Let's run it up the mizzenmast and see who salutes for John F. Lehman Jr., secretary of the Navy, who made bold last week to eliminate the bureaucratic gobbledygook the jolly tars have been mouthing these past several years in the name of "democratization." And so long as we're running it up the mizzenmast, let's see if there's anyone who knows what on earth -- or on water -- a mizzenmast actually is.
Ah yes, the lingo of the sea. There's nothing quite like it -- nothing, that is, except the sesquipedalian twaddle that replaced it during the 1970s in hopes of making the Navy less mysterious and forbidding to would-be volunteers. On the thought that a meal served in a "mess" might somehow seem unpalatable to a child of the American middle class, the Navy renamed its eating rooms "enlisted dining facilities"; further prettifying matters, it said farewell to the "galley" and christened it "kitchen." To make matters even more elegant, it did away with "bachelor officers' quarters" and turned them into "unaccompanied officer personnel housing," which no doubt pleased the more doctrinaire advocates of unisex language but made for a considerable mouthful when the bosun piped down the hatches, or whatever it is that bosuns do -- "executive engineers for administrative disbursement," as bosuns probably were renamed in the enlightened and liberated Navy.
Be all that as it may, it is to be no longer. Thanks to Secretary Lehman -- and "thanks" certainly is the word for it -- decks will be decks again and passageways will be passageways. No doubt the sighs of relief being uttered by the old salts over this return to the good old days are causing the walls of the Pentagon to tremble. No longer will bosuns have to shout at enlisted men -- sorry about that, enlisted persons -- "Wax the floor!" Now they can go back to the original -- "Swab the deck, me hearty!" -- and yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum for that, though perhaps in the new Navy it's yo-ho-ho and a bottle of chablis.
The bet here is that reverting to the language of the sea will be a good thing for the Navy, even for those who come to it fresh from suburban high schools speaking the universal language of Televisionland. Within a few months of their swearing-in, these fellows will be talking confidently about poop decks and fo'c's'les and barnacles and what have you; when they make port and head for the red-light districts of Norfolk and San Diego there will be a jaunty nautical swagger to their step and the ladies will burst forth in several choruses of sea chanteys. There's nothing like talking a language no one else understands to make a man feel he's got the world in the palm of his hand; he likes the cut of his own jib, you might say.
These sailors may wish to pause for a moment, though, and say a prayer of thanks that they serve in the Navy of the 20th century and not that of the 17th or 18th. As any lover of nautical literature is well aware, the language of today's seafarer is a piece of cake compared to that of yesterday's. When the age of sail died, one of the most impenetrable jargons ever invented by man vanished with it. It has been kept alive, and just barely so, only in the works of Charles Nordoff, James Norman Hall, C.S. Forester -- all, alas, now gone to the deep -- and, these days, Dudley Pope. Try, if you will, to put yourself in the shoes of Roger Byam, narrator of "Mutiny on the Bounty," as he first gazes at that ill-fated vessel:
"The Bounty was ship-rigged, and to a true landsman her rigging would have seemed a veritable maze of ropes. But even in my inexperience I knew enough to name her sails, the different parts of her standing rigging, and most of the complex system of halyards, lifts, braces, sheets, and other ropes for the management of sails and yards. She spread two headsails -- foretopmast-staysail and jib; on fore and mainmasts she carried courses, topsails, topgallants and royals, and the mizzenmast spread the latter three sails. That American innovation, the crossjack, had not in those days been introduced. The crossjack yard was still, as the French say, a vergue seche -- a barren yard -- and the Bounty's driver, though loose at the foot, was of the gaff-headed type, then superseding the clumsy lateen our ships had carried on the mizzen for centuries."
Got it? Well, if you've got it then you're ready to be 17-year- old Horatio Hornblower, scared quite out of his wits, a midshipman coming aboard his first ship, the Justinian, in January of 1793. "He had only just learned what a top- gallant was" -- oh that he had bo- thered to tell the rest of us -- when he had to listen to Captain Keene deride his knowledge of the classics: "Better if you knew something about sines and cosines. Better if you could foresee a squall in time to get t'gallants in. We have no use for absolute ablatives in the Navy." But young Horatio was a quick study and within a matter of days was confidently ordering, "Brace the after yards to larboard. Man the braces, men," and even knew the right moments to yell, "Avast, there!"
That was only the beginning. "We must fother a sail and get it over that hole," he said once, and everyone seemed to know exactly what he meant, though Lord knows how. By the time he made it to the rank of lieutenant his education had moved to advanced levels: "Hey there! You at the stay tackles! Handsomely! Handsomely! Belay!" He was aboard HMS Renown by now, and once he actually said, "There's a reef point caught in the reef tackle block, sir -- weather side," though Captain Sawyer certainly topped that: "Wind's coming aft. Aloft there! Send a hand to bear those backstays abreast the top-brim. Hands to the weather-braces. After guard! Haul in the weather main brace! Haul together, men! Well with the foreyard! Belay every inch of that!"
If you can understand that, there's a place for you at the Admiralty. In fact, if you can understand that, you're ready to go to graduate school in nautical lingo and attack the most difficult question every landlubber faces: the difference between starboard and port. It's left and right, of course. Or is it right and left? Up and down? Betwixt and between? Does John Lehman know? If he does, I wish he'd tell me.