"bluff in the bow, round in the counter -- and cost a fortune to keep in powder and paint."
Readers write back (ouch!)

The ins and outs of using 'in' and 'on' and other correspondence

By Jim Hume, Times Colonist June 7, 2009

The first e-mail arrived before I could sip my Sunday morning coffee. It proved to be the opening salvo in bracketing broadsides from readers with naval backgrounds and/or admirers of Sir Winston Churchill.

Patrick MacKinnon, Lieutenant, (N) Ret'd, "speaking as one who served as both an officer and a seaman," objected to my use in an earlier column of the phrase "served in" rather than "served on" a naval vessel. Anyone making such a suggestion, MacKinnon wrote, would be considered guilty of "pompous affectation" by ordinary seamen "however reasonable it ('served in') may seem to officers." To support his claim he suggests trying to book passage "in" a cruise ship rather than "on" one.

So who cares? Hey, this is serious stuff for officers and gentlemen serving "in" ships and the lower deck sailors who served "on" the same vessel.

It reminds me of the London Times "first cuckoo heard" contest, touched off each spring by a letter to the editor claiming the first cuckoo had been heard. The claim would always be challenged by half-a-dozen other rural-county writers claiming their hedgerows had been the first to provide the welcome song of that harbinger of spring.

Navy talk, it would seem, has similar pride and urgency.

The U.S. navy appears to support the "on" group. When it recently "christened" the USS New York -- built with recycled steel from the World Trade Center and carrying the motto "Never Forget" -- the final prayer as she hit the water was "God bless this ship, and all who sail ON her." It is, I believe, the standard phrase for all U.S. navy launchings.

Weighing in for the other side is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. As she cracked champagne on the bows of the last ship she launched, she pronounced: "I name this ship Queen Mary 2. May God bless all who sail IN her." In Canada, we tend to follow the Queen's example even as we wonder, as have countless earlier generations, why ships are called "she."

Back in Nelson's day, there were attempts to change the gender of naval vessels by calling a battleship a "man of war."

It was a phrase in wide use in the First World War, less so in the Second World War to describe a fighting ship. But it never really caught on, and ships -- naval, commercial or pleasure craft, even those with male names -- remain "she." In the days of sail, they said ships were feminine because they were "bluff in the bow, round in the counter -- and cost a fortune to keep in powder and paint."

All navy talk can be confusing for those who never graced a quarterdeck. I for one have never been sure at what stage a dinghy becomes a boat or a boat a ship. Is there a difference between lines or hawsers being taut or tight?

I have no idea -- and I am suspending debate on naval terminology after one final reference to former First Lord of the British Admiralty, Sir Winston Churchill, to whom, readers have informed me, I donated a misplaced quotation two weeks ago.

I had written that the indomitable Churchill had once referred to a Second World War action as a "close run thing." I was told that while Sir Winston might well have used the phrase, it originated with the Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

My correspondents were correct, and I apologize for forgetting the creed of the journalist: "Check it out." Or, as Sir Winston once really did say: "Quotations when engraved upon the memory give you good thoughts ... [but] always verify your quotations."

Belatedly I checked -- not even Wellington used the words "a close run thing." What he did say after Waterloo was: "It has been a damn nice thing -- the nearest run thing you ever saw," with my online encyclopedia informing me that the word "nice" is used with "the archaic meaning of 'careful or precise' not in the sense of being attractive or agreeable."

And to all who contributed to the debate, thank you. As the Duke said, "It has been a damn nice thing."

© Copyright (c) The Victoria Times Colonist