Monday, January 28, 2013


As I was thinking about writing this blog, I decided to ask my wife if she knew what the word meant. "Cut", she said. "No", I replied, "quite the reverse: it means to join two parts." "It also means 'cut', she told me. "My parents would speak of a splice of bread." Since Barbara's wonderful parents were Norwegian immigrants, it was perfectly understandable that they would confuse "splice" with "slice". Many folk have heard the phrase "Splice the mainbrace", and know that it is a naval term, traditionally calling for an issue of rum to celebrate a victory or some royal occasion of joy, such as a wedding, a jubilee, or the birth of a child. Wikipedia has a pretty good article, but flubs the naval term for a half-holiday: it's a "make and mend" day, not a "mend and make". That term stems from the days when the seamen would need to spend some time repairing their clothing. The mainbrace on a "square rigged" sailing ship is the cordage which controls the "yards" carrying the sails. It needs to be very strong--the mainbrace in HMS Victory is five inches in diameter. A sailing ship is helpless if the sails cannot be "trimmed" because of a break in a mainbrace. Most breaks occurred in battle: the "running rigging" was a favorite target of an enemy's cannons. It was vital for repairs to be made as soon as possible, and splicing heavy cordage was hard work. A warship's bosun would put his best seamen to the task. It became the custom to reward those men with an extra tot of "grog"-one-third rum, and two-thirds water. (The bosun would usually take "sippers" from each portion for his work of supervising the repair. A less-well-known Naval expression, remembered from my youth is "Different ships, different long splices", simply meaning that not every action had to be undertaken in the same "Admiralty pattern" way. That was a beam of tolerance in the grey of conformity which is a necessary part of a disciplined armed service.

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