That’s Well: Sailor-Talk

Gale-force wind, pounding spray, ropes thick like a muscled forearm — these images floated through my mind when my husband asked if I wanted to go sailing on a Tall Ship.

Last Saturday we took a 3 hour sail (cue the Gilligan’s Island theme music) on The Pride of Baltimore, a schooner like the ones used by privateers in the War of 1812.

I loved being aboard and hauling the rope hand-over-hand to hoist the sail. When the sail reached the right height, someone yelled That’s well! and we were given a command to drop the rope and step away.

Why did I love hearing That’s well? Was it just because the phrase sounds antiquated, compared to the more common and casual, That’s good? The romance of antiquity probably factors in, but that’s not the whole reason.

The difference between well and good is grammatical. Well is an adverb(describes a verb), whereas good is an adjective (describes a noun). To say That’s well is to describe the verb — the hoisting itself — rather than to describe the noun — the position of the sail as a result of the hoisting.

Isn’t this unusual? Aren’t we more prone to assess the results of our actions, than to closely monitor the actions themselves? Noticing aftermath is easier and takes less thought than keeping an eagle eye on the moment.

Think about it, other than watching a child play near a busy road, how often do we pay such close attention to the action around us? When do we call it, in a precise moment: That’s well. We usually wait until a particular action has passed it’s zenith, then we attempt to put on some brakes. Although it’s often too late.

Yes, it’s easier to let our verbs crest, go past peak, and come cascading down onto our heads before we think to call a stop. At that point it’s not well anymore, and consequently, it’s no good.

I’m reading too much into a single word, I know. But in a world that prizes product over process, let’s all just stop and pay attention to our verbs, shall we? That’s well.


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