Tag Archives: barge


Look at the large barge, sarge! Who’s in charge of the large barge? And what’s that sparged on its marge? Is that parge? Is it going to Canada Cement Lafarge?

Barges get a bad rep, but flat-bottomed boats make the world go ’round. Or anyway they make stuff go ’round the world. It’s known that to succeed in logistics you have to be a bit anal-retentive, but for many times and places (and sometimes still) you also have had to be canal-retentive. Many things are moved more smoothly over water than over land, especially because you can fit much bigger loads on a floating vessel than on anything that has to navigate road or rail. Take as example the construction materials and equipment I see cruising into the eastern entrance to Toronto Harbour nearly every early evening.


Should I say “barging into”? Well, it is a barge, being pushed by a… hmm, it’s not tugging, so it’s not a tugboat… well, a pusher boat, OK? But it’s where it’s supposed to be. Not like some personal sport watercraft ripping into the picture.

Does that seem fair? That if I’m taking a picture of a barge that I fully expected to be at that place at that time, and a Sea-Doo or whatever tears across in front of it, the interloper is said to be “barging in” while the barge is being all polite and invited? Why does a barjaun “barge on,” anyway?

Well, before there was barging in there was barging around and barging along and barging through, and barging into or barging against someone or something, and the sense was of bumping, of being big and heavy and inertious and unbrakeable just like a fully laden barge. Perhaps the kind of cad or bounder that a less bumptious person wouldn’t want to touch with a bargepole… which, by the way, is literally a pole used for keeping smaller canal barges from touching other barges or the shore or whatever (and occasionally for propelling barges, though really human musclepower is mostly not up to the task).

Where did this word barge come from? French, of course, like the other words ending in -arge, and French got all of them from Latin. But this ­-arge has a lot of cargo of many sorts from various origins: while large comes from Latin larga, and marge (as in margin) from margo, charge comes from carricare (cargo is descended from that too, but charge didn’t come by way of cargo), and sarge is short for sergeant, which French made from Latin servientem – that g just kinda… pushed its way in (it’s not the only time a “w” sound has been changed to or from a “g” sound). And while sparge comes from spargo, parge comes from French porjeter, from Latin porro plus jactare. There’s also litharge, via Latin lithargyrus from for ‘silver stone’, and targe from Latin targa, from a Germanic word – look them up if you’re curious. The name Marge takes us back to Latin Margarita, which in turn came from farther east. As for Lafarge, the name of a large cement company that does have a small facility in Toronto’s docklands, well, that’s a variant of La Forge, and forge traces to fabrica, because, well, why the heck not.

As to barge, it came by way of barga from late Latin barca (also the source of barque but not of bark), from earlier Latin baris, ultimately by way of Greek and Coptic from Egyptian (you can see the hieroglyphics on Wiktionary). All the way back, it’s all words for boats of various kinds. And there are still various kinds of vessels called barge, including ones that can be wind- or self-propelled, even big glamour boats for royalty rowed by peons. But mainly, these days, a barge is a big floating cargo platform. And regardless of where it comes from, when it’s loaded up, it goes where it’s going and will not be quickly diverted.


Can a word that immediately calls forth a harsh, sharp sound (from a dog or other creature) be somehow elegant, lovely, or dreamy?

I don’t see why not. Of course, as soon as you use the que spelling, everything gets a little fancier – barque is what Phydeaux does, perhaps, while bark is what Fido does. The que calls forth French but also Latin – in Latin, que stuck on the end of a word (and fully pronounced) means “and”, as in Senatus Populusque Romanus “the Senate and People of Rome”. So if you had a place called Barbecue Barque perhaps it would mean it had a barbecue and a bar. (And maybe they should go with the alternate spelling Barbeque, which, however, I have a hard time not reading like “barbeck”.)

But the best evidence of the possibility of a little crisp, fresh elegance is the contrast with barge. Barge is a word that brings to mind something quite lumpish and unpleasant – perhaps a garbage barge – and goes with ill-mannered action. “He just barged in! What a bounder – I wouldn’t touch him with a barge pole!” On the other hand, embark is what one does on an expensive trip.

And yet barque (bark) and barge most likely come from the same source, by way of barca and barga. There is some dispute as to the origin – Celtic, perhaps, or maybe Greek, but by way of Latin anyway. They were once the same boat, but they’re not really in the same boat now.

Barque and bark rather are in the same boat, on the other hand, although barque can refer specifically to a three-masted ship square-rigged on the foremasts and fore-and-aft rigged on the rear. Bark can name any of quite a variety of mid-small boats – though nothing as small as a birch bark canoe (and no, that’s not the same bark any more than what a dog does is).

Why use the barque spelling when bark will do? Well, for clarity, for one thing. But also for the beautiful balance of the form. Whereas bark bursts a bubble (b > k), barque presents a back half that seems to be made of rotated forms from the front half, sea-changed: b > q (the mast trimmed and turned to make a rudder), a > e (a type a has some resemblance to that rotated e, the schwa ə), r > u (the lost leg grown back). And paradoxically we view inefficient, wasted silent letters as somehow elegant (certainly not in the mathematical sense!).

Still, it’s not the spelling preferred by poets. Well, if Noah released a lark from the ark, we may hark in the stark dark and mark a bark, wandering. Oh, yes, wandering! Shakespeare set down this collocation in his 116th sonnet: it is love that is “the star to every wandering bark.”

And where does the bark wander? In dreamland, surely. I recall again (as I did in my note on virch) “a barca da fantasia” from Madredeus’s O Pastor:

Ao largo ainda arde
A barca da fantasia
E o meu sonho acaba tarde
Acordar é que eu não queria

“At a distance still burns the barque [or barge] of fantasy, and my dream ends late – waking is what I didn’t want.”

And what do you see on the lovely barque of dreams? Perhaps a world as painted by Georges Braque…