What does ‘luffing’ mean?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: luffing…

I have sailed fewer than a dozen times in my life. And while I enjoyed the sport — particularly one outing with a friend where I was able to go out on a trapeze on a windy day — I’ve never had the time or the money to pursue it further.

Perhaps this explains why I was unfamiliar with the word luffing. I recently encountered it in a New Yorker story by Nick Paumgarten, running under the headline, “The price of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Here is how Paumgarten used the word:

He was talking on a cell phone. You could hear the caw of crows in the background, and the luffing of the wind

In sailing, luffing refers to when a sailing vessel is steered far enough toward the direction of the wind (“windward”), or the sheet controlling a sail is eased so far past optimal trim, that airflow over the surfaces of the sail is disrupted. As a result, the sail begins to “flap” or “luff”

This is not always done in error. For example, the sails will luff when the bow of the boat passes through the direction of the wind as the sailboat is tacked (turned).

The etymology of the word is Old French from lof referring to a nautical device. The word is probably ultimately from Germanic (compare Middle Dutch lof “windward side of a ship” (Dutch loef), which might also be the direct source of the English word.

For me, the word also has an onomatopoeic component. Say, ‘luff, luff, luff’ three times quickly. Doesn’t that sound like a sail snapping in the wind?