February 2009 Issue

Not Ded Yet

Must saw your reply to my e-mail about dead reckoning on the back page of the November issue. Avoiding controversy is one thing, but getting it right is another. What I got out of the etymological research regarding dead reckoning was that before WWII there was no controversy over this term. With only a few abbreviations in ships’ logs to the contrary, "dead" was widely used in marine navigation (since the 17th century) and in the early days of aviation. The researcher claims to have examined hundreds of old books to come to this conclusion. It was only after the attack of the amateur folk etymologists starting in the 1940s that it even became an issue, and the battle has raged since. (And Barry Schiff has fallen prey to this, too.) The crux of the matter is, of course, the meaning of the word "dead." The meaning that I had always heard was that "dead" in this case meant "precise," "exact," "accurate," etc., and had nothing to do with death or stillness. (Dead as in "dead right," or the "dead of winter" (middle or center of), or "dead on," or "dead ahead," or the original character of "Deadeye Dick" (the accurate marksman, not Dick Cheney). It is interesting to note that the rest of the English speaking world has not yet come to the height of this controversy. It seems only to be in America that we have fallen for the folk etymology. Consequently, when we navigate without reference to landmarks (or logs in the water) we are navigating by "Precise Calculation" for which many of us use the ancient term, "Dead Reckoning." Thanks for listening! Shall we tackle the downwind turn canard next?

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