Originally Posted by bill352
But is there any way this can qualify as anything but an obvious mistake?
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.