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.’
The 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.