Sailor Talk

Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, Author

Throughout history, most people have encountered the language of sailors in ports. Such language, including nautical terminology, occupational lore, and the coterie speech that bound crews together, was a product of isolated shipborne communities at sea, but it was when sailors entered the liminal space of the port that the general public heard their speech. The language of sailors was often greeted with contempt and fear. The Boston Recorder warned in 1823 that when sailors are ashore, “Children can with difficulty enter the streets at all, without hearing the very dialect of hell.” Despite such condemnation, it was in the spoken world of sailor talk that Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, and Jack London first became storytellers. They were all seafarers who transcribed their experiences at sea into stories, first told orally and then transformed into the written word. With their storytelling, they crossed the liminal space of the port and emerged as the great artists that they are. This book defines sailor talk, explores its inextricability from the labor of mariners, and investigates the orality of the shipboard world in which sailors worked. It then concentrates on the complex, multitudinous, and intertwining use of sailor talk in the works of Melville, Conrad, and London.

Sailor Talk book cover