to like using 'poetic license' once in awhile. I recall a clue of 'morning star' for 5 letters beginning with V. The answer was Venus, which of course is not a star, but nonetheless called a morning star by school kids to PhDs! Its on the same level as Clue: Sports hat... Answer helmet. Really, is a helmet a hat! Puzzles are designed to make us think... not just regurgitate obvious out of the book 1 = 1 answers. While I have never heard of sails called sheets... they are big expanses of white and fluffy material like a bed sheet. All-in-all, I'd say it was a pretty cleaver simile clue. Now I have to go fold my sheets!


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Old 20-03-2015, 09:15   #15
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Re: Nautical Terminology in the Big Apple

A young lass at sleep while at anchor.
Awoke with dismay,
when she heard the mate say,
Lift up the top sheet and spank her.
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