'I was watching yesterday's episode of Jeopardy!,' she began. 'One of the answers puzzled me.'
It claimed that the answer was: 'The lookout platform named for the bird that would be released to find the nearest land in bad weather.'
Obviously, as Cindy went on, the question was 'crow's nest' -- but is the answer right? 'I've not heard of ships carrying crows for this purpose before,' she confessed.
Well, neither had I -- and it electrified the discussion list, too. Really, the mental image of a seaman clambering the rigging with a crow gripped in one hand, and then releasing the poor creature to flap off to the nearest shore, is pretty ridiculous. So where did it come from?
Our folklorist, Morgy, also saw the program, and was equally mystified. 'Could we be dealing with another one of those wonderful widely disseminated "origin stories" that have come so popular since the inception of photocopiers and the internet?' she asks.
'This sounds like a natural conflation of two different episodes in nautical history,' says Nicholas Blake (who gave references). 'The crow's nest in the modern sense of lookout position high in the mast was invented by Scoresby senior in 1807. Scoresby junior, who describes its invention, doesn't mention why it got its name, but it's not unreasonable to infer it was from its similarity to a crow's nest. The Vikings were said to carry crows, but they didn't have a platform to launch them from.'
'Aha,' says Marc James Small. Wikipedia (as is often the case) could be to blame. 'The Wikipedia entry for crow's nest cites a US Navy pamphlet from a decade or so back --- andgives a hot link to this pamphlet -- which accepts the releasing of crows as the origin of
Alexandre Monteiro tells us even more: 'Two crows, perched at both the stern and bow of a ship symbolize the city of Lisbon since 1173. It was in that year that the body of Saint Vincent was brought here... On a ship guided by crows.'
My own two cents worth is simply that the original crow's nest designed by Scoresby had some kind of protection -- like a canvas wrapped around hoops -- to shield the lookout in Arctic regions. (Yankee whalemen stood in the open hoops.)
But why he called it a crow's nest, I do not have a notion.