Like jargon everywhere, most nautical words and terms serve practical purposes. They allow the use of one or two words to replace a long description. For example, it’s easier to type “planing” than “it is fast enough to create dynamic lift and skim across the water’s surface.” Jargon also provides great clarity. Most of us can recall instances wherein someone we knew went left when directed to go right. (“Your other right!”) Terms like port and starboard are utterly unambiguous; they do not depend upon a certain viewpoint; they never change. Clarity in communications can carry the weight of life and death when directing a sailing ship’s crew to belay the gun tackle before the deck is awash with the next breaking sea, but crystal clarity remains important aboard our family craft when instructing crew of which dock line to grab first with the wind blowing hard.
Most jargon describes a process or a fitting or principle that, once understood, makes the words easier to grok. Could any one word better describe a falling tide than ebb? What better way to relate that a boat is afloat but not attached to shore or anchored or under any sort of power than the word adrift? And for naming the structure installed around the perimeter of tabletops, countertops and other horizontal surfaces, and the miniature fence installed to prevent items from sliding off, whether your ship rolls on a great gray sea or your boat rocks because of the oaf ignoring the no-wake zone, what, oh what could be more descriptive than naming those baby balustrades fiddle rails?
Fiddle rails? At least ebb, which means “to go away” in Old Dutch, and adrift, meaning “course or current” in Middle Dutch, let us lean on etymology in addition to connoting their meaning in an indirect way by their spelling and spoken sounds. But fiddle rails?
The fiddle question came to me from reader Bob McKinley of Ocean Pines, Maryland, who emailed that he understood what fiddle rails were but wondered if the term has an interesting origin.
In response, I pored over yellow-paged tomes in my personal library, called the crustiest and most learned old boatbuilders I know, and yes, I Googled the term. All these efforts proved fruitless. The fiddle rail, or sometimes just fiddle and also fiddled, is a specific term and common bit of boating jargon describing a common boating item or feature that apparently just appeared somewhere along the line. That’s all I got, Bob.
I do observe that some fiddle rails are scuppered. They feature holes along their length so that the soup can drain off even while the soup bowl is prevented from hitting the cabin sole. The scuppers give the rails a resemblance to the C-shaped bouts in the sides of a violin or viola.
Boating jargon is easy. It’s oilskins that are mist-defying.