Wednesday, January 09, 2013


New Bern, NC

Men joking with men about getting old like to say, "You know, it is not the brain that goes first."  Chuckle, chuckle, fear.

With Libby, it seems to be the specific part of the brain that deals with nouns.  Libby's faculties and intellect are just fine; as good as ever.  However, she has increasing difficulty coming up with the name of the particular noun she needs to complete her sentence.   I can usually guess what she means, but I consider it impolite to finish other people's sentences for them, so I just wait for her.  In recent years that has led to some long embarrassing pauses.  Increasingly, Libby resorts to "it" as the generic noun to substitute in all cases where she can't remember the noun. I call it it-itis; like a sickness.

On a boat, use of the indefinite "it" clashes with nautical culture.  Every standard thing on a boat has a specific name, and all members of the crew are strongly encouraged to use the proper name at all times.  We don't say left and right, we say port and starboard.  Other directions on a boat are fore and aft, above, below, aloft, windward and leeward.  In a locker we store ropes, but when a rope is brought out of the locker and put to use it becomes a line.  Each line has a unique name, such as main halyard, starboard stay sail sheet, or maybe port jack line.  There are good reasons for the discipline.  The best reason is that they allow us to communicate when we can not see each other, in the dark when we see nothing, and when the boat could be pointing in any direction.  

For example, if I said "turn left," it is unclear if I mean your left or the boat's left, and if I am below decks I don't know if you are facing forward or aft, or whether the boat is moving forward or aft, or which way the wind is coming from.  The concept of "turn left" can be extremely unclear but the meaning of "turn windward" is unique and unchanging.

Visitors on board are sometimes offended by a captain who insists that they should learn this special language and use it on board the boat.   The guests should be more sympathetic.  The captain is probably most afraid that he and his crew will regress in maintaining their own discipline  
if they speak to guests in a different language.

Of course all the jargon become second nature if you use it long enough.  That is unless you catch it-itus.  The other day Libby and I were bending the main (there's some hard core jargon) when she said, "You should move it over."  Which "it" I wondered.   There were dozens of its she might have meant;  so I just froze for 40 seconds.  Finally, it came to her and she said, "Move the boom."

I don't think there is a cure for it-itis any more than there is a cure for getting old.  We'll just have to avoid situations where rapid precise communications involving nouns is vital.   The most urgent category of communications are mostly verbs and don't require nouns.  STOP! LOOK OUT! HELP!  COME HERE!  DICK!    

Readers are invited to prove me wrong.   Name an urgent and critical communication that ends with an exclamation mark but needs a specific noun to be understood.

p.s. If I ever come down with a case of verb-itis it will take a team effort with both Libby and I to complete any sentence.   That might be romantic and bring us closer together, but it would not make us safe drivers or captains.

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