Have a sky at this language

I’ve just finished reading Titanic on Trial: The Night the Titanic Sank (Bloomsbury, 2012), sub-subtitled Told Through the Testimonies of Her Passengers and Crew. It’s a sad and absorbing account, edited by Nic Compton, with about 70 ‘narrators’ plus a few outside experts (such as Ernest Shackleton) who gave evidence at the inquiries after the disaster.

It’s also of no little linguistic interest. One item that struck me was the evocative expression have a sky, meaning ‘have a look’. James Johnson, an English night watchman on the ship, reported:

I had no lifebelt then, so I went down for it after. I thought I might have made a mistake in the boat station list, and I went to look at it again. I said, ‘I will have a sky again.’

nic-compton-titanic-on-trial-the-night-the-titanic-sank-bloomsburyThe line is at #3415 on this page, where the surrounding context can be read. In his introduction, Compton refers to the idiom but changes the verb from have to take. Describing the witness testimonies, he writes:

Not only are they unfiltered by any author, but they are absolutely contemporaneous and are imbued with the character of the times – good and bad. There are wonderful turns of phrase which were once the norm but now sound impossibly poetic – such as ‘I will take a sky’, meaning ‘I will take a look’.

James Johnson was apparently English, aged 41, and his line is the only example of the expression that I found on the Titanic Inquiry Project website. It doesn’t appear in the OED. So I’m not convinced that it was once commonplace, but I’d be interested to know if any readers have heard it.

It also prompted me to look up the etymology of sky, and I was rewarded with this lovely discovery:


Another interesting phrase in the book is tell someone off in the sense ‘assign someone to a job or post’. Charles Lightoller, second officer, uses it in the context of preparing the lifeboats:

None of the covers had been stripped, with the exception of the emergency boats. I began on the port side with the port forward boat, that would be No. 4, and commenced it stripping off. Then two or three men turned up. I told them off to No. 4 boat and stood off then myself and directed the men as they came up on deck …

According to the OED this is a military expression dating to the early 18thC. Initially it meant ‘to number off the soldiers of a platoon, squadron, etc.’, or to divide them up by this means. Later it gained the sense shown above: to assign (a member or members of a larger group, orig. a body of soldiers) to a particular task, duty, objective, position’.

The familiar modern meaning is ‘reprimand’, or in Irish English, give out.


Compton refers to the testimonies being ‘imbued with the character of the times – good and bad’, and this is evident especially in stereotypes of gender and nationality or ethnicity. One wealthy passenger from New York, in praising everyone’s ‘heroic conduct’ remarked: ‘No woman even sobbed or wrung her hands.’

There are moments of profound poignancy. As the Titanic sank, Edward Brown, a steward from Wales, recollected:

I do not remember hearing the band stop playing. They were right on the forward boat deck companion, on the very top. They were playing for a long time, but I do not remember hearing them stop.

This was immortalised in the 1958 film A Night to Remember in a scene that has stayed decades in my memory; it may feature too in Walter Lord’s book, but I remember that less well.

Titanic on Trial concludes with brief biographies of all the survivors quoted in the book and some key figures who died when the ship sank. This one I found unbearably sad:

Annie Robinson, 40, First Class Stewardess.
Born in Bedford, UK, Robinson had more reason than most to fear ice. According to Titanic legend, she was on board the Lake Champlain when it struck an iceberg in 1907. Although she survived both that incident and the Titanic disaster, she was clearly traumatised by the experience and two years later, while travelling from Liverpool to Boston on the passenger ship Devonian, jumped over the side. According to a contemporary report, the ship had slowed down due to fog, and Robinson, ‘labouring under mental aberration’, became so convinced another disaster was about to take place that she abandoned ship.

27 Responses to Have a sky at this language

  1. John Cowan says:

    The ambiguity of tell, ‘speak’ and ‘count’, is pan-Indo-European and even wider. See Language Hat, “Counting and Telling”.

  2. alexguenther says:



    3. (1.) “To look towards the horizon, shading the eyes with the hand” (Bnff. 1866 Gregor D. Bnff. 164; ne.Sc. 1970). Cf. I. 2. Phr.; tr. to shade (a patch of water) so as to see to the bottom; to look about one (ne.Sc., Ags. 1970). Per. 1881 D. MacAra Crieff 67:
    He sometimes “skied” the water when it was in flood. This consisted in holding a piece of red cloth above the pools, which, he affirmed, shaded the water, so that he could see to the bottom and discover if any fish were about.

    (2) To look closely (at), to examine, esp. cloth (Rnf. 1910), to hold up to the light. Agent n. skier, in linen manufacture: one who examines the cloth from the weaving-shop for flaws (Fif. 1927 Dict. Occup. Terms (H.M.S.O.) 174).

  3. Roger says:

    Re etymology of /sky/ as /cloud/:
    English has /skyscraper/ while German has /Wolkenkratzer/, which may transliterate, itchily, as “cloud-scratcher”. Ger. /Wolke/ in turn reminds one (me, at least) of archaic English /welkin/, referring to things aloft or even celestial.
    The word shows up in Shakespeare’s plays a few times.
    /Welkin/ is the title of an old-time painting that I saw once, but never since, not even on the web. In it, if I can remember, the universe was presented as a kind of huge champagne glass, with all the bubbly “up”, at the top, and all earthbound things down around the stem and base.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I like that. Welkin, like sky, originally meant ‘cloud’; then it came to mean the sky, firmament, heaven, etc., and in later use – from Chaucer on – referred to ‘the upper atmosphere; the region of the air in which the clouds float, birds fly, etc.’, per the OED. Thus Charlotte Brontë, ‘Down washed the rain, deep lowered the welkin’ (Vilette, 1853).

  4. wisewebwoman says:

    I am familiar with telling used for counting. Particularly my granny would use it for telling her beads.

    My children’s great great grand aunt died on the Titanic aged 16. Annie Hegarty. A great claim to fame in school when they studied shipping disasters


    • Stan Carey says:

      I think beads are where I tend to hear tell ‘count’ too, WWW. And then of course there’s the teller in a bank counting money.
      That connection with the Titanic must have occasioned some excitement for your children in school.

  5. astraya says:

    Charles Wesley’s original words for the hymn now known as ‘Hark! the herald angels sing’ were ‘Hark! how all the welkin rings’. Many lesser used/archaic words are preserved in hymns or bible translations.

  6. ardj says:

    Further to Alex Guenther, the OED also gives (sky v1 at 4) “To catch sight of (an outline) against the sky”, with an example from 1900. I am moderately sure I have also come across it somewhere in Scots poetry in the sense of ‘to take a look’. Maybe also in the sense of looking into e.g. a crystal to try to see the future or something happening elsewhere, or was that “skry/skrie” (neither in OED) ? (sorry if starting hares)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, it’s a pity there’s just one example of that usage – but maybe in Scotland it had more currency than the entry suggests.

    • Virginia Simmon says:

      That’s brilliant, ardj! I think what you were looking for is “scry.” The OED has it as a shortening of “descry” “to foretell the future using a crystal ball …”

  7. Chips Mackinolty says:

    From another language, Gurindji, an Aboriginal language of the Northern Territory, “kunturru” which translates as “sky, clear blue part of the sky” (Gurindji to English Dictionary, 2013). As an extension of this meaning “kunturruwaji” for aeroplane!

  8. Elena says:

    Hello, just want to say “thank you” for your blog, I ve been reading it for some years and I am inspired by your vision and ideas. Thank you very much

  9. I love the poetic feel to “have a sky.” I’m sorry it fell out of common usage (assuming it was so). I think it’s a lovely expression.

  10. D. L. Gold says:

    In your remarks on have a sky, you say, “The line is at #3415 on this page, where the surrounding context can be read.”

    You may want to adopt the distinction, made in linguistics and textual studies, between cotext and context, a distinction that has the advantage of somewhat reducing the polysemy, hence the possible ambiguity, of the word context.

    Your link is to the cotext of your quotation from the book, that is, to the surrounding text.

    The context of the quotation would be circumstances and events on the ship and so on.

    If one uses cotext, the word surrounding (as in “surrounding context”) becomes superfluous.

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