Langrage was a kind of cannon ammunition used at sea primarily by privateers in the 18th and early 19th centuries for damaging masts, sails, and rigging. It consisted of bolts, nails, and irregularly shaped pieces of iron fastened together or enclosed in a canister. Langrage was also known as langridge, langrel, and langrace.
The term langrage (alternatively spelled langridge) comes from the old French l’engrêlage meaning “bombardment by a hail of stones,” from grêle hail. Grêle itself comes from the older form gresle, where -le is the diminutive suffix of gres — rock, stone, sandstone. The two variant forms of langrage — langrel and langrace — have their origin in l’engresle — showering with stones: langrel from the loss of the “S” sound, and langrace from the loss of the “L” sound, or from an older term l’engres, without the diminutive suffix.
In the metaphorical sense of a hail of stones or arrows, gresle goes back to at least the 12th century: mout grant gresle de saietes — “très grande quantité de flèches qui tombent dru” “a great quantity of arrows that fell thick and fast.”
Langrage may have a linguistic cousin in the heraldic term “engrailed” from Middle English engreled, from Old French engreslé, the past participle of engresler. In heraldry, “engrailed” refers to a scalloped edge or a line indented with small curves.
Some experts on heraldic terminology maintain that “engrailed” comes from the noun grêle hail, and (as Nathan Bailey put it in 1736 in Dictionarium Britannicum ) “signifies that the hail has fallen upon and broken off the edges, leaving them ragged or with half rounds struck out of them.” This interpretation would ally “engrailed” with “langrage,” and would be consistent with the work of French etymologists who note the 12th century use of greslé meaning “pockmarked,” and the 17th century use of grêlé meaning someone who has suffered severe losses, whose vineyards, orchards, or crops have been heavily damaged by hail.
From an opposing camp, other experts point out that “engrailed” meant “saw-toothed” in heraldic design before it meant semicircular indentations. That in itself would not necessarily disassociate the jagged edges inflicted by langrage from the notching of heraldic design. However, some authorities trace “engrail” back, not to the French noun grêle, but to the French adjective grêle meaning “slender” from Latin gracilis slim. They extend the meaning to “sharp,” “pointed,” and “indented.”
Further clouding the etymological affinity is the question of what one means by “engrailed” in metalworking. To engrail a coin or medallion can mean to stipple the surface, to add a ring of raised dots, or to mill the edges. The metalworking term has been traced back to a gallery of ostensible Latin ancestors including not just gres “large stone” and gresle “small stone,” but gracilis “slim,” granim “grain,” gradus “step,” and ingredior “to go in.”
If these “non-gresle ” origins are correct, then “langrage” is not related to “engrail,” and, like Ishmael, it alone has survived into modern English to tell the tale.
Shot blasts over water
To take down rigging and sails —
Cannons broadcast higher and broader
For better reception of iron and nails.
The langrage of the privateers
Holds no surprises, no private code,
But lighted fuses stretch from ears
Toward casks of clauses waiting to explode.
With what are modern canons fillable
To challenge antique rhetoric and ritual?
Precision, calibrated and habitual,
Will crush these shapeless, garbled syllables.