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A few years ago I wrote a book titled “John McDonald’s Maine trivia,” and ever since that book was published people think my head is filled with all kinds of useless information. Yes, the book is doing well, thank you, but it generates lots of email from people who assume my I can answer their most trivial questions.
Just the other day I got an email from Richard in Windham who writes: Hi John, ever since I read your trivia book I thought you might be able to help me with the origins of the nautical words “port” and “starboard.”
Thanks for the email, Richard. In fact, I can help you with the origin of both those two maritime words.
Many centuries ago, in order to steer vessels, sailors used an early version of a rudder that was little more than a long wooden board that stuck out on the right, or the steer-board side of the vessel. You can imagine what would happen if you came up to a dock with this crude steer-board sticking out. To avoid any problems in that area, vessels always came up to a dock on the left side, which became known as the “port” side.
And while we’re on the subject of watercraft, does anyone know anything about where the words spars, halyards capstans, and forecastles came from? And why are we supposed to pronounce the word fore castle as “folksle?” And do they steer large vessels from the bridge, the pilothouse or the wheelhouse?
Regular readers will recall the story we told about someone from Iowa who received an express shipment of live Maine lobsters as a gift. After opening the box and checking them out, the person proceeded to throw them out because they were all dark brown not bright red the way they thought live lobsters were supposed to be.
We questioned the truth of the story in a column and within a week we heard from a lobster dealer in Stonington who said he deals with the problem of the color of live lobsters all the time. And yes, the stories you hear about people throwing out live lobsters because they’re not bright red, are true.

John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly throughout
New England. Contact John at or 899-1868.
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