The boat that ain't sayin' nothin'

« previous post | next post »

Speeding east out of the Amsterdam area along dead straight train tracks beside a broad canal, I saw a huge cargo barge loaded up with giant shipping containers. It had several of the crew's automobiles parked on an upper deck. As the train whizzed past it and I could see the name on the bow, I saw that it was called the Omerta. Omertà? The brutal Sicilian mafia's fiercely enforced code of silence? I really wanted to hop off the train and ask the captain what on earth had led to the boat being thus named. But perhaps he would have turned out to be a Sicilian with an illicit cargo and would have refused to talk to me about it…

The train sped on toward Utrecht and Nijmegen, leaving me wondering if omerta could possibly be a word in some other language as well, with a perfectly innocent meaning — a girl's name in Dutch, say ("I'd like you to meet my fiancée, Omerta Knooihuizen").

Pairs of distinct words that are written identically are called homographs, and you get them within languages as well as across languages. One surprising homographic pair in English shares the spelling agape. It's the spelling for both the Anglo-Saxon word meaning "with mouth hanging open" and the Greek word for Christian brotherly love (often written agapē, with a macron over the e, to distinguish it). They sound very different (‘uh-gape’ versus ‘agga-pay’), but from the common spelling without the macron you might never know it.


  1. Morten Jonsson said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 9:52 am

    I saw a Garda van in front of my bank in Ohio the other day. I wondered what in the world could have happened for the Irish police to be called in.

    That's not really a homograph, though, since the names of both the security company and the Garda Síochána come from the same word.

  2. Irina said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 9:54 am

    "wondering if omerta could possibly be a word in some other language as well, with a perfectly innocent meaning — a girl's name in Dutch, say ("I'd like you to meet my fiancée, Omerta Knooihuizen")"

    Definitely not! (but I love "Knoolhuizen") It's probably an obscure word or name in some Slavic language.

    I once took a picture of a sea container with a picture of an alligator and the letters MOL, which is Dutch for "mole"– that is so not a mole.

  3. bianca steele said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 10:53 am

    Maybe the shipowner was an emigre from the former USSR who had run afoul of the foul play of the Russian mafia, and it was an ironic comment on glasnost'.

  4. Dan T. said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    The trucking line "Yellow" uses a logo that's actually colored orange… that produces some cognitive dissonance.

  5. Irina said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 11:10 am

    Our gas company's home service recently changed its name from Agas to Geas, making me blog immediately about Central Heating of DOOM!

  6. Emma Smith said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 11:33 am

    'Agape' isn't Anglo-Saxon, or at least neither in Old English nor derived from words present in that language. It's from that woefully underpraised 2% we thieved from the Danes. I suppose we could count them as Anglo-Saxons, but I'm sure they wouldn't have appreciated it.

  7. patricia said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 11:54 am

    I like the GOD trucks (Guaranteed Overnight Delivery).

  8. Theophylact said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 12:10 pm

    Oh, so many. "Pain" and "grue" in French, "dice" in Italian, "rot" in German…

  9. Eugene van der Pijll said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

    You never know what parents will think of next as names, but I didn't recognize "Omerta" as a Dutch first name either. So initially, I thought you misread the name, though it's hard to say what the correct name would be.

    But some googleing suggests that you're right: There really is a boat called Omerta. That's on the blog of a boat spotter. I didn't know they existed…

  10. Merri said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

    Among the best bilinguial pairs I know is "autiste", i. e. :
    – French for "autistic"
    – Italian for "drivers"
    So, so true …

    Another strange case : Dutch "hier en nu" (here and now), a classical newspaper column name, is French for "yesterday in a naked way", which has surprised more than one person.

  11. Bob O'H said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

    Sorry for lowering the tone, but "fart" (=travel) is an easily spotted homograph in Danish, for example. As indeed is gods (=goods). Hence, my amusement over the lift at the place I worked in with the label "godsfart".

    A Danish bookshop is called a boghandel, too.

  12. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

    In Norwegian "hell" means prosperity or success. The railway station in town of Hell (on the E75 east of Trondheim) has (or used to have) a sign over the freight office that said "Godsexpedition" (gods is another homograph). Someone always painted in an apostrophe so that tourists could have their picture taken in front of God's Expedition to Hell.


  13. Nathan Myers said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    This is off-topic, but I for one am glad to see my LL subscription money going to help pay to send Prof. Pullum on a pleasant trip, and I look forward to each attentive observation. I would gladly double or triple my contribution to enable more such travel.

    On the topic of off-topicism, we seem to be shading into translingual wordplay, so I wish it noted that "beach bum" and Indonesian "pantut pantai" have the same literal meaning.

  14. Mark Liberman said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

    Returning to Omertà, there seems to be some uncertainty about its etymology in Italian. The Wikipedia entry sez:

    The origin of the word is often traced to the Spanish word hombredad, meaning manliness, through the Sicilian word omu for man. According to a different theory, the word comes from Latin humilitas (humility), which became umirtà and then finally omertà in some southern Italian dialects.

    with a footnote

    However, the theory that omertà originates from umiltà was already discarded by the first Antimafia Commission of the Italian parliament in the 1970s, which traces the origin to omu. See: (Italian) Relazione conclusiva, Commissione parlamentare d’inchiesta sul fenomeno della mafia in Sicilia, Rome 1976, p. 106

    But I don't know how reliable the etymological research of the Italian parliament is. The American Heritage Dictionary continues to speculate in the other direction:

    Italian omertà, perhaps from dialectal alteration of umiltà, humility, modesty, from Latin humilitas.

    The OED's etymology is:

    < Italian omertà (1871), further origin uncertain and disputed.
    The Italian word is probably not of Sicilian origin, as shown by its phonology (unstressed e and o do not normally occur in Sicilian dialects). Most scholars interpret it as an alteration of Spanish hombredad manliness (13th cent., now rare; < hombre man (see HOMBRE n.) + -edad -ITY suffix) after Italian regional (Sicily) omu man (see HOMO n.1). The alternative explanation as a regional variant (compare Italian regional (Naples) umertà) of Italian umiltà HUMILITY n. (with allusion to the Mafia code which enjoins submission of the group to the leader as well as silence on all Mafia concerns) is not well supported by the geographical distribution of the word.

    Meanwhile, there must be some other language in the world in which something plausibly spelled or transliterated as "Omerta" means something other than "the categorical prohibition of cooperation with state authorities", etc.

  15. Bob Ladd said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

    And returning to homographs (but staying in Italy), if you drive into an Italian port or small airport you may well see a sign with an arrow and the word MERCI. They're not thanking you – MERCI is Italian for "goods" or "freight".

  16. mark said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 6:53 pm

    If you try to pronounce "Sean Connery" in french it sounds like "no bullshit".


  17. Tom Recht said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 10:03 pm

    If we're on the subject of cross-linguistic homonyms, I've always been amused by the following chain of English-Hebrew pronominal homophones:
    English me [mi] : Hebrew [mi] who
    English who [hu] : Hebrew [hu] he
    English he [hi] : Hebrew [hi] she

  18. Hans said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 7:01 am

    I'm not sure that "omertà" needs to be a homograph of something else to be used as the name of a boat. There are cafés called "Vendetta" (e.g. or google "Café Vendetta"), so why not boats called "Omertà"?
    Another homograph: "gut" ("good" in German).

  19. Martyn Cornell said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 8:27 am

    A Danish bookshop is called a boghandel, too.

    It may need explaining to American readers that "bog" is extremely lower-class British slang for "lavatory", "toilet" or "WC".

  20. Mark Liberman said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 8:33 am

    Hans: There are cafés called "Vendetta", so why not boats called "Omertà"?

    There are also several establishments named "Opium Café" (e.g.
    here and here), but I don't expect to see the U.S.S. Heroin joining the American navy any time soon, or the Motor Tanker Crystal Meth added to Exxon's fleet.

    However, I can't let the occasion pass without mentioning the spaceship names in Iain M. Banks' "Culture" novels. My favorites include the GCU (General Contact Unit) Prosthetic Conscience, the GSV (General Systems Vehicle) So Much for Subtlety, the GCU Problem Child, the Psychopath-class ROU (Rapid Offensive Unit) Frank Exchange of Views, and of course the GCU Very Little Gravitas Indeed.

  21. rpsms said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 11:19 am

    My all-time favorite homophonic trucking company name is "A. Duie Pyle"

  22. Invigilator said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 11:52 am

    In line with the Gods mentioned above, "Bog" is the word for God in quite a number of Slavic languages.

    Also, I've been amused since I was a schoolboy by the combined German-English puns "Himmelfahrt [der Jungfrau Maria]" and "[Elijah the] Tishbite."

  23. Windthorst said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 1:01 pm

    Can anyone verify that omertà has, for Sicilians, the same narrow and pejorative connotations that Puzo-reading English speakers associate with it? My understanding is that while it literally means "manliness," it's used to describe something more like "honor" — and therefore might be subject to the same cross-cultural misunderstandings as "jihad." Could it be a perfectly sensible name?

  24. Mark Liberman said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

    @Windhorst: Apparently omertà itself isn't a word in Sicilian, and can't be because of the lack of unstressed /o/ and /e/ in that language. All the Italian sources that I've been able to find seem to agree on a meaning associated with non-cooperation with the authorities, e.g. this one"

    omertà (legge del silenzio)

    Parola di origine incerta, conosciuta già dal 1800; la teoria più convincente la fa risalire alla parola latina HUMILITAS (umiltà) che, con gli attesi passaggi, diventa in Siciliano umirtà. Oggi viene usata comunemente per definire l'ostinatezza al silenzio, anche per ambiti non strettamente mafiosi. Molto usato in italiano anche l'aggettivo derivato "omertoso".

    Similarly here, and a forum discussion here.

    It doesn't seem to have a neutral or positive use, e.g. as a word simply meaning "honor" or "reticence" or something of the sort, independent of something approximating a criminal context. Thus one of the native Italian speakers in the cited forum says that the word "suggest(s) culpable submissive silence due to fear, connivance, if not belonging to the organized crime", and another says "Not a nice trait, in fact if you support it, that means you are sympathizing with crime and criminals".

  25. bianca steele said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

    Huh. How did I get the idea it literally meant "closedness"? It might have been from the back cover flap of a posthumous Puzo novel. Some of the sources Mark cites describe it literally as what I've heard called, wrt certain neighborhoods (not necessarily mob-related), a "code of silence": the idea that police, press and all authorities are the enemy. That's not what I thought it meant either. The lovely (not) "stop snitching" movement doesn't seem exactly the same either — more a positive support for others in the community, even if they've been involved in crimes, than a negative hatred of the police.

  26. dr pepper said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

    Hmm. I once read that "omerta" was from something like "a morta", ie "to the death", showing how far the secrets will be kept.

  27. bill lee said,

    January 27, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

    Web page (in Dutch / Nederlandse) for the Omerta


    Omerta , 108,50 x 11,40 x 3,52 , 3012 ton , Bouwjaar 1985 Werf Ebert & Sohne in Neckarsteinach , 1200 pk MAN en 320 pk kopschroef , Ex Fighter , Freienstein , europanummer 2326796

  28. Wells Hansen said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 7:35 am


    The meaning of the form has not changed much from Latin to Italian to English.

  29. Maarten Dinkla said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 7:45 am

    I don't know if this happens in other languages too, but Dutch names of boats (or should I say ships?) are often constructed out of the first two or three letters of the first names of members of the owner's family (for example: Jantien, Marie and Harry could have a boat called Jamaha).

  30. Ken Brown said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

    Mark Liberman said: "… I can't let the occasion pass without mentioning the spaceship names in Iain M. Banks' "Culture" novels…".

    It is a thing universally acknowledged – universally among hardcore old SF fans anyway – that the habit of giving fictional star ships such names was probably started by M John Harrison in his novel "The Centauri Device", where he used names referring to 19th or early 20th century decadent artists and anarchists (such as "Atalanta in Calydon" and "Green Carnation")

    Other writers as well as Iain Banks have joined the game, including Alistair Reynolds and Ken MacLeod (who, like Banks, acknowledge that they got the idea from Harrison)

    Its a fixture of liberatarian space opera :-)

  31. Neil Dolinger said,

    January 29, 2009 @ 10:30 pm

    @Maarten Dinkla said,

    "Dutch names of boats (or should I say ships?) are often constructed out of the first two or three letters of the first names of members of the owner's family (for example: Jantien, Marie and Harry could have a boat called Jamaha)."

    So then we'd have a boat whose name made it sound like it was a motorcycle!

  32. Maarten Dinkla said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 10:54 am

    @ Neil:

    Quite :-). The point being that 'Omerta' might just have been a coincidental combination of syllables. Then again, I have to admit I'd be hard-pressed to find the three Dutch first names that would combine into 'Omerta'.

  33. bianca steele said,

    January 30, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

    Do Danish "godag" and Australian "g'day" count as homographs, or must they necessarily have different meanings?

  34. mollymooly said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

    Swedish "från och med [date]" meaning "from and including [date/time]" is generally abbreviated "fr.o.m. [date]", which I can be forgiven for pronouncing as English in my head.

  35. Thoeger said,

    January 22, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

    Bianca Steele;

    G'Day actually means Good Day. The danish expression is a truncation of "god dag" which is pronounce almost exactly the same and means the exact same things, so I'd not call them homonymes, pretty much the opposite: Different spelling, same meaning and pronunciation :-)

RSS feed for comments on this post