Saturday, February 25, 2012
Sailor Mouth Saturday: Alarm
So it is that one can raise an alarm and/or be alarmed on land or at sea. But where did all of this alarming voice raising come from? I’ll say that none of the Brethren will be surprised when I tell them: Italy.
All’armi! That was the call to arms in Italian city-states and aboard their vessels of the pre-Renaissance era. It literally translates as “To the weapons!” and was therefore both an alert of impending danger from an enemy and a rallying cry. Some time around 1300 French speakers took up the call as Alarme! With all the inter-cultural mixing of warriors that went on at the time, the English brought it home by the end of that century with only a missing e to make it their own. Just as a curious aside, the Dutch jumped on the alarm bandwagon as well, spelling it as the English did, but the German speaking Holy Roman Empire did not. Their original “Warnung!” has come down to us today.
At sea or on land, the alarm is sounded by use of bell, drum or horn; a set noise allows men to know exactly what is in the offing and what is expected of them. Anyone who has seen the movie Master and Commander is well aware of what happens when the order “Beat to quarters!” is given.
And this brings up an important point peculiar in some ways to naval discipline. Bringing men to battle stations aboard ship was done with frequency – threat or no – by fighting captains who chose to keep their ships and men ready for action. The application is based on the undeniable fact that people cannot do under stress what they have not done in practice. Much like learning to shoot a gun or drive a car, you’re reaction time in a dangerous situation will be hindered if you have never done such a thing before. Thus scheduled alarms and sometimes unscheduled false alarms, were routine on well-run ships. Even privateers and, on rarer occasions, pirates worked their guns now and again. Every man to his station and no confusion when the “real thing” comes to pass.
On the same subject, to some degree at least, Bill Brohaugh points out in his book Unfortunate English: The Gloomy Truth Behind the Words You Use that alarm became more associated with fright or startle around the 1500s. At the same time, English speakers began to use the word afraid to mean scared. Its original meaning though, in the form affray, was to disturb or unsettle people. Thus people who were unsettled –literally driven from their land and homes – were affrayed. The etymological jump to scared, in fact alarmed, makes perfect sense doesn’t it?
But now I’ve veered dangerously off course, and should wisely avoid the lee shore. Happy Saturday, Brethren; is you’ve an interest in exploring more strange and wonderful English etymologies, find Mr. Bohaugh’s fascinating website here.
Header: Jack Aubrey calls out the alarm; Russell Crowe in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World