Language Lessons

Comparing the lexicon of sailing with the terminology we use in flying reminds us why each pursuit is special.



I recently spent a week on a sailboat as a guest of an experienced captain and his first mate – in this case, literally so because she is also his wife. This was my first real exposure to sailing on the open sea, of which past experiences have been confined to the occaisional summer afternoon, usually in calm weather. Throughout the trip I couldn’t help but compare sailing in a boat with flying in an airplane. This was a fun and satisfying exercise. In many ways, after all, the main sail of a boat does the same job as the wing of an airplane, with physical forces acting upon such craft in ways that make the art of sailing and the science of flight seem more closely related than I would have guessed.

But what fascinated me most about my time on the water was the sheer breadth of nautical terms sailors must learn and understand. In many instances, I could only make vague guesses about their meanings. Port and starboard, those are obvious. Rudder and keel, likewise. Main sail, jib and halyard, these were more or less familiar terms and easily understood once I saw each in action. But what about lazy jack, forestay, boom vang and dozens of other strange seafarers' terms? To experienced sailors, these are the basics. To me, it might as well have been another language.

Which, of course, it is. Much of the established lexicon in sailing is hundreds of years old, tracing its lineage to ancient mariners who braved stormy seas before there was proof positive that the world at its ragged edges did not come to an abrupt end. All of which got me thinking: Are the terms we use in aviation as incomprehensible to outsiders as the lexographical oddities with which sailors routinely contend?

In aviation we have terms such as wing, landing gear, propeller, throttle, altimeter, runway, takeoff, landing and so on. Who couldn’t readily understand these? Borne of technical necessity, we also have no shortage of aviation acronyms: VOR, ILS, NDB, WAAS, HSI, VFR, IMC, VASI and so on. Those, I’ll admit, take new pilots some time to learn. But at least they’re logically sensible and not the "lazy jack" and "boom vang" variety of terms that make land lubbers scratch our heads and wonder where in the world they came from.

Ah, but then there is a whole list of aeronautical terms that are indeed so weird that they aren't even English words. They're French. Like aileron, which means small wing, the diminutive form of aile. Or empennage, an airplane's tail, from the old French empenner, meaning to feather an arrow. We also have fuselage, which comes from the French word fuselé, meaning tapering. Nacelle, which is the housing for a jet engine, is a French word as well, which means cradle. Fenestron, as far as I can tell, is a made up French word, which loosely translates as "small window." We know it as the shrouded tail rotor patented by Eurocopter. Even the word hangar comes from French, and means shed or outbuilding.

Upon further reflection, I suppose the language of aviation can be as difficult for the uninitiated to grasp as is sailing, even if we pilots, so immersed in our chosen pursuit, sometimes forget it. But isn’t that part of the mystique and charm of flying? Yet another reason why pilots and sailors alike develop such a close bond with others who hold a special affinity for the sky or sea?

And there's simply no word to describe this feeling; to understand, one must experience such joys firsthand.