Monday 5 March 2012

Opportunity Blows

The temple of Portunus
If you're a sailor in a sailboat then you care a lot about winds, and the best sort of winds are those that blow your ship towards the port that's your destination. Or at least, they're the best sort when you're on the open sea.

If you're a sailor who happens to speak Latin, then you will describe these winds as ob portunus, or towards the port, because Portunus was the god of harbours. These ob portunus winds are good and favourable and represent, for the homesick seasick sailor, an opportunity.

By a reverse of this process, you can really pick the wrong moment to ask somebody for something and thus you are im-portuning them.

Etymologically speaking, this has a pleasant side-effect. Port wine is named after Portugal which is named after the Portus Cale. So if you hurl yourself towards an unguarded bottle of port then you have become an opportunist.

When leaving port, you should rely more on the tides than the winds. Wait till high tide, or flood, and then let the retreating waters pull your boat out. To see exactly how the metaphor survives have a look at this passage from Shakespeare.

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

File:Cesar-sa mort.jpg
An opportunity


  1. I enjoyed every line of this post.

    And hey! No more Google blog-blocking you.

  2. So long as they aren't blowing too hard towards the land, even if there is a port there.
    Or else the poor sailors find themselves facing 'Th'impervious horrors of a leeward shore'.