An Athwartships Sort of Day
IT’S EASY ENOUGH TO BUMP ME OFF-TASK; throw a word such as DEPERM in my path and I’m off to the races.
I encountered DEPERM during a friendly game of Words with Friends. It was Janice M., one of my friendliest (and most formidable) WWF rivals, who laid out DEPERM for 39 points. My first thought, when I saw the unfamiliar word, was “hair.” Most of my woman friends have, at least once, permed and regretted it. Was it now possible to UN-perm? Had I stumbled on a new solution for overcooked hair?
Turns out DEPERM is a nautical thing. According to dictionary.com, to deperm is to “reduce the permanent magnetism of (a vessel) by wrapping an electric cable around it vertically athwartships and energizing the cable.” Wow. Move over, deperm. Make way for athwartships.
Athwartships (say it five times real fast) means “sideways (across a vessel),” but it’s far too delicious a word to withhold from landlubbers (see below). Think of parents whose kids are just starting to dress themselves: “Great job, Belinda! Oh, but you’ve put your left sock on athwartships.”
A landlubber is not a land-lover so much as a person who is unfamiliar with sailing and the sea. Sailors, it seems, use the term with contempt. Lubber, meaning “lout” or “clumsy person,” comes down to us through Middle English, possibly from Old Norse. I learned this from Kevin Stroud, whose podcast on the history of the English language is tied for first place in my PPR (personal podcast ranking), alongside David Crowther’s History of England.
Podcasts contributed a great deal to my sanity during two years when I was ill. For days on end, the only voices I heard were Kevin’s and David’s, and I realized that these guys need more than good material. They have to be credible, entertaining, and trustworthy—the last, because, after all, I was letting them into my bedroom.
David, in particular, kept me laughing. As a demonstration of his offbeat approach to history, I’ve transcribed the last few minutes (starting at 30:57) of History of England Episode 121, “Counter Revolution,” in which David is describing some of the holy relics that drew European pilgrims to religious shrines during the Middle Ages. My transcription isn’t perfect. It conveys nothing of David’s flawless comic timing. For that, you’ll have to listen to the podcast.
Occasionally a British idiom or pronunciation slipped by me. I omitted David’s mention of a relic that sounded like “the Holy Hand Grenade at Antioch” because I’m pretty sure medieval armies didn’t have hand grenades.
Once at the shrine, the pilgrims would pay money to go and see the holy relic. At Walsingham, for example, we are talking about a sealed jar containing the Virgin Mary’s milk. Nails were very popular, and bits of wood from the True Cross…. Durham [Cathedral] proudly boasted the body of Saint Cuthbert but also the head of Saint Oswald. At Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire, they had a vial of Christ’s blood. At [the Abbey of] Fécamp in Normandy, they had Mary Magdalene’s entire arm… until Saint Hugh rather ruined it all by nibbling off a bit of her fingers….*
None of these, of course, competed with the big one…. I speak, of course, of Christ’s foreskin. The Holy Foreskin, as it was known, turned up in 800 A.D. when Charlemagne presented it to Pope Leo. It was an object of great popular veneration, as you can imagine. Indeed, like any relic it was capable of performing miracles, so that even Saint Bridget was able to report that when an angel dropped bits of it on her tongue she had an orgasm, which, it appears, for Saint Bridget was a twenty-four-carat miracle….
But there was a problem…. Rival foreskins kept appearing, until eventually there were twenty-one Holy Foreskins spread around Christendom… [creating] something of a glut in the foreskin market…. Monks kept appearing in Rome demanding that the Pope make a ruling on which was the authentic foreskin. One theologian tried to solve the problem by claiming that the Holy Foreskin had ascended into Heaven to become the rings of Saturn…. Eventually the Church cracked… and in 1900 it became a crime worthy of excommunication to even talk of the Holy Foreskin. I await my Bull of Excommunication as we speak… but I give notice that any foreskins found lying around my house will be binned rather than venerated.
* Saint Hugh—at that time Hugh of Lincoln; he wasn’t canonized until 1220.