Marine Café Blog recently took the bold step of completely dropping the use of the term “seafarer” in favour of “seaman” or “seawoman”. Not many, I’m afraid, will follow suit. The International Maritime Organization has virtually buried the word “seaman” with the entire shipping industry only too happy to attend the funeral.

There are compelling reasons, though, to bring back the old terminology. Not the least is the question of exactitude, which I imagine should have great value in the technical world of shipping. As the Marine Café Blog post of 1st July 2011 pointed out:

The term “seafarer” is actually less accurate in describing somebody who works on board a ship. What it means is a person who regularly travels by sea — the term being a combination of two words, sea + farer (from the Old English faran, meaning “to journey or travel” ). Thus, certain ethnic groups are called “seafarers” such as the Orang Laut (sea people) of Malaysia and the Badjaos (men of the seas or sea gypsies) of the Sulu archipelago in the southern Philippines.

On the other hand, “seaman” denotes an experienced sailor or a person skilled in seamanship. The stress on seamanship has been preserved in US Navy and Coast Guard parlance, where “seaman” refers to a sailor with a rank below petty officer and above seaman apprentice. In fact, the nomenclature hasn’t really been pushed into oblivion: almost everyone still refers to the seafarer’s identification document as “seaman’s book”.

Just as important is the question of fairness. To call those who work on board merchant ships “seafarers” is to fail to distinguish them from the seafaring tribes of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. It is to disregard the fact that seamen spend many years trying to master the art of seamanship — how to navigate a vessel and operate the complex equipment on board, safely and efficiently. It is, in the final analysis, to somehow devalue the merchant marine profession.

Unfortunately, shipping has been engulfed by the linguistic tide. The same stream of bureaucratese and rhetoric has objectified seamen by referrring to them as the “human element” and given rise to the awkward expression “Day of the Seafarer”. Why not call it officially “Seamen’s Day” or, if one is really obsessed with trendiness, “Seafarers Day”? Imagine how silly it would sound if people said “Day of the Mother” or “International Day of the Woman”.

Time to put back sense and sensibility into our maritime language. ~Barista Uno

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