A Sea of Words


A Lexicon and Companion for Patrick O’Brian’s Seafaring Tales


I wrote A Sea of Words in 1994 after reading the sixteen Aubrey-Maturin books available at that time. Like many O’Brian readers, I had discovered these books in Richard Snow’s watershed review on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. I clipped the review and put it in a file for a rainy day. When the small publisher I worked for suddenly went belly up two years later, that rainy day arrived, proving

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once again that setback is often the door to great opportunity. With time on my hands, I read the series in four euphoric–at least, from a literary standpoint–months. The plot, the humor, and the erudition of O’Brian’s roman fleuve was stunning. From a life of reading, I quickly realized how important this series was and how much future readers would need a reference work. Make no mistake, you can read these novels without ever cracking a dictionary, encyclopedia, or atlas. In fact, the first time through, I did just that. But as I read, I realized

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that I could get a lot more from these books if I knew more. So I enlisted two towering scholars in rarefied fields, John Hattendorf, a professor of maritime history at the Naval War College, in Newport, Rhode Island, and an expert in naval history during the age of sail, and Worth Estes, a pharmacology professor at Boston University, who was an expert in medicine of the period. A friend of mine helped me get access to the New York Yacht Club Library, where I was able to make use of Falconer’s Dictionary and the complete bound Naval War Chronicle, the service journal of the day. Those were thrilling days, combing through works two centuries old in the club’s

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In addition to essays by Hattendorf on Naval Warfare in the age of sail and by Estes on Naval medicine during the Napoleonic wars, A Sea of Words is filled with alphabetical entries on everything from the parts of a square-rigger, to the number of salutes to be fired on the King’s birthday and brief biographies of Cochrane, Pellew, and, of course, Nelson. There are also many period pictures of ships, ships’ boats, naval battles, and of the birds that Stephen Maturin

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Since its publication in 1995, I have updated A Sea of Words twice to reflect O’Brian’s additions to the series. The book is now complete. It was aWashington Post independent-bookstore bestseller and was named one of the New York Review of Books top 40,000 books in print.


“A gem of a book.” – Minneapolis Star-Tribune “A godsend. A must-have book.” – Irish Times

“A third edition of A Sea of Words . . . has just been published and is an absolute necessity. – Boston Globe

“A Sea of Words is more than nautical terms well explained. It is a guide to the O’Brian library. . . . It includes medical and scientific terms, people and political groups, historical events, literary and biblical references, weapons of war, natural history, curiosities, food and drink, and cultures and customs. . . . I like to think of it as a guide to the fictional world of fighting sail, one very much based on fact and authority.” – American Neptune

“A useful compass… devoted to an analysis of the crucial threads of language and learning.” – Economist

The Patrick O’Brian

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