Bill Casselman

At the Wording Desk

Increase your English vocabulary with words derived from Latin boat terms, words like nef !

Once upon an upchuck, noise made one sick to one’s stomach. The English word noise comes from a Latin word for seasickness, nausea. All forms stem from classical Latin nausea literally ‘seasickness,’ related to Latin naus, nautis ‘ship,’ cognate with ancient Greek ναῦς naus ‘ship.’ Latin nauta meant sailor. A sailor through the stars was and is an astronaut, the first component ultimately from Latin through ancient Greek ἄστρον astron ‘star.’ Cognate was the Latin word for star, stella. Beyond seasickness, nausea came to mean vomiting induced by any cause.

The Oxford English Dictionary explains the semantic shifts nicely: “The sense development is perhaps from ‘sea-sickness’, the literal sense of classical Latin nausea, to ‘upset, malaise’ (compare figurative senses of classical Latin nausea . . .), then to ‘disturbance, uproar’, and thence to ‘noise, din’ and ‘quarrel…’ ”

After 1066 CE, in Anglo-Norman, it was nois from Old French noyse. Compare similar early Romance language forms like Old Occitan nauza, nausa around 1150 CE and Catalan nosa during the thirteenth century.

Here is the word used in Middle English from around 1325 CE in an early and not very reliable history of England and parts of Europe entitled The Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester: “Of trompes & of tabors þe sarazins made þere so gret noyse þat cristinemen al destourbed were.”


Above, Egyptian grain is unloaded from a navis, a ship, a “lighter,” the Isis Giminiana (its name is at the extreme left of the fresco). The scene is Ostia, harbour of ancient Rome. This fresco dates to the second or third century CE, now at the Vatican Museums & Galleries, Vatican City. Near the left is an original Latin caption magister which in maritime Latin could mean ‘helmsman’ or ‘captain of a ship.’ His name was Farnaces, a Macedonian Greek name. The central caption names Arascantus, an historically attested person whose barbarian name, except for its Latin noun suffix, is completely unRoman and unGreek and yet look how far his career has advanced, to harbormaster of cereal unloading! He was chief administrator of the public granaries of ancient Rome at the time this fresco was made. He is checking the onboard quality of the wheat being unloaded, possibly making certain it has not succumbed to mould, weevils or wheat-borers, on its long voyage to Rome, the ship hugging the shore along the Mediterranean Sea from Alexandria in Egypt.

Other English Words from Navis: The Nave of a Church
Most of the congregation stood or sat in the nave of a church; the metaphor was naval. The great ship of the church contained the worshippers while other parts of the ecclesiastical building held altars and choirstalls etc.

Classical Latin navis was first used in Italian as nave to name the body of a church building. Note that the nave or central part of a spoked wheel is related to our belly-button English word navel, with its cognates in Old High German naba ‘nave’ and in Old Norse nöf ‘nave.’

In the annals of household ornament, a nef is a table piece shaped like a ship and often the product of a silversmsith. A silver nef often held small containers of salt, pepper, other spicy seasonings and mayhap linen napkins for milady’s lap. Nef is a Middle French reflex of Latin navis ‘ship.’

A silver and pewter nef

This, one of our chief sailing verbs, stems from Latin navigare = navis ‘ship’ + Latin verb agere ‘ to act, to move, to cause to move.’

A collective noun for a group of ships, this is a French invader from the time of the Norman Conquest. In 1066 CE, it might have looked like navie ‘fleet, boat’ or nave or navee, all ultimately from classical Latin navigium ‘voyage on a ship.’ Nowadays, navy names all the ships of war owned by one country.

These naval words summon to memory a briny passage from Byron’s poem “The Dark, Blue Sea,” which shall serve as this column’s invocation of embarkation.

"Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean—roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain; . . .

Unchangeable, save to thy wild waves’ play—
Time writes no wrinkle on thine azurn brow—
Such as creation’s dawn beheld, thou rollest now


A mythical marine beast blows a conch seashell to warn ships of impending ocean storm

Bill Casselman, January 06, 2017

Text copyright 2017 William Gordon Casselman