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Master And Commander: Thoughts on jargon and arcane pursuits

A.V. Club Staff and Donna Bowman

Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club's monthly book club. We're currently discussing this month's selection, Patrick O'Brian's Master And Commander, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST.

Donna Bowman: If you enjoyed Master And Commander, did you do so in spite of the fact that long stretches of it consist almost entirely of references to sails, ropes, naval hardware, and tactics that vanished from common usage after Robert Fulton? Did some of you, perhaps, enjoy it because of those antique sentences? Did it make no difference one way or another? Or if you disliked or were indifferent to the book, did the relentless ship-centric language put you off?


It's one of the very first issues that was raised when the A.V. Club staffers started talking about this week's posts. For some of us, the jargon made for slow reading. My advice was cribbed from Linus' approach to The Brothers Karamazov in Peanuts: When asked if those long Russian names were hard to deal with, Linus replied that he just blipped right over them. And frankly, that's what I did during my first reading of Master And Commander years ago. I took the position that I could follow enough of the action to make the characters' stories make sense without constantly flipping back to the glossary to find out which mast had been carried away by what kind of cannonball, or which way the ship was turning when a certain directive was given to the helm.

That probably has everything to do with my great love of books (and television shows and movies…) that throw me headlong into the middle of a complicated, arcane profession without bothering to explain to me what the experts at that pursuit are doing in every detail. I find it relaxing—even exhilarating—to observe highly skilled people at work doing tasks that require skills I could not hope to acquire. I don't need to know why the Top Chef contestants are grabbing this spice rather than that one, or how they learned to use one of those fancy canisters that makes everything into foam. I am fascinated to watch them work and see how all these bizarre ingredients, chosen and combined in a process I cannot replicate in my own understanding, combine to form a successful enterprise.

But I confess that I took a lot more time this reading to understand the milieu and the jargon. It's not from already having been through it once; it's from enjoying the early chapter where the ship is explained to Maturin from bow to stern. I think I sped through that one before; this time, I savored it. And lo and behold, I formed a much clearer picture of the battles and maneuvers in the later chapters thanks to that primer. My delight may not have increased by as much, already being at a high pitch, but my mental image of the action was far sharper. I felt less like an awestruck observer and more like an insider. Both positions are pleasant for me as a reader, but it was an unexpected bonus for me to have a different experience the second time through.

Ellen Wernecke: I was all set to take Donna’s side in agreeing that even when I didn’t understand, I found the seafaring language exciting, but there is one linguistic issue in this book that called it all into question for me. As you said, I “blipped” over some of the descriptions and read others multiple times, trying to keep my head above water while progressing forward with the story. It was helpful to have landlubber Stephen around to clarify a few points—the discussion of the phrase “master and commander” sticks out as a moment in which I felt that I and he were catching on to the ship’s organization.


Yet it boggles my mind how O’Brian could roll out all these very technical, correct-sounding descriptions of watch duties and battle damage and alterations to the rigging, and then he goes and names a ship Cacafuego ("shit-fire"). The Spanish vessel made me skeptical about all the text I had grappled with earlier. My Spanish is superior to my seafaring, but one groaner like that makes me wonder whether the specificity with which O’Brian describes the ship is accurate. Even when I found out that there was a real ship whose nickname was Cagafuego ("fire-shitter"), I have let the worm of doubt in, and it creeps still.

Zack Handlen: Wait, you guys had glossaries? Man. Not that I would've used one if I'd had it. I think I understood maybe one in three sailing terms, probably less, and while that meant there were chunks of text where I was left clinging to whatever definite articles and names I could find, I never felt completely overwhelmed. I used to have a problem, when I was younger, of needing to understand everything that was happening in a story in order to enjoy it. I got over that, and these days, as long as I have a general sense of what's happening, or some few narrative threads to focus on, I don't mind not catching all the jargon or references. It probably doesn't say anything good about me, but I don't have the patience to stop and research while I'm in the middle of reading something. It distracts from what I enjoy so much about reading in the first place (losing myself someplace else), and makes the process seem even more artificial than it already by nature is.


It's a point in O'Brian's favor, then, that he managed to stay true to his own clear passion for period lingo and arcane knowledge, without ever losing my attention. It's possible to get this balance wrong. I've read a few novels by Tom Clancy, and his tediously detailed accounts of weaponry and military equipment stop narrative momentum cold. With Master And Commander, I never felt as though the slang and the story were separate. Both seemed reliant on the other, and I could appreciate the relationship, even if I didn't always grasp the particulars. (I'll admit it, I couldn't accurately describe any of the sea battles that take place in the book, but that's as much my poor grasp of spatial relationships as anything else.)

Leonard Pierce: With Cacafuego, I'd argue that O'Brian was having a little fun with us, and maybe even playing off of Captain Jack's ineptitude with language, but it's still a big fat lampshade hung on a narrative that's otherwise extremely respectful and accurate about history and terminology.


As I mentioned earlier, the book's constant use of seafaring jargon was one of the few times I got really bogged down in an otherwise snappy, fast-moving narrative.  It also put me in mind of a number of other books with similar issues, and how at times it bothered me, and at other times it didn't.  In the end, it's probably a purely arbitrary decision; A Clockwork Orange was a masterfully written novel that so involved me in its narrative that I deliberately chose to use the Nadsat slang glossary that came with my edition as little as possible.  Blood Meridian's occult language was of a general nature rather than a technical one, and so I didn't mind being sent to the dictionary on occasion.  And while Moby-Dick deliberately immersed readers in the argot and arcana of seafaring, it did so with a mind toward total immersion, a replication in the reader's imagination of the daily life of the whaler that makes the book what it is.  Master And Commander, on the other hand, seemed just to be going for a hardcore authenticity that didn't add much to the narrative, and there were times—especially the passages just before Aubrey and company set sail for the first time—that the constant use of sail- and knot-related jargon almost kept me from moving forward. But if I'd been as engaged with the rest of the book as I was the novels I previously mentioned, again, I wouldn't have minded.  So the fault lies not with O'Brian, but my reaction to him.

I do suspect, as problematic as I found this dedication to the language and lore of the British sea life, that it not only paid off in the short term by helping to set a comfort zone for the reader ("This is the kind of book I'm writing," O'Brian seems to say, "and if you don't like it, go no further"), but in the book as a series.  Though I haven't picked up any more of the Aubrey-Maturin books, my suspicion is that the style of Master And Commander not only gives the reader a grounding in naval terminology and procedure that will pay off down the line, but also sends a message that this is a series written very specifically to style, and that if the reader finds it rewarding, the rewards will only be greater down the road. The style and language of a novel, then, are once again shown to be not only a choice, but a promise—or a warning.


Keith Phipps: Gosh, I almost feel like we've covered this topic to the point I don't have that much to add. I think it's to the book's credit that it's possible to read it either by blipping over the seafaring terminology or immersing oneself in it. I felt like I learned enough to get by but not so much that I could effectively command the ship myself. More sails = more speed, right? Beyond that, I got kind of lost. Still, I love details like the rites associated with ascending into the… what's it called? Not watchtower. How quickly the terminology fades without practical application. But for as long as I was in O'Brian's world, I felt like was surrounded by men who knew the names of and uses for all that surrounded them.

Todd VanDerWerff: I suppose we've covered this in depth, but I have to say that the jargon ended up being a real impediment to me getting into the book. I, for whatever reason, have trouble just blipping past stuff, and since I do most of my reading at work on lunch breaks or in bed, I'm rarely equipped with a dictionary. (It didn't help that my copy of the book didn't have a glossary, and instead had a tiny diagram with even tinier print that purported to show the sails on a ship or something, but should have just been called, "GOOD LUCK!") After the first 100 pages or so, I was finally starting to get a grasp on what was going on, and the characters were enough to carry me past my initial confusion, but I have to admit that were I not reading this for this book club, I would have been far more tempted to set it aside and grab something else. I found a lot of this to be a terribly difficult slog, though I guess I would say the experience was ultimately rewarding.


Do I know more about what it was like to sail aboard one of these ships now? I suppose I know marginally more than I did before, but I still couldn't tell you as much as I think the book was trying to impart. Yesterday, I said that the book's full-immersion experience is one of those things that ultimately makes it involving, but it's also the thing that kept me from finishing this book in a couple of days as opposed to closer to a week. Again, once I got to the part where I felt sufficiently steeped in naval terms to grasp what was going on more quickly, I was fine. (It also helped that this was when the battles and such really picked up.) But I did feel as if the novel consisted of a club that was keeping me out for much of those first 100 pages.

Tasha Robinson: Just call me Linus, because I have no problem with pages upon pages of "Clap on to the burton-tackle and that spun-yarn"; I do in fact tend to bleep over them. My edition of Master And Commander didn't have a glossary either, alas, though it does have a perfectly legible, decent-sized map of a square-rigged ship with all the sails labeled. Not that it helped, half the time, since a lot of the sails Aubrey references either aren't on the diagram or are going by different names; a lot is made of the fact that the Desiax doesn't even bother hoisting its studdingsails when going after the Sophie, and more is made of whether a ship should ever raise its royals, but neither sail is on my diagram. Also, it'd be helpful if the diagram listed the decks and masts as well, since those are just as often referenced as the sails. But that's as may be; as Keith said, it's to the book's credit that you can skip past the exact details of what's being done to which part of the ship without losing the story, or you can follow every decision and maneuver, and have a completely different but no less immersive experience.


What threw me generally wasn't the sailing-ship jargon, it was the political and personal jargon. I know enough of UK history to follow Dillon's relationship with Maturin, Aubrey, and his country, and to understand exactly what the Sophie's doing out there and why. But at times, I was completely at sea (ho ho ho) when reading some of the exchanges between personnel. For instance, when the Sophie pulls alongside the John B. Christopher, and the seamen derisively call back and forth "Paul Jones," what's that about? And why does Aubrey get offended and shut down the semi-playful exchange when someone shouts "Boston beans"? These kind of period-appropriate but entirely unexplained details were much more frustrating to me than any reference to mizzen topgallant staysails, where if worst comes to worst, I could just mentally substitute "sail" and move on. Also, O'Brian tends to be more accommodating about his sailing terminology—even if you don't know why the captain is demanding that his crew back topsails or do something involving cross-catharpings, either someone quickly explains the action, or we quickly see the how such gestures affect the combat, which is plenty explanation in itself. Personal interactions are a lot more complicated, though, especially when we rarely know what characters are thinking, and have to judge by what they're doing.

There were a couple of points where I reached for a dictionary—for instance, when Maturin describes Aubrey as hardly a gremial friend—but I don't tend to mind that. And at times, I do get the sense that O'Brian is just joshing us with his characters' vocabulary, as in this exchange between Maturin and Mr. Florey, about Aubrey's ill-advised affair with Molly Harte:

"I shall do all I can to make him conscious of the delicacy of his position. Though upon my word," [Maturin] added with a sigh, "there are times when it seems to me that nothing short of a radical ablation of the membrum virile would answer, in this case."

"That is very generally the peccant part," said Mr. Florey.

In other words, "I'd stop him shtupping her if I could, but I think the only way would be to chop off his wang." "Yeah, dudes do tend to have wang issues." But how much less charming would this book be if the characters talked like that, instead of in the sometimes hilarious way they do?


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