I was reading 'Shutter Island' by Dennis Lehane and I stumbled at this phrase:

Later, he got sick, repeatedly and violently, pitching black ropes of it over the side of his father's boat and into the sea.

You can see the sentence in context in an excerpt from Newsweek

I can't understand what 'pitching black ropes' means. Can some shed some light on it?

  • 3
    Jack O'Flaherty's answer is correct. But it's an oddly written sentence, so don't feel bad about having trouble understanding it.
    – Kevin
    May 14, 2020 at 14:30
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    To add to that comment, it's not an idiom. No english speaker would understand "pitching black ropes" by itself. In any context "pitching" means throwing -- pitching rocks over the side. And any thick stream of liquid could be called a "rope". And the color could be anything. Pink ropes would have implied he drank lots of Pepto Bismo. Multicolored if he recently had a several course meal. Black probably means it was at night, so it looked black. May 14, 2020 at 15:00
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    There's a bit of subtlety here, but it could be broken down as follows: "got sick" could mean (or include) "vomit". With "repeatedly and violently" it definitely means "vomit" (no other meaning makes sense). "Pitch" means "throw". This could be interpreted in similar 2 ways: (1) "Throw up" means "vomit". Then "pitching X" means "vomiting X", so he was vomiting black ropes of "sick". (2) It's symbolism to refer to what's actually happening to the vomit: it's being propelled away from the body, as would happen when you throw something. The vomit looks like "black ropes" (for some unclear reason)
    – NotThatGuy
    May 14, 2020 at 17:06

3 Answers 3


It means that he vomited (got sick), ejecting (pitching) solid looking streams (ropes) of vomit into the sea.

  • Projectile vomiting
    – Mazura
    May 14, 2020 at 7:28
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    I wonder whether the "black" is an indication of blood. Definitely not going to look it up. May 14, 2020 at 16:12
  • @chrylis-onstrike- I wondered the same thing, and me neither. May 14, 2020 at 16:27
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    Black-coloured vomit (among other colours at various times) is a usual symptom of food poisoning. May 14, 2020 at 16:56

 … pitching black ropes of it over the side …

The word sick is sometimes used as a noun to mean vomit, although it's more common in the UK than the US.

Although I can't find any direct reference to the phrase, there is the phrase ropes of vomit. It's used when somebody is particularly ill.

I did find a reference to the descriptive use of the phrase from "Kevin McClintock: 'The Thing' a masterpiece of a novelization" (emphasis mine):

In all my years on this earth, only two movies have scared the absolute you-know-what out of me.

William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist” is one. It’s still considered one of the most-frightening movies ever made, standing right up there next to “Halloween” and “Silence of the Lambs.” I was too young to see people faint in the theaters when Reagan brandished her bloody crucifix, and I never got to see the ropes of vomit splash the walls in all of its pea green-colored glory on the big movie screen, which is why I’m gleefully counting down the days to watch this 1973 classic in all its glory in February, thanks to the fine folks at Joplin’s Bookhouse Cinema.

So, in the passage in the question, it's describing somebody violently ill who is:

 … pitching black ropes of [sick or vomit] over the side …

  • 1
    Yes, but sick here is surely the adjective - he became seasick. May 14, 2020 at 8:49
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    @KateBunting - I suspect "sick" is doing double duty here, as both an adjective ("he got sick, repeatedly and violently") and a noun ("pitching black ropes of it" - I don't see any other possible antecedent for "it" in the quoted sentence aside from "sick", and "sick" (as a noun) is what he was pitching over the side). English is very friendly to playing those kinds of shenanigans. May 14, 2020 at 9:32
  • @KateBunting Rather than just echo the comment reply, I have updated my answer to start with the specific phrase (and pronoun) I was clarifying. May 14, 2020 at 13:45
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    Not sure how to Search for it, but sick as a noun for for vomit seems old-timey slang. In American Westerns a roughneck can say "Har, har. Yer sitting in your own sick" if you vomit on yourself. Or could toss you a rag to "clean up yer sick" (your vomit). May 15, 2020 at 0:26
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    @OwenReynolds As I said in my answer, " it's more common in the UK than the US." May 15, 2020 at 0:29

Pitching has a similar meaning word to throwing: violent vomiting is called projectile vomiting, and 'throw up' is a common expression for being sick.

As Dave Sherohman notes: it refers to the word sick, although it wasn't used as a noun initially. The rope is a fairly unpleasant image: when you're sick, it's more like throwing a rope than throwing a ball, you get to keep one end.

Pitch also means a black substance like tar: 'pitch black' is an idiom for 'completely dark'. Possibly the author intentionally used the verb pitch because of this secondary meaning.

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