My wife and I are on the tenth of the Aubrey/Maturin novels, The Far Side of the World, and last night we hit a term unfamiliar to us: Jack Aubrey gives the instruction “Do not forget to gackle your cables, Mowett,” and mentions “gackling cables” several times in the following pages. Well, it’s no surprise to run across unfamiliar nautical terms in O’Brian, but this one wasn’t in Dean King’s useful but maddeningly incomplete A Sea of Words, nor—much more surprisingly—was it in Admiral Smyth’s usually reliable The Sailor’s Word-Book (see this LH post). It bothered me enough that I remembered to research it this morning, and my suspicion was confirmed: O’Brian made it up. [It turns out he didn’t actually make it up; see below.] It would have been impossible to verify this before the internet and Google Books, but now it’s easy as pie; it simply doesn’t exist outside his novels. Well, with one exception, as we learn here: “except for this from The Observant Voyage: A Parody, by Owen Brian Patrick : ) ‘Well Sir, to begin, Sir, as you know I did indeed gackle my cables as you ordered, Sir…'”

POB must have derived a good deal of private amusement from his little invention, and I share that amusement; I also hope this post will save other devotees of his wonderful novels from tearing their hair out over this un-look-up-able word.

Update. As mollymooly explains below, it’s actually a variant of an established word variously spelled keckle, cackle, kaicle, or kecle. That’ll teach me to make over-hasty assumptions!


  1. I read that book last weekend and found the following, in which O’Brian (or perhaps just the newsletter’s editor?) claims to have “seen it once or twice in an 18th century order book,” though he provides no citation.
    See the first question in the Q&A:

  2. It’s just possible that whoever made that entry in an 18th century order book extracted it from a nearby bodily orifice. Embezzlement isn’t a 20th century invention.

  3. mollymooly says

    William Falconer’s Dictionary of the Marine (1784) has
    KAICLING, or KECLING, a name given to any old ropes, which are wound about a cable, with a small interval between the turns, and used to preserve the surface of the cable from being fretted, when it rubs against the ship’s bow, or fore-foot. See also ROUNDING and SERVICE.

  4. “un-look-up-able”
    maybe not the words but the expression
    webster gave “gackle (noun) : Any piece of chicken which is unidentifiable as meat, skin, or bone.” 
    while urban dictionary’s entry is like un-mentionably gross
    curse my curiosity and like of challenge
    i check UD just in case cz once i happened to use a word without knowing its double meaning or slangish use and then it sparkled like such a huge flamewar with my having to leave the place and consequently perpetual animosity of the dwellers of the site towards me i guess
    though it’s not my fault that your language utilizes to much of that, irony and sarcasm, double entendres

  5. mollymooly says

    And the Sailor’s Word-book has KECKLING or CACKLING

  6. Ah, so he didn’t make it up, he just changed it a bit either to make it funnier or to avoid confusion with the sounds of chickens. Thanks!

  7. read: Yes, UD can be useful but has to be approached with considerable caution. I too saw that unmentionably gross entry!

  8. Oh come on, the UD entry was hilarious, you guys are wimps 😛
    Additionally, I’ve been frustrated by precisely this particular situation and it’s made so much worse when it’s in a foreign language and therefore you really don’t have any sort of intuitive sense as to whether it’s a real or made-up word like you would with your native language. I recall spending the better part of an hour trying to look up a word only to find out that the character in the movie made it up and I needn’t worry about it. Blah. How irritating.

  9. Nicholas Blake says

    It’s not made up/changed: Nelson ordered Collingwood to gackle his cables as he lay dying at Trafalgar,

  10. Hi N. Blake,

    Very helpful. Where did you find that quote?

    I’ve been gackling my brains out for a few days, especially when ‘gackle’ wasn’t in “A Sea of Words,” nor in Smyth’s “Sailor’s Word Book,” under that spelling. In his book, he cites various spellings of words, so I’m not surprised at this.


  11. Nancy Rathke says

    Thanks, I am currently re-reading FSOTW and am very pleased to have “gackle your cables” so well fleshed out. Whether the Nelson quote is factual or not, I will always remember it.

  12. Mike West says

    And I thought that I was the only nut that pays attention to O’Brian’s details! I am on my third reading of the series and learn more each time!

  13. Andrew Smiles says

    Nope, there are quite few nuts like us out there! I’m halfway through my second reading of the series, this time on my Kindle and with my iPad alongside to check the nautical obscurities as I go. Very enlightening!

  14. In The Golden Ocean,
    midshipmen Peter Palafox,a midshipmen engages in a game with his fellows in creating false names. He uses the term “gackled the cables “. It’s unclear if he was playing with words or using true rope talk.

  15. Context wise, makes sense, anti-chaffing, gackle your cables. Perfectly clear; thx everyone, on my third? Rereading, pausing for the obscure words, very glad that I’m not the only one who has curiosity for details.

  16. He also uses it in ‘The Golden Ocean’ (p. 233: “having gackled with the fire-grapnel chains”), so had thought about this expression years earlier!

  17. …and again on p.237, “What a good thing we gackled our cables.” (Just reading ‘The Golden Ocean’ now – at last!)

    The above definition (an additional security coating for the anchor cable) makes perfect sense within the context of a shallow chafing coral-covered sea-bed.


    Has that been linked, above? Has a ring of rightness about it:

    [Abandos 1:] “Gackle – To shorten or lengthen the anchor cable.”

    But it does not accord with the OED definition at cackle, v.2:

    ” ‘To cover a cable spirally with 3-inch old rope to protect it from chafe in the hawse hole’ (Adm. Smyth).”

    OED refers us to keckle, v.2, where the meaning does fit with cackle, v.2, of course. But the first citation at cackle, v.2, perhaps works equally well if we assume [Abandos 1]:

    “1748 B. Robins & R. Walter Voy. round World by Anson iii. ii. 318 They [sc. cables] were cackled twenty fathom from the anchors.”

    A tangle still in need of faking.

  19. All words are made up. It’s just a matter of by whom and when, and if anyone else knows what they mean. And the meaning of words is derived from how people use them. In other words, words mean what we mean them to mean.

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