Reg hack cops a licking from the bosun's cat

Festive nautical pedantry outburst ahoy

photo attribution: taken by jdnx under creative commons

Blocks and Files Reg readers are wonderful. Here's a mail exchange with a reader picking us up on our use of the expression "Casts anchor" in a supercomputer article.

Phil the Reg reader: 'Casts' anchor? Could provide a reference for that expression, please?

Moi: It's mundane I fear Philip.

Since the supercomputer was described as a ship, and ships have anchors, which they - starting to get laboured here - use to secure the ship when it arrives in a harbour (and casts anchor), so Flash Gordon has been launched (aka arrived) in San Diego and so, metaphorically speaking, it has cast its anchor.

That was wearisome :-(

Phil: Ah ... as an ex-mariner, having never heard of the term 'cast' in association with anchors, I wondered where you had found a link between the two. I am no wiser now, of course. To continue the mundane theme, we merely dropped our anchors ...

Moi: I'm happy to add to your wisdom and inform you that, in older times, mariners didn't merely drop their anchors but cast them. I am heartened by a Websters dictionary definition:

Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)

Anchor \An"chor\ ([a^][ng]"k[~e]r), n. [OE. anker, AS. ancor,
oncer, L. ancora, sometimes spelt anchora, fr. Gr. 'a`gkyra,
akin to E. angle: cf. F. ancre. See Angle, n.]
1. A iron instrument which is attached to a ship by a cable
(rope or chain), and which, being cast overboard, lays
hold of the earth by a fluke or hook and thus retains the
ship in a particular station,

Further on in the same definition:-

To cast anchor, to drop or let go an anchor to keep a ship
at rest.

To cat the anchor, to hoist the anchor to the cathead and
pass the ring-stopper.

I wonder if there is a connection, a confusing one, between casting the anchor and cat'ing it, although cat'ing (or catting) the anchor would be hoisting it before setting sail.

Possibly our sub editors, who produced the casting anchor idea, had the idea that casting anchor was something mariners did before setting sail, and this would fit in better with the idea of a ship setting out on a voyage. In that case they should have referred to catting the anchor.

Best wishes and, if I may offer the thought, bon voyage for the weekend.


Reader Phil: Hello again Chris.

The plot thickens ... it begins to look as we have a technical term being used with the best of intention, but sourced from anachronistic literature rather than common usage or understanding; I'd guess that it is some hundred or more years since the term 'cast' was used. Perhaps not since the advent of steel ships. These days, it would be more likely to refer to the anchor's manufacture in the ironworks.

Webster is also not quite right; it may have been the case in the dim & distant past that the anchor held the ship by means of the fluke or hook. Since the first steel ships it is the weight of the anchor cable which principally holds the ship. The fluke would only come into play in severe conditions, as a last resort. Not something the Master would wish to happen.

Also, the anchor cannot hold a ship at station - it rides with the tide and the wind and so describes a circle of a diameter limited only by the length of the anchor chain paid out. So not a good analogy for anything ashore ...

The term for hauling up the anchor is to 'weigh' the anchor; I never heard 'cat' or 'cathead'. When fully raised, the anchor is held in the hawse pipe.

So Barnacle Phil the Sailor says that lubber sub editors should boat their oars and stow their gab where the nautical is concerned, lest the bosun's cat lick 'em. Harrumph.

Good grief. At this point I stowed my gab and gave up arguing the point fearing the lash of a commentard-wielded cat o' nine tails across my back. Yaroooo! ®

Subs' desk note: Cobbler, stick to thy last

The phrase "to cast anchor" is in common usage, and thus perfectly useful for supercomputing metaphors and the like. It's worth pointing out though that it is not – like the subs' desk – commonly in use by sailors. Well, at least not for the last 100 years ... Anachronism is in the eye of the beholder, Phil. – Regards, El Sub

Ed <cough> sticks his oar in

I was notified that a reader and a writer were at loggerheads over a nautical matter (sailors used to use red-hot iron balls on sticks to melt pitch for repairs, it being too dangerous to have a fire outside safe locations such as the galley - they would also sometimes fight with these "loggerheads"). Being an ex-professional mariner as well, I can confirm that nobody at sea speaks of "casting" anchor any more, though scurvy landlubbers plainly still do. (Oddly enough we do swallow the anchor when we retire from the sea, and we may continue to be anchor-faced bastards who constantly spin dits about the old days.) In my bit of the service we often spoke of an anchor as "the pick", as in "we'll drop the pick", though I haven't heard or seen that usage elsewhere.

I too was taught as an article of naval dogma that it is primarily the weight of the cable which holds the ship rather than the anchor, but I found it a rather suspicious assertion as time went by - I found that the anchor would typically hold without dragging pretty well even when the cable was almost all heaved back aboard, and I'm sure nobody would bother having heavy, inconvenient anchors if the cables would genuinely work without them. The truth is probably that you need both a proper anchor and a proper scope of cable veered out for the depth if you want to be sure it will hold even against strong winds and currents. In particular the flukes will grip much better if the stock lies flat on the sea bed, which requires a good scope of heavy cable if there's a lot of force acting on the ship.

It is of course quite correct to speak of weighing anchor, as I believe sailors have always done - the anchor's aweigh once it clears the sea bed. In these degenerate times it is indeed merely heaved up using powered equipment and held with the flukes at the mouth of the hawse-pipe (with preventers, of course), but back in the days of sail it would need to be brought to the cathead, a heavy timber projecting from the bow, ("catted") and secured in place to prevent it swinging about and smashing into the hull.

The English language's adoption of nautical terms mostly took place back in the days of sail, naturally enough as back then Britain and its colonies manned much of the world's merchant fleet and by far the largest navy - many, many more people were sailors out of a much smaller population. Most people both ashore and afloat being illiterate, professional jargon tended to make much more use of distinct and colourful words and terms.

Nowadays very few native English-speakers are sailors by trade: and the professions they do follow don't produce nearly such volumes of memorable words and phrases, perhaps due to universal literacy and the resulting use of comparatively dull acronyms. An anchor, if introduced today, would quite likely be known as a Self-Deployed Mooring Device or similar, and nobody other than sailors (maritime technology - MT - types) would have any idea that such things existed. (The very word "sailor" is of course highly anachronistic, and professional seagoing organisations seldom make any written or formal use of it.)

Anyway, given that supercomputers are plainly not ships to begin with and many nautical phrases in general English usage are anachronistic it seems fair to use anachronistic sea banter when speaking of supercomputers notionally coming to anchor.

Hopefully that's clapped a stopper over this heated (warmer than a jan dockie's starboard oggie pocket) debate, though as ever feel free to air your thoughts around ye olde commentard scuttle butt below, splicing the mainbrace with a mug of festive grog - or even neaters - as you do so. That's a place where you'll hear many things which you could successfully tell to the Marines, but which the sailors would never believe. Yarr.

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