Q: With this recent cruise-ship accident off Italy, a friend and I are almost arguing over the word “capsize.” My friend insists the ship capsized, but I would say it tipped on its side. Can “capsize” refer to tipping over as well as turning upside down?
A: The Italian cruise liner Costa Concordia rolled on its side Jan. 13 after it ran aground off the rocky coast of Tuscany. But the ship didn’t turn upside down and it was only partially submerged.
Almost across the board, news organizations (including our old boss, the New York Times) said the ship had capsized. Were they right?
Not according to the maritime dictionaries we’ve consulted. To capsize, the dictionaries say, a ship must flip upside down. So while the reporting was thorough, the language wasn’t quite seaworthy.
In this case, it would have been more correct to say the ship grounded or ran aground on a reef and rolled on its side.
The Dictionary of Naval Terms (2005), by Deborah W. Cutler and Thomas J. Cutler, defines “capsize” this way: “To turn over; to upset; as when a boat ‘turns turtle’ (goes keel up).”
The same dictionary, published by the Naval Institute Press, defines “ground” this way: “To run a ship ashore; to strike the bottom. Usually a result of ignorance, violence, or accident.”
(Standard dictionaries says the verb “ground” in its nautical sense has the same meaning as the verbal phrase “run aground.”)
Another source, the Marine Affairs Dictionary (2004), by Niels West, says capsizing is “the complete overturning of a vessel by rolling as it lies parallel to the wavetrains.”
A book designed for litigation lawyers, Successful Personal Injury Investigation (2000), by Francis D. Ritter, has this in a section devoted to nautical terms:
“CAPSIZE: To overturn a vessel. Synonymous with the term to ‘keel over.’ A vessel that has capsized is known to be ‘keel up in the water.’ Capsizing is most often caused by storms.”
Finally, this definition of “capsize” is from The Sailor’s Illustrated Dictionary (2001), by Thompson Lenfestey with Capt.Thompson Lenfestey, Jr.:
“To turn over. Most commonly it means the inadvertent turning over of a boat. To capsize an oil drum is to turn it over, usually to gain access to the bung. To capsize a lifeboat would be to turn it over with the bottom up to prevent rain from getting in it.”
So much for the technical meaning of “capsize.” But what about ordinary usage?
Standard dictionaries, it turns out, are in the same boat as the more technical authorities.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, defines “capsize” as “to overturn or cause to overturn.”
And Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says it means “to cause to overturn … to become upset or overturned … turn over.”
(Both dictionaries, by the way, say “overturn” means “turn over.”)
In short, it’s pretty clear that the Italian cruise liner didn’t “capsize.”
We know that “capsize” was first recorded in the late 18th century but, unfortunately, its etymology is hidden in the past.
Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say about the word’s history: “Origin unknown; apparently originally a sailor’s expression. … The first element may possibly be cap [the noun].”
The OED does mention, without additional comment, a theory proposed by the philologist Walter W. Skeat:
“Prof. Skeat suggests corruption of Spanish cabezar ‘to nod, pitch as a ship,’ or of capuzar in ‘capuzar un baxel, to sink a ship by the head,’ [from] cabeza, cabo head.”
Without a heads up from the OED, we won’t let Professor Skeat have the last word here.
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