Historical Dictionary of Mediterranean Nautical Terms


The Mediterranean Sea has been a major focus of development of western civilization since earliest times, surrounded as it is by cultures and linguistic groups linked in a network maintained by the relative ease of sea-borne communication. Economic and social ties throughout the basin have persisted even through such upheavals as the Muslim ascendancy during the early Middle Ages, and those ties have been mediated by and reflected in the languages of the Mediterranean. The terminology of nautical enterprise has necessarily been central to these exchanges and is basic to our understanding of the history of the Mediterranean. It can also be viewed more generally as a model of face-to-face communication in a polyglot community: here we glimpse the words used in exchanges among merchants at dockside, among a ship's officers and pilgrims from throughout Europe, between an immigrant master shipwright and his native carpenters, and among a multilingual crew struggling to cobble together a shipboard terminology intelligible to everyone.

This will be the only modern, multilingual, historical dictionary of Mediterranean nautical terms compiled since the Glossaire Nautique of Augustin Jal (Paris, 1848). It will be compiled from primary and secondary sources with the aim of providing the clearest possible interpretation, etymology and historical development of each term cited, and will emphasize the intricate, multilingual network of exchanges in Mediterranean nautical terminology.

The dictionary will constitute a single, relatively exhaustive reference for researchers in the maritime history and archæology of the Mediterranean and of those areas throughout the world that came under the influence of the colonial Mediterranean powers. Researchers interested in various aspects of language contact, particularly the mechanisms of borrowing and the development of pidgins (many of which trace their origins in part to Mediterranean colonizers), will find in this work a large amount of raw material. Language historians and etymologists in the Mediterranean languages will find new citations--in some cases the earliest so far recorded--and new insights into word-origins afforded by interrelated data from several languages.

The table Galley Terms (22K) is intended to convey at a glance the uniformity among borrowed terms across the Mediterranean. The impression is especially strong in this case because the terminology refers to a specific technology--galleys--considered over a restricted period--primarily from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century. From the early Middle Ages through the sixteenth century, galleys were of great importance in warfare and in trade, and galley technology carried with it--and was facilitated by--a terminology developed primarily in Italian. The change in the sixteenth century from rowing a sensile (one man to each oar) to rowing a scaloccio (several men per oar) resulted in a change in the makeup of rowing crews. The earlier system required that every rower be skilled, whereas thescaloccio system required an experienced oarsman only in the inboard (vogavante) position: the increase in the proportion of unskilled rowers led to the increased use of convicts and slaves and presumably to greater linguistic variety on board. (Up to one third of the rowers aboard French galleys in the seventeenth century were slaves, primarily from North Africa and western Turkey, with a few Russians and Greeks; some of the bonnevoglies were Italian.) The terms adopted for the new technology spread rapidly and widely over the Mediterranean: note especially the terms for rowers and petty officers--boatswain, guardian, overseer, rower/convict and rower/paid--the two groups in most intimate contact with each other on board. (Mixed crews existed earlier as well: in the early fourteenth century, Ramón Muntaner ordered that half of his deck-officers--comits and notxers--be Catalan and half Italian (Jal s.v. galea), and, in the same century, about one third of Venice's rowers were recruited from Dalmatia and Greece.) Careful study of the channels of transfer of terminology can lead to ethnohistorical insights

Languages included

The dictionary will include nautical terms from the following languages: Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, French, Provençal, Italian (including Genoese and Venetian), modern Greek, and, to a more limited extent, ancient Greek, Latin, Croatian, Turkish and Arabic, the latter three being represented primarily by terms borrowed from Italian dialects. Terms from earlier Semitic languages will be cited when they contribute to our understanding of those in the primary languages.

Period studied

The dictionary will cover the period from early medieval to early modern times. References will be made to earlier and later periods when the data provide information about the period of primary interest.

Subject areas studied

The main subject categories are anchors and mooring, belaying devices, cargoes (including stowage and containers), commerce (including ship's business), cordage, fishing (limited), galley terminology (including rowing), hull and deck parts, hydrography (including sea conditions), maintenance, measures, navigation and piloting, people (including personal gear), port facilities, position and direction, provisions, rigging, ropes, sails, shipbuilding, ship-handling, spars, tackle, tools, topography (including a few placenames), vessel types, and winds and weather. A preliminary subject index has been included.

Secondary sources

Sources for the material include monolingual nautical dictionaries (e.g., O'Scanlan's Diccionario Marítimo), multilingual dictionaries (e.g., Jal's Glossaire Nautique), topical studies for particular languages (e.g., Kahane, Kahane and Tietze's The Lingua Franca in the Levant. Turkish Nautical Terms of Italian and Greek Origin), historical studies (e.g., Ashtor's Levant Trade in the Later Middle Ages), and specific lexical studies (e.g., Gelb's `The word dragoman in the ancient Near East'). These secondary sources provide the framework of the dictionary.

Primary sources

To this framework are added citations from a wide variety of published primary sources, with no pretense to exhaustive coverage. These include, as examples, Byrne's medieval Genoese notarial documents, Hunt and Edgar's everyday Greek documents from Egypt, Bréard's 1382-84 inventory of a French galley shipyard, Kretschmer's medieval Italian coast-pilot texts, García de Palacio's 1587 Spanish navigation textbook and vocabulary, Diez de Games' fifteenth century chronicle of a naval expedition, Pryor's medieval Provençal business documents, and Delatte's sixteenth-century Greek text on rigging.

Aim of project

I intend to assemble in one place lexical data from many disparate and often inaccessible sources, making the information readily available to scholars with interests in Mediterranean history and languages and related fields. Newly recorded citations of terms, and historically and linguistically informed commentary on them will give researchers a deeper and broader understanding of the vocabulary. (The dense network of lexical exchange among the various languages often allows one to discover or refine the meaning of a term in one language through comparisons with the analogous word in another. See the table "Galley Terms" [to be added later].) Besides providing glosses to words, the entries will sometimes provide enough context to enlarge upon or improve our understanding of the things referred to, thus contributing to our knowledge of nautical technology and related fields. The dictionary will also constitute a large resource for the study of language contact.

Analogous works

There are few comprehensive historical dictionaries of Mediterranean nautical terminology. The most important is that by Augustin Jal (1848-50, Paris): it is a masterful work which for some purposes will never be replaced. Jal has abstracted extensive quotations from many primary sources and has written entries that in many cases are encyclopedic. With due caution concerning the author's linguistic assumptions and conclusions, and patience with his occasional wordiness, the Glossaire Nautique is a resource of the highest value. Much new material has, however, come to light in the last century and a half. These new data will be included in the proposed work, and the new dictionary will be linguistically more sophisticated. The many similar and cognate forms which in Jal are scattered alphabetically through the text will, in this work, be grouped more consistently under the pertinent English headwords, facilitating the researcher's comparative studies. Having said this, I must acknowledge a huge debt to Jal: citations from his work occur repeatedly in mine, and his materials and analyses have often led me to discoveries I would not otherwise have made. (The Nouveau Glossaire Nautique, a new edition of Jal's dictionary being published in fascicles since 1970, incorporates much new French material but confines its coverage of all other languages to simple lists of terms with no context, dating or documentation.)

Other excellent comparative studies have been published by Henry Kahane and Renée Kahane and their co-workers (with reference specifically to Venetian, Croatian, modern Greek and Turkish, but citing supporting terms from many other Mediterranean languages) and by B.E. Vidos. Vidos is concerned primarily with Italian and French but commands a much wider field: he was probably the leading twentieth-century scholar in the field, and wrote thoughtfully about the mechanisms of borrowing in the nautical and other technical domains. These writers correct most of Jal's deficiencies in the material they cover--and I have benefitted greatly from their work--but they ignore terms not cognate with those of the languages they are studying. The present dictionary will provide more complete coverage of most of the European languages of the Mediterranean while treating the materials from a modern historical and linguistic perspective.

Potential users

This dictionary will be used by scholars and others, both in the U.S. and abroad, with interests in the history and languages of the Mediterranean basin. The main beneficiaries will be 1.) students of nautical history and archæology in the Mediterranean and beyond, and 2.) those interested in lexicology, etymology and the study of language-contact phenomena. The most rapidly growing body of potential users is in the field of nautical archæology which has expanded greatly in the past 25 years. Archæologists interpret the material remains of culture, and lexical studies of the corresponding semantic domains provide a complementary perspective from which to view the materials: language is the single most important means for the transmission of technology and many other cultural elements. Another class of user, whose numbers are not yet what they should be, comprises those who want to understand history better by understanding how person-to-person communication functions in multilingual situations. The intricate patterns of lexical exchange revealed in the proposed dictionary provide abundant material to that end.

History and duration of the project

Much of the material required for the dictionary has already been compiled. My interest in language has been channeled into the field of nautical lexicology by my work in shipping. My day-to-day duties as a stevedoring superintendent from 1981 to 2003 involved face-to-face communications with ships' officers from all over the world, but my interest was piqued particularly by the obvious influence of Italian in modern Greek shipboard speech. I realized the pervasive influence of Italian loanwords throughout the Mediterranean and was convinced of the value of a study of the nautical vocabulary of all the major languages.

Since 1981 I have accumulated a file of more than 5000 double-sided 3X5" index cards, each containing several citations including date, context and source. When converted to typescript, this will amount to 1000-1500 pages. I have so far invested the equivalent of about three fulltime years in the work of compilation. I have prepared some sample entries, a sample of my index to all Mediterranean terms, a subject index, and a working bibliography.

The work that remains is to complete the compilation of materials from the important secondary sources not yet searched, to search as many additional primary sources as possible, and to edit and enter the material on word-processor. These are jobs which I feel I cannot delegate to others: the hand-written card entries are idiosyncratic, and every act of entry is also an act of editing and cross-referencing. I am presently seeking support for the continuation of my work, and I would welcome any suggestions readers might make.

Format of entries

The format of entries will be as follows:

ENGLISH HEADWORD (ETYMON ) (definition; reference to other headwords)

  • Language 1 term in context [gloss] (date, source, remarks)

  • Language 2 term............

  • Discussion of historical and linguistic points of interest

Where one or more salient etymological types of the headword are distinguished, the specifying etymon follows the headword. Where definition of the headword is required, it is included in parenthesis, with cross-reference to other headwords. The Mediterranean terms are in bold face and are listed, when they are cited, in the following order: Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Provençal, Genoese, Italian, Venetian, Croatian, modern Greek, Turkish, Arabic, ancient Greek, Latin. Definitions and/or context abstracted from the source follow or include the cited term, and their translations into English are given in square brackets. Etymological and other data may be given. The source references follow in parenthesis. The final element of some entries is a comparative and/or historical discussion of the material.

There will be approximately 3000 entries, of which the length will vary greatly, with an average of about one third of a page. In the case of strictly nautical terminology, I believe the range of headwords to be fairly exhaustive, though the occurrence of Mediterranean terms under a given headword is less so. The range of headwords in other semantic categories (e.g., commerce, fishing, topography) is incomplete, entries having been chosen for some reason such as the illustration of the mechanisms of borrowing. 3.) lexicographical judgments concerning meanings have been based on context (where available), on definitions given in primary and secondary sources, and on comparisons with other languages. Uncertainty in meaning will be clearly marked. The nautical field has not escaped the carelessness and vagaries of lexicography, perhaps the foremost problem being rote repetition from earlier sources. (For example, Sophocles (1870) s.v. karina misreads the historian Dion Cassius and takes the Greek word as the equivalent of tropis `keel' rather than as the transliteration of the Roman placename Carinae. The mistake is repeated by Skok (1937) and by Kahane, Kahane and Tietze (1958), with the result that the reader is led to believe that Greek borrowed the Latin term for `keel' in the second or third century A.D., whereas the earliest occurrence of karina I have been able to document is in A.D. XVI (Delatte 1946).) I have attempted to uncover such pitfalls and to avoid creating new ones.