Gunnel or gunwale?

08 Oct

I’ve seen a few blog posts and articles mentioning something being “packed to the gunnels” and I’ve been getting all steamed up about the mistake, knowing it should be “packed to the gunwales”. So, I decided to write up one of my Troublesome Pairs to differentiate them.

A gunwale is the upper edge or planking of the side of a boat. By extension, we tend to use “packed to the gunwales” as a metaphor for something being full up, as if a boat is literally packed to its gunwales, it will be completely full up to the brim.

A gunnel is … an alternative spelling for gunwale. So I apologise to the writers against whom I have fulminated. Luckily, I didn’t mention it to anyone before I checked! And I still prefer gunwales, myself.

Note: they are pronounced the same: “gunnel(s)”.

You can find more troublesome pairs here and the index to them all so far is here.


Posted by on October 8, 2012 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs, Writing


Tags: , , ,

23 responses to “Gunnel or gunwale?

  1. Gill Rose

    October 8, 2012 at 11:39 am

    Pronunciation seems to rule! My 23 year old daughter did not even know that a tennis ‘racket’ had ever been spelled ‘racquet’. And don’t get me started on ‘smidgeon’!

    BTW, ‘pronounciation’ is another pet hate, in speech and in writing.


  2. Julia

    October 9, 2012 at 12:11 pm

    Now I’m curious about smidgen, as I would say it, – although I do like the urban diction definition of smidgeon – and what is the correct ‘pronounciation’ of ‘pronounciation’ – or is it just a question of dialect?


    • Liz at Libro

      October 10, 2012 at 7:47 am

      Well, I say it smijjin so I hope that’s right …


    • Gill Rose

      October 10, 2012 at 2:05 pm

      People say smidgeon correctly but rarely spell it properly.
      Although ‘proNOUNce’ is a word, ‘proNOUNciation’ is not. It is ‘proNUNciation’ and that is the way it should be said.
      My students hate me; I get very nit-picky (as they see it) with them.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Liz at Libro

        October 10, 2012 at 2:06 pm

        I am happy to confirm that I know how to spell smidgeon. And pronounce pronunciation.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Steve

          November 1, 2017 at 1:30 pm

          and spell apologize.


          • Liz Dexter

            November 1, 2017 at 1:41 pm

            Well, I spell it apologise unless I’m writing or editing in Oxford style or US English.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Sam Day

    May 1, 2013 at 5:04 am

    Im so glad there are still people that care enough to do things properly. I have inlaws that not only say “yous” but will even write it as “you’s!”
    Stay strong! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Patti

    February 26, 2014 at 3:28 am

    I love to find people who care about our language enough to write about it…. but I have to question “full up” as being a proper term for a blog about correct word usage. It seems a bit casual, or even colloquial. As for gunwale, I can imagine a day when it was pronounced like it’s spelled, but over the years salty old sailors slurred it into oblivion and it devolved into the gunnel that is the accepted pronunciation today. Just a theory. No proof. Keep up the good work!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Liz at Libro

      February 26, 2014 at 6:11 am

      Thanks for your comment! These posts are intended to be fairly informal and even sometimes amusing, so as to be approachable and non-threatening while still getting the message across. I think your note about the pronunciation is plausible; another option is the influence of a regional accent.


    • Steve Urszenyi

      May 1, 2016 at 2:56 pm

      I think you’re correct about old codgers slurring words. Coxswain is pronounced ‘coxen’ probably for the same reason. Although I can’t figure out how the American ‘loo-tenant’ (lieutenant) came to be pronounced ‘left-tenant’ in the UK and Canada.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Richard

        February 7, 2019 at 1:14 am

        Steve: Surely you should be figuring out how ‘left-tenant’ came to be pronounced ‘loo-tenant’ and not vice versa!


  5. henrygiles

    November 26, 2014 at 10:00 am

    Gunnel or Gunwale? I was checking “The popularity of round-Britain and Ireland cruises is staggering. Not only do they sell out quickly but they are packed to the gunnels with Brits”. Rather nice literal example. I’ll use gunwales! Thanks!


  6. Steve Urszenyi

    May 1, 2016 at 2:32 pm

    A ‘gunnel’ is an eel-like fish. Just because some people have started to use it as a substitute for ‘gunwale’, it is NOT correct. ‘Gunwale’ is the always correct and never wrong word for the upper sides or edge of a boat/ship/canoe.

    We don’t have to change language for the convenience of those who can’t / won’t use words correctly. Or maybe I’m just an old codgy sailor.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Liz Dexter

      May 1, 2016 at 9:03 pm

      Agreed, that’s why I write this to try to help keep the distinctions, even in those cases where the incorrect / new usage is slipping into the dictionaries!


      • Steve Urszenyi

        May 1, 2016 at 10:25 pm

        Your efforts are appreciated!

        Language will always evolve — and that’s good — but homonyms don’t equate with synonyms. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Tommo

    November 25, 2018 at 6:01 am

    It’s one of those nautical/sailor’s-mumbling words that became an alternate spelling, like “fo’c’sle” => “focsle” for “forecastle,” or maybe kinda like how “bowline” is actually pronounced “bO-lyn.”


  8. Leighton Yates

    November 26, 2018 at 2:52 am

    nice to know as I have wondered about gunwale vs gunnel



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