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 . . is a horrible word.

The safety rail around the bows and stem of a yacht has long been called a pulpit;  it has a passing resemblance to the pulpit of a Christian church.

The word ‘pulpit’ derives from the Latin pulpitum,  meaning a stage or platform.   The kind of stage,  or platform,  on which an orator might stand to deliver his or her message to a congregation.

A congregation,  by the way,  is ‘a gathering or collection of people, animals, or things’.   The word is usually applied to a gathering of religious people,  perhaps in a church.   It comes from the Latin congregare meaning to ‘collect (into a flock)’.

It’s curious that the pulpit of a yacht has very few similarities with the pulpit of a church.   One might stand between the bows of a boat,  lean on the rail and marvel at the dolphins;  they might be congregating around the bows,  but the adulation is the wrong way ‘round.
The purpose is different.   A clerical pulpit exists so that the speaker is raised above the crowd and can be heard and seen.   A yacht’s pulpit exists (so they tell us) so that the foredeck hand doesn’t fall in the water.
And the structure is different.   A maritime pulpit is (usually) metal and open work.   A theological pulpit is usually closed.   With stairs.
In fact,  the only similarity is that both are waist-high barriers between the person standing and whatever is before them.

Until the twentieth century the rail across the transom of a boat was a taffrail.   The word derives from the Dutch taffereel,  meaning a carved panel.   The suffix ‘…reel’ in Dutch is pronounced almost exactly like the English ‘rail’.   The taffrail was aft of the quarterdeck,  whence the officers commanded the ship,  so one might expect it to be decorated.

And then a yotti wag decided that ‘pull’ was the opposite of ‘push’.   If the rail at the front was a ‘pulpit’ then the rail at the back must be a ‘pushpit’.
To the devil with the etymology.   Never mind how crass the pun.
To the everlasting shame of yachtsmen everywhere the name stuck.
So universally is the word used that when I recently asked that the fenders be hung on the taffrail the crew didn’t know what I was talking about.

At least,  I hope that it was a deliberate,  if weak,  attempt at punning humour.   Sailors have been ignorant for so many centuries that I’m very much afraid it might have been a deliberate attempt at naming a part.
Let’s be kind.   Perhaps someone recognised that a stainless steel rail could not be described as a ‘carved panel’.


‘Aft pulpit’ anyone?

How about ‘bows rail’ and ‘transom rail’?

John Starkie

May 2024

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