Books: “Not Enough Room To Swing A Cat” by Martin Robson

6 January, 2009 at 7:40 pm 1 comment

Using naval slang in Age of Sail writing is tricky business: on the one hand, it makes our writing sound more “authentic”, on the other hand, too much of it and the story will read as if it had been written by a git who wants to show off. Like salt in the kitchen, I try to use slang sparsely and not to spoil the soup, or rather, the book, for the reader.

However, if I use slang, I want to use it correctly, and I found this little book to be quite helpful:

NOT ENOUGH ROOM TO SWING A CAT
Naval Slang And Its Everyday Usage
by Martin Robson

swingacat1

A Conway Maritime Book
with 70 illustrations by Mark Myers
ISBN 9781844860739
Cloth bound, no jacket

Available here.

That the “cat out of the bag” doesn’t refer to the liberation of some unfortunate feline but rather to the unpleasant prospect of a flogging is probably no big news for you. But if you thought that “The Black Day” was connected with the bank crash in the 1920ies, you got it wrong. Just like me, by the way. In fact, the darkest day in naval history was 31 July 1970 – that’s when the Royal Navy stopped the issue of rum. Well, we should have guessed that, shouldn’t we!

Whether you decide to send your heroes into “deep water” or make them “know the ropes”; if you hope they can “break the ice” with that one special person and hopefully not end up “between the devil and the deep blue sea”, then you’ll find out very soon into the book that everything you know you’ve learned from Startrek the navy. Every term is explained, often with examples from song lyrics or movie lines (don’t let the words “Pretty Woman” scare you off, though – after all, that was a case of not “sailing under true colours”!) and some expressions even come illustrated. While I’ve seen better illustrations, they serve their purpose and range from cute to humourous to bizarre (unless you don’t mind people with an albatross around their neck).

For writers, “Not Enough Room To Swing A Cat” is a valuable resource, and helps avoiding the pitfalls of anachronysms. But it’s also recommended reading material for everybody with an interest in the origin of our language. It’s fascinating and fun, ranging from decent to downright rude, and will give you a very colourful insight into the daily lives of sailors.

A short word of warning: under “Poking Charlie”, you’ll find terms which are derogatory, insulting, racist and mysoginist. I don’t mind that they are included; there’s no point in airbrushing history or reality. However, the author expresses his hopes that “they will provide a flavour of the colourful language of the lower deck” and adds that “some are not for the faint hearted or easily offended – you have been warned!”

Well, Mr. Robson, I’m not easily offended, but I feel that a man who refers to a woman a “cum dumpster” needs to have his nuts kicked so hard that they’ll replace his tonsils. For a future edition, I suggest to re-name the chapter “Terms Used By Dick-Ruled Bastards From The Planet Of Dork”.

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Entry filed under: books, resource, royal navy, ships. Tags: , , , , , , .

Merry Christmas, Blessed Winter Solstice, Happy Hannukah… Books: “I Do!” anthology available now, also includes stories by Emma Collingwood and Alex Beecroft

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