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The Endearing Intellectual Challenges of ‘Master and Commander’ Author

December 14th, 2020 · 1 Comment · Books, Movies

One of my favorite writers is the late Patrick O’Brian, author of the 20-plus-volume Aubrey-Matarin series — set mostly on the high seas during the Napoleonic wars, circa 1790-1815.

It is a great work of historical fiction, centered on the title characters — the English navy captain Jack Aubrey and his “particular friend”, Stephen Maturin, an Irish-Catalan medical doctor who sails with Aubrey while also spending much of his time working as an agent for a British intelligence service.

(You may have seen the excellent 2005 movie based on O’Brian’s books: “Master and Commander: Far Side of the World“. Russell Crowe plays Aubrey; Paul Bettany is Matarin.)

One of the challenges and rewards of reading O’Brian, who died at age 85 in 2000 — is dealing with his enormous vocabulary. He seems to be convinced that a more specific word was always to be chosen over the more common.

One of his early editors tried to convince him to tone down what the British might call “showing away”. The books , perhaps make it a bit more accessible for those who do not understand Latin or French or 19th-century medical terms. The editor wrote: “Like many who have struggled themselves, he thought others should struggle, too.”

Usually, context can lead to understanding, even without ready and oft-repeated forays to a dictionary.

I am on what is at least my third trip through those 20-plus books, and it struck me the other day that it might be fun to bring paper and pen to my Kindle and take down some of the more obscure references, as I bump into them, for the amusement of readers of this site.

And yes, these are real words. Have fun.

ataraxy. a state of serene calmness

appurtenance. an accessory or other item associated with a particular activity or style of living

adduce. cite as evidence

asafoetida. a fetid resinous gum obtained from the roots of a herbaceous plant, used in herbal medicine and Indian cooking

beneficed. a permanent church appointment, typically that of a rector or vicar for which property and income are provided in exchange for services rendered.

binnacle. a waist-high stand on the deck of a ship in which navigational instruments are placed for easy reference

calenture. feverish delirium formerly thought as afflicting sailors in the tropics

carcharias. a genus of sand-tiger sharks

concupiscent. filled with sexual desire; lustful

chivvy. tell someone repeatedly to do something

clinker. stony residue from burned coal or from a furnace

cephalopod. any member of the molluscan class, such as squid, octopus or cuttle fish

catharpins. nautical, referring to one of the short ropes or iron clamps used to brace the shrouds toward the mast so as to give a freer sweep to the yards

concupiscent. filled with sexual desire; lustful

contund. to pummel or bruise a person 

crapulous. caused by or showing the effects of alcohol. Drunk

daedal. skillful or artistic

drachm. a unit of weight, formerly used by apothecaries

dumb-chalder. in ship-building, a metal cleat bolted to the after-part of the stern-post.

embrocation. a liquid for rubbing on the body to relieve pain from strains and sprains.

extravasated. of a fluid, especially blood, let or forced out from the vessel that naturally contains it

farinaceous. consisting of or containing starch

fid. a conical pin or spike used in splicing rope

filioque. added to the credo of the Catholic church to signify that the Holy Spirit comes from the Father and the Son

glebe. land belonging to a parish church.

grebe. a diving waterbird

lapilli. rock fragments ejected from a volcano

longicorn. a Longhorn beetle

mephetic. foul-smelling or noxious

Muggletonian. a member of a small Christian sect formed in England circa 1650

pelagic. relating to the open sea.

ptilopos. a genus of mostly perennial herbs or shrubs native to drier areas of Australia

ptyalism. a condition that causes the overproduction of saliva

scoria. basaltic lava ejected as fragments from a volcano, typically with a frothy texture

shieling. a roughly constructed hut used while pasturing animals

trephin. a hole-saw used in surgery to remove a circle of tissue or bone

vitreous. like glass in appearance or physical properties

wheal. a welt left on the flesh by a blow.


1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Gene Hiigel // Dec 18, 2020 at 8:45 PM

    Great list of old terms. I cheated on the nautical words when I read Patrick O’Brien’s series–there is a companion dictionary of those terms. I’ll see if I can find my copy. As to most of the words on your list, I assume I just kept reading without turning to the dictionary in the hope that the context gave me enough clues (or they weren’t important to the story).

    I was hooked enough by O’Brien’s series that one of my daughters and I turned to the old Horatio Hornblower series—many of the same stories, but different characters.

    Then my wife and I decided we knew too little about early 19th Century land warfare and the Peninsular Campaign of the Napoleonic Wars (and a little about the British in India) so we read Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series. Another great read.

    My wife has also done Cornwell’s series on the Vikings (and is anxiously awaiting the next book).

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