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All Hands On Deck

Jul 27, 2021


  • More than Monarchs

Article written by Dana Boyle, Vice Chair of the Monarch Joint Venture Board

As the Monarch Joint Venture team recently revisited and fine-tuned our mission, vision and values statements, a few of us newer members halted at the term, “all hands on deck.” It had purposefully been included in the opening statement of our commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: “The conservation of monarchs and our environment requires ‘all hands on deck.’” In fact, you’ll find that term featured in many of our communications to our 100+ partners and the public. It goes back to a concept introduced by Wayne Thogmartin et al. in a monarch conservation research article published in 2017. Acknowledging its casual and colloquial tone, though, we wrestled with whether to keep or replace the term.

In the end, we chose to stick with it. “All hands on deck” – or “all hands to the pump” in British English – represents the urgent need for all to get involved in a time-sensitive and critical effort. Unlike another familiar expression, “it takes a village,” this one conveys a greatly heightened sense of urgency. We felt it was fitting, as we muster to help restore the monarch migration and support rapidly dwindling numbers of pollinators. This is the time for coordinated and universal action not just by the agricultural community, but by land owners in corporate, public, suburban and urban settings, too.

That’s the short version of the account, but our curiosity took us down an additional rabbit hole, as we explored how many cultures and languages have similar expressions. In English, all references point to this idiom having roots in naval culture. “All hands on deck!” is a call issued to all crew members – usually in an emergency – requiring immediate help from everyone, no matter their assigned role. We learned that there are similar expressions in German, “Alle Mann an Deck!,” Dutch, “Alle hens aan dek,” Danish, “Alle mand pa daek!” and Polish, “wszystkie rece na poklad.”

In Latin-American Spanish, “todos pongamos nuestro granito de area” literally translates to "let's all put in our little grain of sand" but conveys a strong figurative message of everyone needing to do their part. One person's actions or one grain of sand may seem inconsequential, but when multiplied and combined with others, the impact can be overwhelming. 

You might wonder why we went the route of including an idiomatic expression at all, in such important statements. Surely, a formal wordsmith would opt to omit it. The truth is that idiomatic expressions provide colorful shortcuts that can have more impact than wordy descriptions. Sure, they can be overused (have you ever played Buzzword Bingo in a boring meeting?). But they also can deliver just the right emotional tone that is needed.

As we worked to validate the uniqueness and call to arms of the meaning and genesis of “all hands on deck,” we discovered an uncommon connection with someone based in England who shares our passion for environmental conservation. Lucy Pembayun and her firm LEaFTranslations came up in an internet search. Her February 2018 blog post titled “The Ultimate Guide to Translating Idioms,” accurately pointed out that the automated apps just give word-for-word translations. Lucy explains, “an idiom is ‘a group of words that portray a meaning that cannot be guessed from knowing the meaning of the individual words.’ In other words, the only way to know what an idiom means is to know the idiom. Their very nature means that you can’t work out the meaning of the phrase from the phrase alone.” Specialists like Lucy would know that a child’s correct translation of “I’ve got ants in my pants” into German would be “Ich habe Hummeln im Hintern,” or “I have bumblebees in the bottom.” We share this humorous example, to appeal to the insect fans among us.

This connection to Lucy – who delighted us by swiftly putting together a Google spreadsheet of multi-cultural translations – is a perfect example of how broad the community needs to be. As it turns out, she donates some of her proceeds to responsible tree planting and is able to state that her company is a “sustainable carbon-positive translation company.” Way to go, Lucy!

To use another idiomatic expression, we need a big tent – full of uncommon connections like these – if we are to accomplish such important goals around education, inspiration and habitat restoration. This includes scientists, nature lovers, government agencies, hunters, educators, birders, gardeners, farmers, data analysts, funders, writers, systems thinkers, policy makers, media influencers – in short, people from all walks of life who care about a balanced ecosystem for humans and all living beings with whom we share this planet.

After all, this charismatic species – the monarch butterfly – is under great stress right now, largely from loss of habitat and climate change. We can do our parts individually and collectively, using every “tool in our toolbox.” It’s no time to “go it alone.” Just “jump on board.” Or however YOU say it!

Article written by Dana Boyle, Vice Chair of the Monarch Joint Venture Board. A special thank you goes to Lucy Pembayun of LEaF Translations for her support researching many of the idioms included in this article. The Monarch Joint Venture is a 501c3 nonprofit organization and a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration. The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners. Header photo by Wendy Caldwell.