Derivation of dolphin (mooring)
September 16, 2008 6:24 AM   Subscribe

What is the derivation of the nautical term dolphin? Not the mammal please. A dolphin is a cluster of pile or a similar object, used for mooring vessels. If there is no answer could I be pointed in the right direction for information?
posted by uaimh to Writing & Language (8 answers total)
Probably arrived in English via German.
posted by flabdablet at 6:48 AM on September 16, 2008

The Dutch page is interesting too.
posted by flabdablet at 7:11 AM on September 16, 2008

The Free Dictionary says
[Middle English, from Old French daulfin, blend of daufin and Old Provençal dalfin, both from Medieval Latin *dalfinus, from Latin delphnus, from Greek delphs, delphn-, from delphus, womb (from its shape).]
posted by niles at 7:28 AM on September 16, 2008

Yeah, which derivation makes sense if we're talking about cetaceans. Not so much if we're talking about moorings. The English "dolphin" being a version of the German "Dalben" looks far more plausible to me.
posted by flabdablet at 9:15 AM on September 16, 2008

It may "look plausible" but that doesn't make it right. Every dictionary I have includes it under the main "dolphin" entry; the OED has:
6. Applied to various contrivances resembling or fancifully likened to a dolphin.

a. In early artillery, each of two handles cast solid on a cannon nearly over the trunnions, commonly made in the conventional form of a dolphin.

b. Naut. (a) A spar or block of wood with a ring bolt at each end for vessels to ride by; a mooring-buoy. (b) A mooring-post or bollard placed at the entrance of a dock or along a quay, wharf or beach, to make hawsers fast to. (c) A wreath of plaited cordage fastened about a mast or yard, to prevent the latter from falling in case of the ropes or chains which support it being shot away in action.
  1764 CROKER, etc. Dict. Arts & Sc., Dolphins of the Mast. 1833 MARRYAT P. Simple vi, What with dead-eyes, and shrouds, cats and catblocks, dolphins, and dolphin-strikers, I was so puzzled.. that [etc.]. 1840 Evid. Hull Docks Comm. 90 Q. What is a dolphin? A. There is a post in the middle, and it is inclosed round by other posts, and this post in the middle is the post to make the rope fast to, and the others support it; it is for the vessels to warp into the river Hull. 1844 Hull Dock Act 91 Substantial hawsers.. fixed to the dolphins. [...] 1867 SMYTH Sailor's Word-bk., Bollard.. also a lighter sort of dolphin for attaching vessels to. Ibid., Puddening.. a thick wreath of yarns, matting, or oakum (called a dolphin), tapering from the middle towards the ends.

c. Gr. Antiq. A heavy mass of lead, etc. suspended from a yard at the bows of a war-vessel, to be dropped into an enemy's ship when at close quarters.

d. ‘A technical term applied to the pipe and cover at a source for the supply of water’ (Weale Dict. Terms Arch. 1849-50).

e. Angling. A kind of hook.

f. (See quot.) U.S.
1905 Terms Forestry & Logging 35 Dolphin, a cluster of piles to which a boom is secured.
You can't arbitrarily separate out this sense from the other extended uses. It's possible the German word influenced this use or is even the source of it, but I assure you the etymologists at the OED and elsewhere are aware of its existence, and if they don't think this is a borrowing, I'll take their judgment over that of random guessers.
posted by languagehat at 10:21 AM on September 16, 2008

One of the reasons I asked is a derivation that I heard but cannot verify.
There were dolphin shaped cleats on wharfs in France for mooring. By transference the name was applied to all mooring devices. Over time the name only applied to what are currently called dolphins. I have no way to verify this as I am not a French speaker. The other derivations are about equally valid at lis time. But all of these are recent derivations. It seems that in seafaring societies that the meanig would be older.
posted by uaimh at 10:42 AM on September 16, 2008

Here's a pic of dolphins on a cannon. It might be worth investigating whether the term originally came from artillery, and was then applied to handles, cleats, or bolts on mooring posts.

BTW, the dates in the OED are from verifiable material- it doesn't mean that there wasn't a usage before that time; it just is the earliest form that can be cited.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:46 PM on September 16, 2008

Interesting that the first reference cited by the OED is from 1764, two centuries after the life of the Duc D'Albe whose name Wikipedia suggests is the root of Dukdalf in Dutch and Dalben in German.

I have no reason to doubt that the OED has the etymology of the English word "dolphin" right, but "resembling or fancifully likened to" strikes me as a bit thin in this context - especially given the existence of a very similar-sounding German word that means the same thing and isn't derived from the same root.

I guess the right way to test this idea would be to figure out where these things were invented. If the records show that they existed in Europe before England, and that they were known as Dalben and/or Dukdalf and/or Duque de Alba there before they first turned up in England, that would lend weight to the Dalben/dolphin connection.

Also, it seems to me there's a distinction to be made between a borrowing (as in "bifstek"), and the adoption of an existing word with a perfectly respectable existing etymology as a close approximation to a foreign one.

'hat, if you can track down a reputable etymologist who has actually written up some research into this issue, I'd very much enjoy reading their work.
posted by flabdablet at 7:21 PM on September 16, 2008

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