We all have our piers, and we would be stranded – and none the happier – were they to disappier. We say no person is an island, but in one sense we all are, or at least it shore feels like it: there are always fluid expanses between us and others – sometimes gulfs, sometimes straits (at times dire ones). To embark on our contact with the world, we need to extend ourselves outwards into the open waters. As others likewise build their piers, and we can launch our communications, we form our pier groups to group with our peers.
What is a pier, really, literally? A popular diagram of late shows differences between a quay, a wharf, a pier, and a jetty on the basis of whether they are fill (or stone, or concrete) or piles (wood or metal) and whether they are parallel or perpendicular to the shore: according to it, a quay is parallel fill, a wharf is parallel piles, a pier is perpendicular piles, and a jetty is perpendicular fill. In the real world it’s not quite so simple, and wharf, pier, and dock are used in overlapping ways. But you can generally count on a pier being perpendicular to the shoreline and built on piles.
You can’t, on the other hand, count on what it’s used for. Wikipedia divides piers into three types: working piers (for commerce boats), pleasure piers (as at Brighton and Santa Monica), and fishing (angling) piers. I like this division, mainly because it is also a suitable division of our peers in the world – some we work with, some we play with, some we just… angle with (see LinkedIn).
Pier is also a personal name, as for instance the Italian filmmaker and writer Pier Paolo Pasolini. There are quite a few Piers in the world, mostly Italian. (There are also people named Piers, but I really don’t want to have to talk about the best-known current bearer of that name.) Of course Piers have their peers and piers, but in this there is irony: piers are normally built on wooden (or metal) piles, but Pier, like Peter, comes from Greek Πέτρος Petros: ‘stone’.
Should we go fishing with this word, we may find ourselves at Worf, a name for a linguist and for a Klingon. Benjamin Lee Worf hypothesized that the language we use affects the way we act on or even perceive reality. Worf came to the idea because he found that people treated “empty” gas drums carelessly, when although empty of gas they were full of explosive vapours. A Maine merchant who unloaded dozens of unsaleable cappuccino bowls to tourists by calling them chowdah bowls would likely agree with Worf. But many linguists take issue with his idea, or particularly with the simplistic version of it that suggests that people can’t conceive of things they have no words for, a prima facie absurd notion. Perhaps his namesake Klingon should be set to resolving the issue in a less cerebral way – for instance, by throwing someone off a wharf at warp speed. The old word for throw, after all, became our modern word warp, cognate with German worfen, while the old word for warp became our modern word for throw in a twisted little linguistic semantic metathesis. But we’re at sea here: neither of these is related to wharf, which comes from Old English hwearf. Wharves – or wharfs, if we prefer the older British-style plural – are, in origin, embankments at water’s edge for docking boats at; now they may be wooden or similar structures. Tell me, though: if someone builds an embankment at water’s edge, what do you see its function being? How about if it is a dock? How about if it is a wharf? Three names for what could be the same structure. And for which of the above do you envision fishing, and how readily? In San Francisco there was one that was favoured for docking fishing vessels. Now the fame of Fisherman’s Wharf has fixed an image in the mind, and it may for some predipose them to thinking of fishing when hearing the word wharf. Now tell me, if a boat is coming into or pulling away from a wharf, what sort of sound does its horn make? Are you more inclined to think of a train-whistle-type sound, like a “wharf, wharf”? Tell me next what noise a dog running after the boat makes: “bow wow” or “woof woof”? (Or does it say “arf arf,” to match the end of this word?) And if a Klingon were piloting the fishing boat… Well, no need to be silly. Klingons prefer warfare to wharf air.