Slightly Embarrassing Lesson in Maritime English

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[fusion_text]stcwWhile teaching Maritime English to a class of U.A.E. Nationals earlier this month I had an interesting challenge. I was covering Rule 36 of the International Rules of the Road. Rule 36 makes it very clear that we are not to embarrass any vessel. It reads as follows:

COLREGS Rule 36 — Signals to Attract AttentionIf necessary to attract the attention of another vessel, any vessel may make light or sound signals that cannot be mistaken for any signal authorized elsewhere in these Rules, or may direct the beam of her searchlight in the direction of the danger, in such a way as not to embarrass any vessel.

Being a Maritime English class the legitimate question came up; “What does the word embarrass mean?”   Not being fully prepared to satisfactorily describe what a vessel would be embarrassed about, I thought it best to go for an example of the word itself.

Sometimes quotes are a good way to exemplify a word and a quick web search offered up the following:

-If a man’s from Texas, he’ll tell you. If he’s not, why embarrass him by asking? — John Gunther.


-Titles distinguish the mediocre, embarrass the superior, and are disgraced by the inferior. — George Bernard Shaw.

And finally:

-I have been complimented many times and they always embarrass me; I always feel that they have not said enough. –Mark Twain

However amusing, these quotes only seemed to muddle the topic and didn’t really lend any clarity to a situation at night, where we suddenly direct our spot light on a vessel only to catch them in an embarrassing act of some type.   So I sent the class out for a coffee break to give me some time to think.

I consulted the handbook of the Nautical Rules of the Road, which is considered a favorite reference of many mariners who study the Rules. The authors offered the following commentary on Rule 36 “If you want to warn another vessel about danger, if you have a searchlight, and it is dark, then you can direct your beam toward the dangerous area, being careful not to shine your light in others’ faces (or you will embarrass them, not to mention making it difficult for them to see anything but spots)”.

This brought to mind the lyrics from an old Harry Belafonte song “it was clear as mud but it covered the ground, And the confusion made the brain go ‘round…”-The students filed in one by one from their break. We discussed the general intent of the rule, which is not as hard to understand, and I left it at that.

After class let out and I had time to research this properly I discovered that the word embarrass has four quite different meanings.   Webster’s Dictionary describes the word as follows:


[em-bar-uh s]

verb (used with object)

1. to cause confusion and shame to; make uncomfortably self-conscious; disconcert; abash:

2. to make difficult or intricate, as a question or problem; complicate.

3. to put obstacles or difficulties in the way of; impede:

4. to beset with financial difficulties; burden with debt:

Embarrass is also a medical term found in the American Heritage Medical Dictionary:


  1. To interfere with or impede (a bodily function or part).

I didn’t think that interference with the function of a bodily part had anything to do with how the rule was written but never the less I felt I was getting closer. Still a little hazy to the use of the word embarrass in rule 36 I consulted the English Language Web Site. The site did have the etymology and somewhat of an explanation for the word’s current meaning:

The words embarrassed, embarrasser, and embarazar are most likely all derived from the Portuguese “embaraçado” (to be self-conscious or ashamed).

“Embaraçado” has its etymological origin in the phrase “em baraço”. “Em” meaning “in” and “baraço” meaning noose (“baraço” could be derived either from the Arabic word “marass”, meaning “rope”, or the celtic “barr”, meaning “threads”, “tuft” or “knot”).

During the medieval and early modern periods, a punishment could be imposed by either the civil authority or the inquisition whereby the accused was condemned to wear a noose around their neck while in any public setting. It was required to be clearly visible and could not be removed in any circumstances. The punishment could be imposed for a period of days, months, years, or even decades.

The forced act of wearing a very visible and public sign of one’s crimes or sins resulted in the phrase’s acquired meaning of shame, self-consciousness, social discomfort, etc.

Although the evolution of the word’s use in Spanish and French clearly influenced the English usage in later centuries, modern English would seem to have regained the original, medieval, origin of the expression.

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