Sunday, 6 July 2008

Knots ... or not?

Living in a town with a maritime history, I notice a lot of nautical memorabilia about. One that baffles me, however, is a wall display of knot examples I've seen in various places that looks like the one here. It's kind of interesting, but even more so when you look closely at the captions. The knots are called "Ships Knot, Grapnel Knot, Sapajou Knot, Timber Knot, Deck Knot, Carrick-Bend Knot, Simple Knot, Fist Knot, Flat Knot, Double-Timer Knot, Eight-Ring Knot, Chasis Knot, and Piscalory Knot".

The strange thing is that almost none of them appear to be the correct names. The creators have got the Carrick bend correct, but they call the figure-of-eight knot a "timber knot", the bowline a "chasis knot", the reef knot a "flat knot", the overhand knot (aka thumb knot) a "simple knot", the fisherman's knot a "piscalory knot" (which looks like a stab at "piscatory" = pertaining to fishing), and something similar to a capuchin knot (aka blood knot or multiple overhand knot) a "sapajou knot". The last is actually explicable; a sapajou is a monkey of the genus Cebus, also called capuchin monkey, although the capuchin knot - see Dunc's shed - is named for its use on the cord of a monk's robe.

I've no idea where these display boxes originate; I assume overseas, as one supplier mentions they're Fair Trade items. But I'd love to know exactly how these misnomers were cooked up. Machine translation? Complete invention? It's slightly odd that anyone with enough knowledge of English to invent plausible - even erudite in some cases - false names couldn't go to the trivial effort of finding the real ones.

Addendum: in a lovely example of the kind of ultra-specialised study that the Internet allows sharing, check out Noeud de Franciscain and Noeud de Capucin, in which Charles Hamel (aka Nautile), explores the confusion between two very similar knots, the Capuchin and Franciscan, with examples as depicted in paintings and statues. The same knot, used presumably for its property of creating a node in a cord while keeping it straight, was the basis of the Incan quipu (aka khipu), a data storage medium using knotted string, used for bureaucratic recording and communication: more on this at the Harvard University Khipu Database Project.

- Ray


Duncan commented:
I wonder if they knot boards are cheap chinese products with the usual shocking translations? It seems funny that a knot as common as the Bowline could be so badly misnamed!

Thanks for the blog link!

And  Andrew commented:
The blood knot is not a synonym for the capucin knot. It's a bend with two ropes involved, and neither rope passes back through its coils in the way the capucin knot does. I was curious about your reference on this, but the linked page seems not to be working.

While mis-naming of knots is common, as often as not, knots have multiple names from different uses and historical contexts.

The flat knot is pretty much the same thing as the reef knot. It's a name used widely in macrame, a nautical tradition from much the same time and ships as the reef knot. The flat knot is usually continued on with half knots (like overhand knots, except for the usage) alternating as the sinnet is formed.

It's much the same thing as the distinction between the overhand knot and the marline hitch, where the latter name makes no sense if there's nothing being hitched to. Also compare the carrick bend and the double coin knot, which is almost exactly the same kind of distinction as with the flat knot and reef knot.

Lots of knots have the same forms but different uses. Different names make sense, saying more than you could without them. The carrick bend and the double coin knot have the exact same form in terms of where the ropes go, but confusing the two could cost lives. Much the same is true of the reef knot and the granny knot, except that the reef knot should not be used where lives are at stake.

Disclaimer: I know enough to spot some of your errors, but probably not enough to be entirely error free myself.

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