The expression ‘the docks’ re-examined
Glasgow Docks, oil painting (1886+) by English Victorian-era artist John Atkinson Grimshaw
Courtesy of Sotheby’s via Wikimedia Commons
British English has a certain flavour that can make it quite pleasant to hear. The plural noun “docks”, for example, means the man-made structures for the mooring and loading/unloading of boats and ships. But when Brits say “I’m going down to the docks,” they refer to the area of water where the docks (quay walls, piers or wharves) are located and the offices and warehouses around them. John Atkinson Grimshaw’s painting (pictured above) illustrates the point.
Interestingly, Filipinos, who speak English of the American variety, never use “docks” as a noun. Instead, one will hear local maritime journalists, port officials and ordinary folks say “the port area” or “Pier 4” if they want to be more specific. How stodgy and colourless!
Men of the Docks, 1912
George Bellows (American, 1882–1925)
Oil on canvas
Courtesy of the National Gallery, London via Wikimedia Commons
Some examples of the use of ‘docks’
A striking lattice-work tower has sprung up at Leith docks in Edinburgh as a pioneering energy storage demonstration project gets off the ground. — Ilona Amos, The Scotsman, 11 March 2021
Once the capital’s lifeblood, London’s docks have long since faded to little more than a garnish of maritime nostalgia on riverside real estate. — Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian, 15 September 2015
Going down to the docks, I met our wooden first mate, with his partner, the second mate. — Philip D. Heywood, An Ocean Tramp (1888)
In the time before steamships, or then more frequently than now, a stroller along the docks of any considerable sea-port would occasionally have his attention arrested by a group of bronzed mariners, man-of-war’s men or merchant-sailors in holiday attire ashore on liberty. — Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative) (1891)
I was not, as a matter of fact, down at the docks to “look for a berth,” an occupation as engrossing as gambling, and as little favorable to the free exchange of ideas, besides being destructive of the kindly temper needed for casual intercourse with one’s fellow-creatures. — Joseph Conrad, The Mirror of the Sea (1906)