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World Association of International Studies

Post "Running a Tight Ship"
Created by John Eipper on 03/17/14 5:55 AM

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"Running a Tight Ship" (William Ratliff, USA, 03/17/14 5:55 am)

The "tight" / "taut" discussion has taken several twists and turns, but if I remember rightly JE mentioned "running a tight ship" and then David Pike related how Ronald Hilton once put him down for claiming to be "running a tight ship" at Bolivar House; DP reports that RH said it should be "taut" unless they were all drunk.

There are of course two primary sources of proper English usage over the past century-plus: William S. Gilbert in the late 19th century and John Cleese (mainly in "Fawlty Towers," set in Ronald's WAIS-beloved hometown of Torquay) in the late 20th. And then perhaps as a last resort, the OED.

Specifically on "tight ship," see Gilbert's usage in the nautical-relateded spoof of ghostly Gothic melodramas, "Ruddigore." Without getting into a complex plot check, the "happily couple" duet in Act II where Richard Dauntless, a self-confessed "hardy British tar," affirms his admiration of the village maiden Rose Maybud, whom he characterizes as "a bright little, tight little, slight little, light little, trim little, prim little craft" [emphasis added]! Rose then modestly affirms that she is indeed a "tight little craft."

Thus according to my preferred source "our seafaring cousins in the UK," as JE puts it, Ronald was off base in his outright rejection of "tight" in this context. Even the OED says "tight ship n. a ship in which ropes, etc., are tight; hence a strictly run ship," and that to "run a tight ship" means "Be very strict in managing an organization or operation" ( http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/tight?q=tight ). The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer defines "tight ship" as "A well-managed organization, as in The camp director runs a tight ship" and dates it to the second half of 1900s. Mary Hilton Huyck adds that McGraw-Hill says the terms mean the same thing and the OED confirms as much by defining "taut ship" as "a disciplined or strictly run ship."  So I think the "problem" is not that Ronald used "taut" incorrectly but that he did not know "tight" was every bit as appropriate.

Of course maybe he was pulling DP's leg.

JE comments: I'll go with the latter interpretation. This kind of language jest sounds very Hiltonian!

It was great to see you this week, Bill.  Excellent cuisine and excellent conversation.

And today is St Patrick's day, commonly believed to be the tightest (tautest?) day of the year!  Be careful out there, folks.

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  • "Running a Tight Ship" (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 03/17/14 9:52 AM)
    Even if I am absolutely not an authoritative source on English language usage, I wish to say that in all my life in the shipping industry I never heard the term "taut" but only "tight" relating to a ship.

    Just to tell you how tricky English can be for foreigners, I will tell you a funny episode.

    When I was chief mate on a tanker, we were supposed to make the vessel gas-free in the almost impossible time of three days before she was supposed to go to the shipyard Mitsui at Tamano. The schedule was so tight [taut?  Laugh Out Loud!--JE] that the main office wanted to be kept abreast of the progress.

    We were going fairly well, but at a certain point we had problems with containing the sludge on board (sediments of the crude oil remaining in the tanks), and we explained this to the main office. Immediately we got a strange answer that at first we could not understand. Worse, we thought that they were crazy. In fact, the answer was "arrange make shifts." What the hell with these shifts? we were already working round the clock 6 hours on and 6 hours off (even much less "off" than "on")!

    Finally, after a while we understood that the poor people in the office were suggesting "makeshift" efforts.

    JE comments: "Gas-free," as I understand the term, means that the inside of the tanker (or any enclosed shipboard space) is deemed safe for entry without special equipment.

    Granted, this is a makeshift explanation from a landlubber.  Eugenio, correct me if I've misunderstood.

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  • "Running a Tight Ship" and Prof. Hilton (Mary Hilton Huyck, USA 03/17/14 10:11 AM)
    Re: "taut" versus " "tight," I absolutely agree with Bill Ratliff (17 March). My father loved language and plays on words, and I suspect that he was simply teasing David Pike. Of course, RH knew that "tight" could mean drunk. He was just making a joke.

    JE comments: I'm glad Mary Hilton Huyck has set the record straight. As coincidence would have it, St Patrick's is an excuse for half of America (and Ireland, too, I suppose) to get slobberingly tight.

    And here I am at the Hoover, sober as a Methodist parson, but at least I'm wearing green! I hit the road for Michigan in two hours, so WAIS will be on hiatus until the evening. Next stop: Reno.  Pax et lux!

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    • St Patrick's Day (John Heelan, -UK 03/17/14 9:31 PM)
      On this St Patrick's day, try being a Brit in Boston (or even worse, Merrimack, New Hampshire) on St. Patrick's Night! I used to adopt my Gaelic name, imitate my father's Waterford accent and drink only Bushmills and Guinness!

      JE comments: The festivities are certainly over by now in Ireland, but Boston, at half past midnight, must still be in full celebration mode.

      So I'll be off to explore this casino hotel, to see how Reno gets its Irish on.

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    • International Felt and the Huycks (David Fleischer, Brazil 03/18/14 7:17 AM)
      I would like to ask Ms. Mary Hilton Huyck a question about her husband's surname.

      Is he any relation to the Huyck family that owned a felt factory in Rensselaer, NY as of the 1940s through the 1960s? They made felts for paper machines and even opened a branch factory in Brazil. I worked at this plant in 1959 and again in 1961. They later became the International Felt company.

      Another question, this time for David Pike regarding the "transition" at Stanford University. I understand that the current Center for Latin American Studies at Stanford is celebrating its 50th year in 2014 [2015--JE]. That means that this Center with its ensuing MLAS program began to operate in 1964, shortly after Ronald Hilton was "ousted" and the Hispanic American Program abolished.

      Regarding the "Red Cuba scare," Gus Hall, etc. at Stanford, what happened at Stanford in 1968--"the year that never ended"? This movement shook most US campuses, SDS, etc. (as well as in Europe and Latin America). By then, the "Fair Play for Cuba" committees were gone. At UC Berkeley and other universities, the 1968 movement was quite large, indeed. Perhaps some other WAISERs who were around at Stanford in 1968 could help answer this question.

      JE comments: Philip Huyck is a WAISer who has participated in some of our conferences. Prof. Hilton appointed him WAIS "Honorary Counsel" in 1999:


      I don't know if Philip's family is connected to the German Huyck.Wangner company, which apparently is now called Xerium:


      As for David Fleischer's question about Stanford's Center for Latin American Studies, it was founded in 1965 as the successor organization to Prof. Hilton's Institute for Hispanic-American and Luso-Brazilian Studies (Bolívar House). After Prof. H resigned from the Institute, he founded the California Institute of International Studies, the predecessor of WAIS. In this sense, CIIS/WAIS started as a competitor to CLAS, but our missions and activities have since moved in different directions.  Last week I was fortunate to spend some time with CLAS Associate Director Elizabeth Sáenz-Ackermann (David put us in touch), and we hope to work together on our respective institutions' Golden Jubilees in 2015.

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      • RH and Soviet Union; Gus Hall at Stanford (David Pike, -France 03/18/14 9:54 AM)
        Briefly, in reply to David Fleischer's questions of March 18:

        --Gus Hall apparently visited Stanford more than once. It was in 1963 that I met him. He had wit. He told me that some funds should be made available for the many poor Stanford coeds who were going around in their bare feet.

        --RH resigned of course as Director of the Institute, but not as Professor of Romanic Languages. At that point he had many offers to go elsewhere, but he preferred to remain at Stanford, even though his courses were no longer the same.

        --In October 1964, I was in Toulouse, so I missed everything, but I was afraid for a moment that the closing of the Institute could have a serious effect on the morale of RH. That thought was stupid! In October 1965, RH came to Toulouse and we spent a day or two together. He told me to my delight that, far from letting Stanford get him down, he had "gone across the street" and opened a new institute (CIIS), and this one outside of Stanford's power to control. "You can't build anything inside Stanford," he would say, and to anyone!

        --Which shows that the Stanford of that time is today unrecognizable.

        --A word of pity, though, for President Wallace Sterling. His office block (right below RH's, that I was using day and night) was torched in 1968 in the middle of the night, and his important collection on the Austro-Hungarian Empire was destroyed. I didn't see the attack; I had left the office just before. I had the chance the next day to speak to Sterling, and I was deeply impressed by his equanimity. "We're seeing what we can put together," said the president, amid the debris.

        --One final comment, and then I should stop. RH said the same thing to me about the Soviet Academy of Sciences. "They'll never invite me again. They don't want to hear what I have to tell them."

        JE comments: Yesterday in my final day in the RH archives, I came across a file containing Prof. H's itinerary for his visit to the Soviet Union in June and July 1971.  (He visited Moscow, Leningrad/St Petersburg, Tashkent and Tbilisi.)  The file contained many cordial letters of thanks, but the most interesting was an anonymous missive, typed in broken English, that was harshly critical of a letter RH had published in the New York Times on his visit.  Among other topics, the nameless critic lambasted RH's claim that Stalin had conquered the Baltic nations:  "The so-called Baltic republics are and have always been Russian."  When we consider the present events in Crimea, it's a plus ça change moment.

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  • "Tight" and "Taut" in Sailing (John Heelan, -UK 03/19/14 6:05 AM)
    Cameron Sawyer will correct me if needed, but I seem to remember from my sailing school training--as as youth--that the mainsail and jib "sheets" (i.e. ropes) had to be kept "tight" to ensure that the sails were kept "taut," thus maximising energy transmitted by the wind.

    JE comments: John Heelan and I had an off-Forum exchange on the nautical "sheet." I thought it referred to the sail itself, which to my eyes looks like a sheet, as in a big piece of white cloth. But John is correct:  "sheets" are ropes.  As I said earlier, always defer to our UK cousins when it comes to seafaring.

    I'm presently in Laramie, Wyoming, which in this hemisphere is about as far from the ocean as you can get. (According to one source, this particular "pole of inaccessibility" is the Red Lobster restaurant in Rapid City, South Dakota, 300 miles northeast of where I sit.)

    Plenty of wind, but nowhere to stick your boat:  Laramie, Wyoming


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    • "Tight" and "Taut"; "Hard" and "Slack" (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 03/20/14 5:03 AM)
      Actually, in response to John Heelan (20 March), we say "hard" and "harden up"; the opposite being "ease" or "slack" or "eased" or "slackened." I have never heard either "tight" or "taught" said on board a sailing vessel--to my ear, both of these terms sound lubberly. And certainly sails would not be necessarily "tight" or "taught"--the trimming of sails to produce the desired aerodynamic effect is much more complicated than just making them "tight." It is in fact incredibly complicated with a large number of controls interacting in an almost unlimited combination of ways. For example, just the mainsail, on many boats, will have the following controls:

      1. Halyard

      2. Mainsheet

      3. Outhaul

      4. Traveller

      5. Vang (or Kicker, to the British)

      6. Cunningham

      7. Backstay

      The halyard controls tension across the luff of the sail, that is, the forward, vertical edge. You use this tension to move the "draft" of the sail--the point at which it is fullest--forward and aft. The mainsheet controls twist of the sail, and when the boom is amidships or nearly amidships, the tension in the "leech" of the sail, that is, the after edge of it. The traveler controls the angle of the boom to the wind. The vang controls the tension in the "foot" of the sail--that is, the lower edge of it. The cunningham, like the halyard, controls tension in the luff, but by hauling down on it, rather than up like the halyard does. A backstay tension control (my boat doesn't have this) can be used to depower the mainsail by opening up the leech and letting the top of the sail twist off. The object of using all these controls is to produce the right shape for the point of sail and strength of the wind. When going upwind, the most challenging point of sail by far, since a sailing vessel can make way against the wind only by generating aerodynamic lift, the sail should be trimmed to minimize drag and maximize lift. In light wind, the sail needs a full, powerful shape, which you get by slacking the mainsheet (if we're still talking about a mainsail) and outhaul to let the sail assume a fuller shape. Then you use the other controls to get the draft in the right position and get the sail at the right angle to the wind. In stronger wind, drag becomes a great danger, as it not only counteracts lift you are generating, but also generates heeling moment, which pushes the boat over, reducing the amount of sail exposed to the wind, and producing undesirable hydrodynamic effects between the keel and underbody of the boat and the water (specifically, weather helm, which makes the rudder act like a brake). So going upwind in stronger wind, the sail is flattened as much as possible by hardening up the outhaul and mainsheet, and letting down the traveler to angle the sail further into the wind. The halyard and/or cunningham will also be hardened up to move the draft as far forward as possible. This way, you make a sleek wing out of the sail which produces as little drag as possible, increasing lift and reducing heeling moment. It's very tricky and very satisfying when you get it right.

      Nautical terminology is always a tricky thing, and there are many controversies. For example, many American sailors have an abhorrence for the word "rope," calling every bit of cordage on board a "line." British sailors disagree with this, and I think they're right--a "line" is cordage at work fulfilling a specific function; "rope" is the material itself, without reference to its function. In my opinion this is a much better use of the terminology than just making "line" a meaningless synonym of "rope" with a nautical flavor. There is also "head" or "heads," which is marine-speak for toilet. American sailors will say "the head" to refer to both the toilet and the compartment in which it is housed. British sailors say "the heads" to refer just to the compartment--as the term was used in olden days. The fixture is just a "toilet." Again I agree with the British on this. I could go on forever.

      JE comments:  Quiz to follow!  I don't know if I'm more impressed by the abilities of skillful sailors, or by their mastery of such a daunting vocabulary list.  I am reminded of a January 1953 postcard Prof. Hilton sent from on board the SS United States, as he sailed to Europe.  He explained to his daughter Mary that "port" means left and "starboard" right.

      I checked Wikipedia, and the maiden voyage of the United States had been just the previous summer, in July 1952.  When Prof. Hilton crossed the Atlantic, it (OK, "she") must still have had that "new-ship smell."  The ship was retired in 1969 and has been at dock in Philadelphia ever since.  There have been several plans to revive her for service, or as a stationary "floating attraction," but nothing concrete has emerged thus far:


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