Semantics…it’ll git ya everytime!

Semantics: 1. The study of language meaning. 2. The meaning of a word, phrase, sentence, or text.

This is a boat:

This is a ship:

In simple terms, a ship is big. A boat is not. Even large yachts are still boats. In the navy they are mostly ships. The exceptions being PT boats, used for close shore operations, Navy tugs, and submarines. Though immense in size, the Navy always refers to submarines as boats.

My parents lost this ship/boat distinction many years ago. I was a Junior Officer aboard the ship USS Randolph, pictured above. In fact, I am in this photo as I was aboard on the date this picture was taken, somewhere off Norway in the North Sea.

It was customary back then for officers or enlisted to invite guests aboard for a meal when the ship was in port. In keeping with this tradition, I once invited my parents to have dinner with me and the other officers in the wardroom. It’s a special occasion as we recognize guests before the meal begins. But first, some background.

My dad died when I was in college. My mother remarried. After she married my stepfather, they bought a small cabin cruiser. Though they lived in New Jersey they would occasionally cruise down the inland waterway to Florida.  On this occasion, we were in our home port at the time they arrived in the Norfolk, Virginia area. We planned to meet for the dinner. They berthed in a marina in Portsmouth, VA, which is a twenty-minute drive from where my ship moored.

When we connected by phone, they said let’s meet at 5:30 on the boat. Dinner aboard my ship is at 6:00. Being well versed in nautical terminology as I was, it meant meeting on their boat, not my ship. Also, being an officer and a gentleman, I arrived at their boat right on time. No parents. I looked all around the marina. Still no parents. I called the ship. Sure enough, the Officer of the Deck told me they were aboard my ship and looking for me. I rushed back to the ship. I will never forget the comment made by the Officer of the Deck, a friend, upon my arrival. “What a bum you turned out to be”, chortling and enjoying every delicious moment of my embarrassment.

The worst part of it was the dinner was held up for everybody until I arrived. The Executive Officer glared at me without uttering a word. Thankfully, the Captain was ashore. I sheepishly introduced my parents to all at the dinner table and apologized. The conversation soon veered to the erstwhile miscommunications and everyone had a good laugh, except me.

This is me at my court-martial under Naval Regulation 26.16, that is, “failure to receive naval guests in the prescribed manner and, in general, being a dumbass.”

Do you have any miscommunication stories to share?


29 thoughts on “Semantics…it’ll git ya everytime!

  1. Oh dear! What a great story! I’m glad it worked out in the end though and you had a dinner with your parents, despite the embarrassment.
    Also, what a great custom, to be able to invite guests onto the ship!
    I would love to see a big military ship one day.

    Hope you have a lovely day!

  2. Lovely story, Al. I chuckled. Ohh, the things we think we’ve heard and understood! You look grand in your photo. Hugs and much love for you both, my Bro. Xxx 😘 💗

  3. I’ll never confuse a ship and a boat again, that’s for sure!
    My husband and I often get our messages crossed! Neither of us hear as well as we once did, and my husband has a low ‘crackly’ voice. Add a dollop of inattention on both our parts, and we easily sound like we are doing a ‘Whose on first’ routine!

    • Funny, Faye. I’m hearing impaired and sometimes what I hear and what someone said are miles apart. My granddaughters laugh their heads off when I repeat something I heard them say and it’s so wrong. It’s kind of a sweet joke between us now.

  4. Oh Lordy – what a great story!!! Now. Not so much then, I imagine. And, thank you for your service.

    I am forever calling the vessel I travel in while cruising a “boat,” but we all know, it’s a ship. A cruise SHIP. No one calls it a cruise BOAT. No one. And, being here along the Mississippi River I have to remember to call the barge haulers tow boats, not tug boats. Apparently there is a major difference in those 2 types of vessels as well. Who knew? They’re all boats to me.

    Thanks for sharing your story. I love it!!

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

  5. Great blog! Really points out the trouble there can be in a simple communication. BTW, I love your court martial photo. It looks just like your sixth grade class photo.

  6. Al, I loved this story especially as my Dad was a Navy guy in World War II and he was on a ship (not a boat)—the USS Chourree.

    I also understand about words and semantics – One of my first months on my job at Cobb County Government, my boss walked into the office and said he cancelled the lunch meeting for next week with Mr. ABC. The next week around 9 AM he said to me “Now you did cancel the meeting with Mr. ABC?” and I looked at him and said in a panicked stunned voice “No, you said you cancelled it” and then it dawned on me that what he really said was “I don’t want to go to that lunch so you call and cancel it.”

    So, we cleared that up and he did agree to go to the lunch and I learned in the future to make certain I understood what he was really saying not just what the words sounded like. (and PS….I also posted my story tonight but ignore the text/story in the WordPress email…I found an error so read from the webpage and yes, things are going really well for me! Online Dating Part Four – The Benefits of Seeing Others with an Open Heart)


    • Very interesting about your Dad. I read up on that ship. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chouree and the Randolph met up for aviation repairs sometime during the war.

      Funny about you and your boss. It happens all the time. One of my favorite quotes follows:
      “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” Attributed to Robert McCloskey, U.S. State Department spokesman.

      Have a great day, Janet!

  7. Oh dear ! So who ended up as BWO (Bilge Watch Officer) for the next week, Al ? lol. i have just read about your Carrier. She had a long career, didn’t she ?
    It’s funny that just before I read your post, Snowflakes are at it again, about not calling ships “she” or “her”. Duh !

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Ralph. Yes, Randolph had a storied career. I enjoyed my two years service aboard HER!

      I loved Admiral West’s quote about the latest snowflake cave in. Now that it’s summer, do you think all the snowflakes will melt? One can only hope.

Your turn to write, but please don't be wittier than me. My ego is quite fragile.

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