Thursday, December 14, 2006

Gudgeon Goes to Hawaii

Q:   My mother used to say, “I searched from stem to gudgeon.” I never did find out what a gudgeon is. Can you help?
Charlie/Torch Lake, MI

A.   My first reaction was that it sounds like a variation on the far more common “stem to stern,” and that turns out to be correct. Before that show was over, listener Charles from Atwood, MI, volunteered that you might have misheard the word escutcheon as a child, accidentally turning it into gudgeon.

An escutcheon was the shield-shaped surface on which a coat of arms was painted. In nautical terms, it was the plate bearing the vessel’s name, and it was placed, almost universally, at the back end of the ship--an early version of a license plate. This is confirmed by Smyth’s Sailor’s Word Book, 1867, which placed the escutcheon smack dab in the middle of the ship’s stern.

But the word gudgeon actually exists; it is not just a corruption of escutcheon. The Oxford English Dictionary has this: “Nautical: A metal socket in which the pintle of a rudder turns.” That sent me scrambling to find pintle, which the OED defines as, “A pin forming part of the hinge of a rudder, usually fixed on the rudder and fitting into a ring on the sternpost.”

Word buffs or readers of underground Victorian novels will also recognize pintle as a synonym for the male organ.

The stem, of course, was the curved upright timber at the bow of a vessel, so whether you use stem to stern, stem to gudgeon, or stem to escutcheon, the meaning is from front to back.

Sidebar:  USS Gudgeon SS 567


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