Definitions

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

  • n. Loose hemp or jute fiber, sometimes treated with tar, creosote, or asphalt, used chiefly for caulking seams in wooden ships and packing pipe joints.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

  • n. A material, consisting of tarred fibres, used to caulk or pack joints in plumbing, masonry, and wooden shipbuilding.

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • n. The material obtained by untwisting and picking into loose fiber old hemp ropes; -- used for calking the seams of ships, stopping leaks, etc.
  • n. The coarse portion separated from flax or hemp in nackling.

from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia

  • n. The coarse part separated from flax or hemp in hackling; tow.
  • n. Junk or old ropes untwisted, and picked into loose fibers resembling tow: used for calking the seams of ships, stopping leaks, etc. That made from untarred ropes is called white oakum.

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • n. loose hemp or jute fiber obtained by unravelling old ropes; when impregnated with tar it was used to caulk seams and pack joints in wooden ships

Etymologies

Middle English okom, from Old English ācumba; see gembh- in Indo-European roots.
(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
From Middle English okome, from Old English ācumba ("oakum", literally "that which has been combed out, off-combings"), a derivative of ācemban ("to comb out"), from Proto-Germanic *uz- + *kambijanan (“to comb”), from Proto-Indo-European *uds-, *ūd- (“out”) + Proto-Indo-European *ǵombʰ-, *ǵembʰ- (“tooth, nail; to pierce, gnaw through”). More at out, comb. (Wiktionary)

Examples

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  • This word was used in the "Master And Commander." movie.

    July 31, 2012

  • Cords untwisted and reduced to hemp, with which, mingled with pitch, leaks are stopped.

    They make their oakum, wherewith they chalk the seams of the ships, of old seer and weather beaten ropes, when they are over spent and grown so rotten as they serve for no other use but to make rotten oakum, which moulders and washes away with ever sea as the ships labour and are tossed. Ral.

    Some drive old oakum thro’ each seam and rift;
    Their left hand does the calking-iron guide;
    The rattling mallet with the right they lift. Dryden.


    Dr. Johnson

    April 20, 2011

  • "He did what he was told to do as long as he was able, picking oakum until exhaustion stopped him, or helping to push the heavy handle of the bone grinder round and round until his body failed and he had to be half carried, half dragged back to his pallet."
    The Bride's Farewell by Meg Rosoff, p 155

    June 26, 2010

  • There's always something worse...

    February 12, 2007

  • Wow. And I thought *my* job was tedious.

    February 12, 2007

  • OED sez:
    Originally: the coarse woody fibres (hurds or tow) separated from the finer fibres of flax or hemp; (also) clippings, trimmings, shreds (obsolete). Later (also): esp. loosely twisted fibres obtained chiefly by untwisting and picking old hemp rope; such fibres or the like, used as a caulking material for the seams of wooden ships, the joints of pipes, etc., and formerly sometimes in dressing wounds. Now chiefly historical.
    The picking of old rope was a task formerly assigned to convicts and inmates of workhouses.

    February 12, 2007