Talking Coxswains Bo**ocks


“He was cowering away from the fierce dog”.

This ranks right up there with “your donkey has eaten my passport” as a useful translation but I found it on a webpage that translated coxswain into 44 different languages.

The helmsman of a ship’s boat or a racing crew was the first definition given and my limited language skills coupled with some rudimentary web-searching found that other languages agreed: a coxswain is the one doing the steering (or holding the rudder).

Change to the second definition (a petty officer in charge of a boat and crew) and not everyone in the world agrees that this is what a coxswain is; most of the languages change words to match the new description.  Let’s take German (because I know it a little better and because the Germans are known for, shall we say, a certain correctness) and der Steuermann becomes der Bootsführer, not steering the boat but leading the boat. And this is where German is so good: anyone can tell what either man does from his title.

Linguistically challenged, us?

We linguistically challenged English speakers on the other hand, not only choose a word with a meaning derived from words no longer in common usage (cox was a small boat carried on a ship and swain once a boy but when combined in coxswain becomes the person in charge of the boat) but are then unclear as to what role is meant.  Maybe we mean both, though I know some strokes who’d have something to say about that!

One thing’s for sure: we’ve all got some explaining to do to whichever little person asks ‘please Sir, what’s a coxswain?’


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