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Landlubber

Lubber is an old word (dating from the 14th century) meaning a clumsy or stupid person.1 This is its sense in the sailing term landlubber, which refers to an unseasoned sailor. The word alludes to what veteran sailors regard as new sailors’ distinctive ineptitude at sea. See this passage from Herman Melville’s Omoo (1846):  

Now, nobody is so heartily despised as a pusillanimous, lazy, good-for-nothing land-lubber; a sailor has no bowels of compassion for him. Yet, useless as such a character may be in many respects, a ship’s company is by no means disposed to let him reap any benefit from his deficiencies. Regarded in the light of a mechanical power, whenever there is any plain, hard work to be done, he is put to it like a lever; everyone giving him a pry.

Although landlubber was originally contemptuous, it’s now often used more generally to describe anyone who is unfamiliar with sailing or who simply lives on land. It is usually a single unhyphenated word, though it’s sometimes written land-lubber (as Melville wrote it).

The malapropism land lover makes logical sense in some instances, but writers sometimes use it where they obviously mean landlubber—for example:

Contrary to the land-lover’s view that black cats are bad luck, sailors treasure these felines. [iol]

Avast me maties and land lovers, I spot a sequel off the port bow! [Cinema Blend]

Examples


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Here are a few examples of landlubber used in its traditional, contemptuous sense:

[T]he comedic possibilities of a landlubber navy chief were too potent for Gilbert to resist. [Wall Street Journal]

Members enjoyed a Fourth of July weekend packed with activities for sailors and landlubbers alike. [Shore News Today]

I’m at the Harbor Bar (that’s Pillar Point Harbor to you, landlubber), taking a rest-stop from a short camping trip. [San Diego Reader]

And in these cases, the term is not contemptuous, instead meaning, simply, one who lives on land or one who prefers land:

And when he needs a break, he can visit his landlubber sister in Newport. [Hobson Bay-Leader]

“Jaws” made me a landlubber. I think about that movie every time I am in the ocean. [Fodors]

Watching outrageously costumed boat crews topple over or slowly sink into St. George Sound is, of course, part of the fun anticipated by the regatta’s landlubber attendees. [Apalachicola Times]

Sources

1. Lubber in the OED (subscription required)

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Comments

  1. “It’s” is missing an apostrophe in the definition. I suggest someone fix that.

  2. Isn’t is 14th Century? I thought Century would be capitalized in that use.

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