She scrimshaws scrimshander far from the seashore


SCRIMSHANDER, n., v. I have continued to read Moby-Dick this week and have looked up many words in it. This one was among the first.

“Scrimshaw” is art that sailors make on long sea voyages, usually by whittling wood or bone. It’s also a verb for making that art—sailors scrimshawing to pass the time. “Scrimshander” is either a person who makes scrimshaw, or another word for scrimshaw itself, or the act of making it. There are no rules, do what you want! She scrimshaws scrimshander far from the seashore.

One of the best things about looking up these two words is that they are both “etymology unknown.” You might think this would be a depressing dead-end, but I love coming across it. It’s rare—we know the origins of a remarkable number of words—and that makes it special.

But more than that, I love imagining that sometime in the nineteenth century, this word just popped out of someone’s mouth fully formed: “Oh, there’s Queequeg and his scrimshaw again.” And it was either so obvious—naturally “scrimshaw” is art carved from whale bones, what else would it mean—or so fun to say that everyone just adopted it, no origin story necessary. (This is definitely not what happened. Probably.)

Melville spells it “skrimshander,” which is an indication that the word was either new enough or uncommon enough not to have a standard spelling at the time he was writing.

I wondered for a while if “scrimshaw” could have come from some other language. Melville is certainly clear on the diversity of whaling crews. But that “scr-” consonant cluster isn’t very common among world languages, or at least, that’s the sort of consonant cluster that my English-as-a-Foreign-Language students always had serious trouble with. “Scr-” is a real acrobatic sequence. Say “scrimshaw” out loud and feel where your tongue goes. Just in that initial consonant cluster, it moves behind your teeth, back to your soft palate, and then forward again. Isn’t that great? Some languages forbid consonant clusters like that. I hope saying it made you feel powerful.

The odds are good that “scrimshaw” sprouted from English. We just don’t know any more than that.

Anyway, actual scrimshaw is cool as hell. Here are some pictures.

Scrimshaw Sperm Whale Tooth, 1867, National Museum of American History

Scrimshaw Ivory Jagging Wheel (it’s a pie cutter!), 1800s, National Museum of American History

We’re all sorta stuck on a long sea voyage now, except we’re not going anywhere. Maybe it’s time scrimshaw made a comeback. (With wood. Not whale bones! I’m not a monster. Besides, I’m only 30% done with Moby-Dick and I’m already very sure that whaling is not for me.)

Other than a few chapters of Moby-Dick, it’s been a slow week for reading. I did not read anything in French or any other Capital-R Romance language this week, and I only finished one small-r romance.

Daughter of the Sun (cis bi f/?f, fantasy) by Effie Calvin. This trope-y road-trip romance starring an upright, loyal paladin and the shapeshifting chaos goddess she unknowingly trapped into the form of a mortal woman is a delight. Both main characters are memorable and they make a lovely pair, and this book carries off “I want to tell you my secret identity because I’m in love with you, but I can’t because then you won’t be in love with me” perfectly. Fun, very queer fantasy worldbuilding—swords, magic, gods walk the earth and cause a lot of trouble. There are other books in the series, but I think you could read this one as a standalone. Content warnings: mild violence, some supporting characters get murdered.

Scrimshander the hell out of some scrimshaw this week. Or scrimshaw some scrimshander? Scrim some shaw. Something like that.

Until next Sunday!