Words in the News


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

One of the biggest stories in the UK media this week was that of a British woman, Kay Longstaff, who was rescued from the Adriatic off the coast of Croatia ten hours after she fell from a cruise ship late at night. Her survival has been attributed to several factors, including the fact that the sea was warm and calm, and to the simple fact that she is a woman: it seems that the greater amount of subcutaneous fat on the female body enables women to stay afloat more easily. Longstaff herself credited her fitness level and the fact that she sang to keep her spirits up.

The call to alert crew on board a ship that someone has fallen into the sea is man overboard, often shortened to MOB, (although in this case it should probably have been woman overboard). The adverb overboard means ‘off a boat or ship and into the water’, the usual expression for being on a ship or a plane being on board. The adjective on-board meaning ‘fitted as part of a car, plane etc’ is generally hyphenated. To take something on board means to recognize it and try to deal with it.

Metaphorically, to go overboard means to do or say more than is reasonable or necessary, for example because you are excited or angry.

The etymology of overboard and associated expressions is that it refers to an old meaning of board that means the side of a ship. Ships were of course for a long time made of wood, so the side of a ship literally consisted of boards, often oak, at least in the case of British ships. The song Heart of Oak is the official march of the UK Royal Navy and it was one of many traditional songs that we used to sing at school. I have only just learned that the words were written by the renowned English actor David Garrick, fellow townsman and friend of the great lexicographer Dr Johnson.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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