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A listener—Heather—asked me about yacht saying it was spelled strangely.
The Oxford English Dictionary agrees, saying:
“Owing to the presence in the Dutch word of the unfamiliar guttural spirant…the English spellings have been various and erratic; how far they represent varieties of pronunciation it is difficult to say.”
So I’ll guess that when the word first appeared in English it sounded something like “jaught.” [I actually try to pronounce this in the audio version of the podcast]
As the OED note says, it’s from Dutch. It represents an abbreviation of longer word jaghtschip.
Like many Germanic words this is a word made up of parts and the latter part means “ship.” So disassembling the combined word leaves us with a Dutch word meaning “hunt” or “chase.” The “ship” aspect of the word yacht remains implied even though it’s no longer there in the word.
So these kinds of ships were originally named because they were particularly fast.
Both Merriam-Webster and the OED say they were used for pirating, which fits with the “hunt” and “chase” theme.
But the Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea says the hunt/chase meaning was recreational saying
“the Dutch were the first to use commercial vessels for pleasure”
which seems unlikely to me.
The OED‘s first citation is under a definition reading:
“A light fast-sailing ship, in early use especially for the conveyance of royal or other important persons.”
So it’s up to us to wonder if the royal or important persons were sailing for pleasure, for speed and efficiency or just wanted a fast boat to avoid pirates.
That first citation is from 1557 and comes to us from a great navigator and map maker of the time.
Stephen Borough was involved in the effort to try and find a passage to Cathay but not via some mythical North-West Passage through or over North America.
Instead his trips tried to scoot north of Russia. But since at the time Englishmen didn’t know Russia was there some credit Borough with the QUOTE “discovery” of Moscovia.
This turned out to be quite a good discovery because the English set up a company to trade with Russia and the idea caught on later resulting in companies established to trade with India and North America which were even more lucrative.
Based on his good reputation Stephen Borough was sent by Queen Mary to Spain to study how the Spanish trained their sailors.
Mary was married to Philip, King of Spain so the fact was overlooked that it was at the time illegal for a foreigner to study maritime navigation in Spain. So overlooked that Borough got a diploma from the Spanish.
At the time it was customary instead of presenting a sheet of vellum to hang on the wall to present graduates like Borough with a pair of perfumed gloves.
So I guess he was a sweet hand at the tiller.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.