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Monday, August 15, 2011


Intriguing discussion on the maritime history list

As readers know, I am a longtime member of MARHST-L, a maritime history discussion list that is run from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.  Just occasionally, maritime words are discussed, the latest being the word DERELICT.

Writes Morgiana Halley: 

Our friend, Michael Quinion, at World Wide Words this week has treated "flotsam," "jetsam," "lagan," and "derelict." 

 He gave the following definition of "derelict:"

 ... "derelict" in this context has a technical sense of goods that have sunk to the seabed, can't be retrieved and are regarded as having been abandoned by their owner.

 Personally, (she comments) I have never associated the term "derelict" with "goods," that word always being associated in my mind with cargo. It has always been my understanding (and I may be in error, which is why I'm posting this) that "a derelict" (note the article) was the remains of a foundered vessel, entirely or almost entirely submerged, which remained unsecured and posed a drifting, and therefore unchartable, hazard to maritime traffic.

Can anyone shed further light on this? (she asks)  I find no serious quibble with the other definitions -- flotsam (floating debris), jetsam (items jettisoned from a vessel to prevent its sinking), and lagan (sunken salvageable goods marked for retrieval).

The first to reply was Roger Jordan.

This is an interesting one, Morg. (he writes)
Many years ago, when I was young, I had the distinct pleasure of being deputy archivist at Lloyd’s for what is now the Lloyd’s Maritime Collection at the Guildhall Library in London. Thanks to the many hours that I spent perusing casualty reports in Lloyd’s List, I have since been of the impression that a derelict is a vessel that has been abandoned  by its crew, for example, because of dismasting, becoming waterlogged, etc, and thus for the latter example being partially submerged. I certainly recall reading reports of derelicts being towed into port.

Commented Tom Brady:

The word itself, rather than its connotations, comes originally from the  Latin "relinquare" meaning "to forsake, or give up" vide licet "relinquish".

And William O'Neil provided the definitive answer:

The OED knows no such usage. The relevant part of their entry is
"A piece of property abandoned by the owner or guardian; esp. a vessel abandoned at sea.
"1670    London Gaz. No. 534/1,   A small Virginia ship laden with Tobacco, which they seised as a Derelict, pretending the men had forsaken the ship.
"1728    E. Chambers Cycl.,   Derelicts, in the Civil-Law, are such Goods as are wilfully thrown away, or relinquish'd by the Owner.
"1842    T. De Quincey Mod. Greece in Blackwood's Edinb. Mag. July 13/2   Often plague would absolutely depopulate a region. In such cases, mere strangers would oftentimes enter upon the lands as a derelict.
"1877    W. Thomson Voy. Challenger iv. 61   On the morning of March 23rd we steamed in search of the derelict."
Second edition, 1989; online version June 2011.
; accessed 13 August 2011.
Earlier version first published in New English Dictionary, 1895.


Morg Halley said...

Somebody tell Quinion!

Joan Druett said...

You're a good sleuth, finding your name in my blog! I've sent Quinion the link. Let's see if he responds ....