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HomeNL-2016-11 Painter

The Origin of the word "Painter"
October, 2016
by John Rich

In last month's newsletter I talked about the seemingly odd word "Gunwale" that we use in canoeing to describe the upper side edge of our boats.  And this month, I'll explain another one of those seemingly odd words, "painter", which is used as a term for bow and stern lines.
The dictionary contains two definitions for the word painter.  The first, of course, is "one that paints, as an artist, or one who applies paint especially as an occupation."
But those certainly have nothing at all to do with canoeing.  So how did the word "painter" come to be used for lines attached to boats?
The second dictionary definition for "painter" is: "a line used for securing or towing a boat".
The pronunciation of both of these versions of painter is exactly the same, so there is nothing to distinguish them in that aspect.
The story of how the nautical version of "painter" came to be begins in the mid-1300's with the Latin word "pendere", which means to hang something.  This word led to other closely related words such as "pendant", for a piece of jewelry hanging on a chain around the neck, and "pendulum" for the weighted rod which hangs under a clock and swings back and forth to regulate the movement of the mechanism.

Pendant   Pendulum
When sailing ships needed a way to hang their anchor over the side of a boat, they used a sturdy rope for that.  So it was logical to call that rope a pendere, as it served the purpose of hanging something - the anchor, very similar to a pendant or a pendulum.

Anchor Painters        
The French changed the Latin word pendere into "peintour" to suit their own language.  And the English changed the French word peintour into "paynter".  Finally, along came the Americans, and changed the word paynter into "painter".
From there, a painter was also applied to a rope on the bow of a ship used for towing, or securing the boat to a dock.  And finally, when ropes were attached to the bow and stern of canoes, the word painter carried forward for that.  Canoe painters are still used today for securing boats to the shore so they don't float away, and also for "lining" - steering the boat through rapids and around rocks by manipulating the painters while standing safely on the shoreline.
 Canoe Painters
So when you use the word "painters" for your canoe's bow and stern lines, you are using a word which has evolved through 700 years, from the Roman Empire in Europe, through France and England, and finally to America!
And somewhere along the way, to confuse things further, "painter" also became an alternative name in the southern United States for a mountain lion...

The author, John Rich