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Longshoremen's Docktionary: Their Lingo Is Anchored in Past


"Hey, tell the wharfinger the gang is hard-timing us and we've got nothing to dray."

The trouble at West Coast ports has thrown a spotlight on the colorful language of the docks, spiced with words that date back to the Middle Ages. Here's a sampling:

* Drayage: noun. The hauling of goods, usually for short distances, by truck. From "dray," a strong, low cart without sides, for carrying heavy loads. "The drayage company hauls the containers to Ontario instead of putting them on the rail cars at the dock."

* Gang: noun. A work crew of stevedores. "Two gangs were dispatched to unload that ship." The term had been used to refer to a set of things. It was extended to people in a nautical setting in 17th century Britain, likely from the earlier word "ging."

* Hard-timing: verb. Carrying out a work slowdown, as in "The longshoremen are hard-timing the shipping lines."

* Longshoreman: noun. Someone employed along the shore. From the days when most dockworkers were day laborers and recruited at the last minute by shore-side criers calling, "Men along the shore!"

* Stevedore: noun, verb. A worker employed as an overseer or laborer in loading and unloading ship cargo; the act of unloading the cargo. Used as a verb in the sentence, "The gang is going to stevedore that ship." From the Spanish estivador, taken from estivar, "to stow"; earlier, in 13th century Latin document, written as Stivator. In 1788 Massachusetts, written as "stowadores."

* Wharfinger: noun. An owner, keeper or overseer at a wharf or dock. From a British term of the 1550s, earlier written as "wharfager."

Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Webster's New World Dictionary, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang

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