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shameless pleading

Nuns and Cans

But nobody mentioned the eels.

Dear Word Detective: I recently had to give a presentation on basic navigation to a sailing class, and I was suddenly struck by the names for the channel-markers. I never had noticed them before, but for some reason the more I thought about them the weirder they got.  Green markers are round and called “cans,” which has some measure of reason to it, I suppose.  Red markers are triangular and called “nuns.” Everyone I have asked has been baffled, and numerous books on seamanship have proved useless. A crew of puzzled salts would appreciate your wisdom. — Hannah Upchurch.

Hey, “red, right, return,” am I right? When I was just a wee lad, my parents insisted I take seamanship (as it was then called) classes before being allowed to pilot my little sailboat out onto Long Island Sound alone. That particular mnemonic phrase, meaning to keep the red channel markers to starboard when entering a harbor, is virtually the only thing I remember from those courses.

I had heard channel markers called “cans” before (many of them look like oil drums), but “nuns” is a new one on me. There are, it turns out, two “nuns” in the English language. One is by far the most common, meaning a female member of a religious order, particularly in the Christian church. This “nun” is rooted in the post-Classical Latin “nonna,” which originally was a child’s term of reverence and affection for an older woman, and may be related to “nanny” and “nana.” This sense of “nun” has a number of extended uses, e.g., in the names of birds, moths, shells, etc., that are considered in some respect to resemble the “habit,” or vestments, of a nun.

The other “nun” in English is “nun” meaning “a child’s spinning top,” a use that first appeared in the 16th century, and this is where things start to get strange. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) also lists the term “nun buoy,” first appearing in the early 18th century, and defines it as “A buoy which is circular in the middle and tapering to each end,” which seems to fit the “nun” channel markers in your question. The OED traces the “nun” in “nun buoy” to “nun” in the sense of “child’s top” (which such buoys do resemble) but then declares the logic of that “spinning top” use of “nun” to be a mystery, pointing vaguely in the direction of the religious “nun.”

The simplest explanation of “nun” meaning “top” is that a spinning top might be said to resemble the triangular shape of a nun’s habit, and that may well be the answer to your question about “nun buoys” as well. But there is another intriguing possibility.

The “dreidel” is a four-sided spinning top that is used in Jewish children’s games, especially during the holiday of Hanukkah. Dreidels have also historically been used in adult games of chance. The four sides of the dreidel are marked with letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which are said to stand for words spelling inspirational sayings (usually “A great miracle happened there,” referring to one day’s supply of oil that burned for eight days in the temple in Jerusalem) or bearing other religious significance. In dreidel games, whichever letter is pointing up after a player spins the dreidel decides whether the player wins the whole pot, half the pot, nothing, or owes the pot. The Hebrew letters on the dreidel are “nun,” “gimel,” “he” and “shin.” Given that the dreidel is a very ancient toy, it seems reasonable to wonder if “nun” as a term for a child’s spinning top might have come from that first Hebrew letter on the dreidel, “nun.”

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