Arrghh, it’s always something.
Dear Word Detective: I have been reading a reprinted copy of Defoe’s (as Captain Johnson) Pirates book. In it he describes a naval skirmish. I understand the words (I recognize them individually) but I don’t follow the meaning. Perhaps you could help me out. The text reads “The Snow was taken easily having been carreening on a spit of the outer bar in Saint James’ Inlets.” I know that “carreen” is running about recklessly, and a “spit” is a bar for cooking over a fire, and “snow” is, well, snow. But all together is the sentence is confusing. Any ideas? — Sam.
Well, sometimes “snow” isn’t that cold white stuff, and most of the rest of the words in that sentence don’t mean exactly what you’d expect either, so I’m not surprised that you’re confused. But before we begin I want to take a moment to explain “Defoe’s pirate book.”
“A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates” was published in 1724 by a Captain Charles Johnson. Offering an extensive history of piracy in general as well as biographies of individual pirates, it was an instant bestseller and caused a public sensation (in part because it featured bios of two female pirates). The book also constituted a bit of a mystery, because no record of a “Captain Charles Johnson” could be found, although the author was clearly well-versed in seafaring. Several scholars have suggested that the actual author was Daniel Defoe, author of “Robinson Crusoe” among many other works, but that theory has never been (and may never be) conclusively proven.
A “spit” is indeed a pointed rod on which meat (or other food) is roasted over a fire, and the word came from the same Germanic root (meaning “sharp point”) that gave us “spike.” But “spit” in the sense that the author uses it in this context means a thin strip of low land or sand extending into the sea from the shore, a “spike-like” projection of land.
A “bar” in common usage is, of course, a stick or rod, usually made of metal or wood, or nearly anything solid that is longer than wide (such as a candy bar or bar of soap). “Bar” comes from the Late Latin “barra,” meaning “gate or barrier” (and which also gave us “barrier”). The sort of “bar” where people go to get sloshed comes from the “bar,” the wooden barrier, that separates the bartender from the patrons. This sense of “barrier,” also present in the verb “to bar” meaning “to forbid entry,” explains “bar” in your quote. This “bar” is a deposit or bank of sand, silt or other material that forms near shore, often across the mouth of a river or harbor, forming a partial barrier and impeding transit, especially at low tide. In the case cited by Captain Johnson, the “bar” sounds like a sandbar running parallel to the shore of an island, large enough to have a “spit” branching off into the sea.
The basic meaning of “careen” (“carreen” is an antiquated form) is “to tilt.” The word “career” actually means “to race around” (as on a racetrack), but “careen” and “career” are so similar in sense (since racing around usually results in tilting or tipping) that the two are often used interchangeably to mean “to speed recklessly.” The quote you sent uses “careen” in its original meaning, which was “to tilt a ship or boat in order to clean the hull of barnacles, etc., or to perform repairs.” It was not uncommon for the crew of a sailing ship at sea, if such tasks were necessary, to seek out a spit of land or sandbar on which to moor the vessel so it could be easily worked on.
The truly odd word in this mix is, of course, “snow.” Reading “The Snow was taken easily…,” one might assume that “Snow” is the name of a particular ship. But a “snow” is actually a type of small sailing ship commonly used as a warship in the 18th century. It’s basically a square-rigger with two masts, but the large mainmast has a smaller mast attached to it supporting a “trysail,” a triangular sail rigged fore and aft (perpendicular to the main sails), used to increase maneuverability in high winds. This “snow” comes from the Dutch term for such ships, “snauw,” and in English is pronounced either to rhyme with “cow” or as “snoo.”
So in that snippet you sent Captain Johnson, or Defoe, or whoever, is saying that a “snow” type of ship was undergoing maintenance on a spit of a large sandbar and was thus easily captured by the pirates.