“These rough seas are home to numerous shipwrecks.”

I suppose there’s really nothing very wrong about what my student wrote. Of course he didn’t make clear whether he meant the seas were home to the events called “shipwrecks”—waves pounding the sides and decks, winds tearing the sails and bending the masts, rudder snapped, wheel out of control, panicked passengers huddled below, desperate seamen swarming above—or to the objects called “shipwrecks”—wrecked ships lying on the ocean floor, hulls stove in, masts splintered, treasure scattered on the drifting sand, fish swimming through empty portholes, sad skeletons partially encrusted with coral. I suppose if he thought about it he might say he meant both; I’m not sure he gave the question a lot of thought while actually writing, though.

Certainly the “rough seas” are places where there are such objects and events. “Numerous” is a rather flabby term here next to a noun of such violence and loss, but “many,” “countless,” “lots of” shipwrecks would be just as flat—and “shipwrecks aplenty” wouldn’t strike quite the right note, would it? So let “numerous” go.

What I can’t quite let go is “are home to.” Doesn’t “home” connote pretty much the opposite of despair, death, and destruction? We say New England is home to several august universities that were founded during the Colonial period. California has been home to the film industry since the beginning of commercial movies in America. New Orleans is home to the rich cuisine that is Créole. We might even say, or I might even say, Connecticut is home to me.  BUT would you say “Kansas is home to numerous tornados”? or “Cemeteries are home to numerous corpses”? Don’t things have to be alive to come, or be, “home”? Does the Dore illustration below suggest “home” to you, in any way?

Figures of speech can become so much a part of our ordinary language that we don’t pause to consider the pictures they evoke, and I think my student was betrayed by familiarity here. Blessed (or cursed) with a very visual sense of language myself, I find his perfectly ordinary statement oddly unsettling, perhaps even morbid.

Maybe I’m overreacting on this one. I welcome your comments!

This bleak and terrifying image of a shipwreck is by the great 19th-century artist Gustav Dore; it is an engraving of his impression of the ship in the ballet "Le Corsaire." Note the rough seas.

This bleak and terrifying image of a shipwreck is by the great 19th-century artist Gustav Dore; it is an engraving of his impression of the ship in the ballet “Le Corsaire.” Note the rough seas. Pretty homey, eh?

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

29 responses to ““These rough seas are home to numerous shipwrecks.”

  • Susan P

    That can happen I suppose. I edit books and some authors seem to fall into to that trip. It often happens when a writer is anxious to make an impression. I can guarantee that they do. Whether it was the impression they wanted to make is another story.

  • "Bethie"

    Thank you for making me think about the images I create by the words I use. I will be more careful so that the images I have in my mind as I write or clear on the page.

    • RAB

      We all do it, because English is so welcoming to pictorial language. But we get so used to the phrases that the pictures are submerged in meaning. Bringing them back to the surface can be very powerful; forgetting about them, as we do about submerged ships, can sink us!

  • storypixies

    this is very helpful I will now be on the look out to check I don’t do it in my own writing. I saw nothing wrong with it at first but now you explain it I see what you mean. also how do you suggest changing it so the reader knows if it is an event or object being described?
    This is very helpful thank you!

    • RAB

      I think I’d say, if talking about the events, that Many ships have been wrecked in these rough seas, or These rough seas can pound a ship to nothing in a few hours; if talking about the ships, Beneath these rough seas lie the wrecks of many unlucky ships. Depending on what I was really writing about, I would probably take more than one sentence to say what I meant, unless there was some important reason to be brief. The strength of language is its pictorial dimension, but that’s also one of its challenges!

  • eddylampz

    I think the use of “home” is not really derogatory in this sense. The grave is home to many people with great talents and ideas that never saw the light of day. Would you say the use of home here is mordid?

    • RAB

      There is nothing “derogatory” in my discussion of “home” here. But I don’t think of a grave as a home. The builders of mausoleums might have had other notions: some of those little edifices look as if they’d be fun to live in. And perhaps people who believe in the resurrection of the body might think of the grave as a kind of temporary home. But since I fall into neither of these categories, I think of homes as places for the living–welcoming homes, actually. To call a grave “home to” something feels, yes, creepy, having-to-do-with-death, to me. I would say of your hypothetical people that In these graves lie the remains of once-promising people whose ideas and talents never saw the light of day. That’s a perpetual loss. Under the seas lie the ruins of adventure, fortune, and many fine people. But I wouldn’t say the seas are their homes.

  • Tom

    RAB, thanks again for such a funny post. Perhaps the writer had just watched the Little Mermaid or Finding Nemo

    • RAB

      Ah, yes! Now, THOSE critters are perfectly at home in the sea! And if the cartoons are anything to go by, they enjoy swimming around in the wrecked ships sometimes too. Thanks for cheering up the imagery!

  • sofiaderiso

    I really enjoyed reading your blog.

  • philosophermouseofthehedge

    It is an odd phrase. “Home” is such a cozy warm word.
    “Cemeteries are home to numerous corpses”. You crack me up. (Although some cultures do find cemeteries destinations for picnics and family outings…Victorian England, too?)
    The kids have been deprived of playing with words, writing exactly what it thought in expository, persuasive, and descriptive writings. Not enough opportunity to write – or debate.
    You are right. Just too casual about it all.

    • RAB

      And what a loss it is, not learning to play with words. The fabulous kaleidoscopic meditations you create on your blog…. I can’t imagine being denied that creative joy, that intellectual freedom.

  • Love For Missions

    I enjoyed your perspective on his phrase, but if he was hoping to evoke some kind of reaction I’d say he was successful. I myself have much to learn about the art of writing. New to your blog and I look forward to reading more. Have a wonderful day!

  • Ray

    I think it is safe to say your post has left quite an impression. Since the same phrase seemed different before and after I have read your post. I like to dabble in the art of writing, hence how I found my way to your blog. Your blog is educational as well as it is amusing.

  • Nasheem

    The term ‘home’ can symbolize a level of comfort and settlement, which is often not always a place of warmth. You can be at home in your fears, in silence, in solitude. Words like these would be cold and distant to some, but home to others. Depending on the feelings of the writer, or the feelings the writer is trying to evoke…a shipwrecked graveyard could in every sense be a home to a soul who may feel intertwined with darkness. Even if just for the moment or occasion.

  • L Weaves Words

    You may have misunderstood your student, though it’s hard to know by a quote taken out of context. He may have meant to say something like “cemeteries are home to tombstones” (where else tombstones would be at home?).

    • RAB

      I’m afraid he didn’t mean much, really, by the way he expressed himself. My point was that he didn’t THINK about what the phrase “are home to” usually connotes; he simply used the phrase. But language does evoke mental pictures, emotional responses, memory associations….That’s why it’s so powerful, and that’s why teachers of writing try to make their students more conscious of their vocabulary choices, especially the vocabulary that incorporates images.

      • L Weaves Words

        Thank you for taking the time to explain. And of course I agree with you – language is powerful, therefore should be used with care 🙂

        • RAB

          Thank you for taking the time to comment! Besides working as an instructor of writing, I occasionally work as a copy editor. The job of both is to be willing to misinterpret sentences on first reading, so that the author can revise the confusion (or, in some cases, laughability) before the general readership sees it. I tell my students that the only reason I know I’m MISunderstanding what they wrote is that I do, in fact, know what they meant, and I know that what they wrote isn’t what they meant. So we’re both right, L-Waves-Words ;-}

        • L Weaves Words

          You must be a natural-born teacher. With just a few words you’ve helped me better understand my own last two posts. So thank you very much for this too and have a wonderful weekend 🙂

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