The Thirty Minute Blogger

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Monday, December 7, 2015

Skewering Title and Pomp

Back in 1970, author Patrick O'Brian wrote his book Master and Commander about life at sea in the British Navy during the Napoleonic era. The adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey (the Master and Commander of the sloop Sophie) and his friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin offer up this observation on why we should not get so hung up on titles as we do. There is great wisdom here, particularly in the final conclusion [second to last line]. In the scene presented, officers of the ship celebrate Dr. Maturin's decision to stay on and sail with the crew, acting as their surgeon.  Enjoy:

Dr Maturin is speaking first: "There is only one thing I do not care for, however," he said as the order was passed reverently round the table, "and that is this foolish insistence upon the word surgeon. 'Do hereby appoint you surgeon ... take upon you the employment of surgeon ... together with such allowance for wages and victuals for yourself as is usual for the surgeon of the said sloop.' It is a false description; and a false description is anathema to the philosophic mind."

"I am sure it is anathema to the philosophic mind," said James Dillon. "But the naval mind fairly revels in it, so it does. Take the word sloop, for example."

"Yes," said Stephen, narrowing his eyes through the haze of port and trying to remember the definitions he had heard.

"Why, now, a sloop, as you know, is properly a one-masted vessel, with a fore-and-aft rig. But in the Navy a sloop may be ship-rigged--she may have three masts."

"Or take the Sophie," cried the master, anxious to bring his crumb of comfort. "She's rightly a brig, you know, Doctor, with her two masts." He held up two fingers, in case a landman might not fully comprehend so great a number. "But the minute Captain Aubrey sets foot in her, why, she too becomes a sloop; for a brig is a lieutenant's command."

"Or take me," said Jack. "I am called captain, but really I am only a master and commander."

"Or the place where the men sleep just for'ard," said the purser, pointing. "Rightly speaking, and official, 'tis the gun-deck, though there's never a gun on it. We call it the spar deck--though there's no spar, neither--but some day the gun-deck still, and call the right gun-deck the upper-deck. Or take this brig, which is no true brig at all, not with her square mainsail, but rather a sorts of snow, or a hermaphrodite."

"No, no, my dear sir," said James Dillon, "never let a mere word grieve your heart. We have nominal captain's servants who are, in fact, midshipmen; we have nominal able seamen on our books who are scarcely breeched--they are a thousand miles away and still at school; we swear we have not shifted any backstays, when we shift them continually; and we take many other oaths that nobody believes--no, no, you may call yourself what you please, so long as you do your duty. The Navy speaks in symbols, and you may suit what meaning you choose to the words." 

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