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(From The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, Chapter XIV, published 1892)

Passage 223

“And how have you fared?” inquired the captain, whom I found luxuriously reclining in our mound of litter. And the accent on the pronoun, the heightened colour of the speaker's face, and the contained excitement in his tones, advertised me at once that I had not been alone to make discoveries.

“I have found a Chinaman's chest in the galley,” said I, “and John (if there was any John) was not so much as at the pains to take his opium.”

Nares seemed to take it mighty quietly. “That so?” said he. “Now, cast your eyes on that and own you're beaten!” And with a formidable clap of his open hand he flattened out before me, on the deck, a pair of newspapers.

I gazed upon them dully, being in no mood for fresh discoveries.

“Look at them, Mr. Dodd,” cried the captain sharply. “Can't you look at them?” And he ran a dirty thumb along the title. “'Sydney Morning Herald, November 26th,' can't you make that out?” he cried, with rising energy. “And don't you know, sir, that not thirteen days after this paper appeared in New South Wales, this ship we're standing in heaved her blessed anchors out of China? How did the Sydney Morning Herald get to Hong Kong in thirteen days? Trent made no land, he spoke no ship, till he got here. Then he either got it here or in Hong Kong. I give you your choice, my son!” he cried, and fell back among the clothes like a man weary of life.

I've found two meanings that could fit the context:

  1. to see, hear, or understand something or someone with difficulty
  2. to deal with a situation, usually in a successful way

I don't know what meaning fits the context actually. What do you take 'make something out' to mean in this context?

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    It's 1) here. Make out comes from seeing something: I couldn't make out who he was when he came through the door.
    – Lambie
    Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 15:04
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    Interesting transitive use of spoke in "spoke no ship". Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 15:55
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    @TimR - Speak a ship meaning exchange greetings and news on passing it in mid-ocean is commonly used by Patrick O'Brian, who presumably got it from authentic accounts. Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 17:47

1 Answer 1

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In this context the intended meaning (from the alternatives in Chambers) is "discern" in the sense of "to distinguish by the eye", again from Chambers. It could also mean to comprehend / understand but not in this context. "Make out" can mean succeed but not as a transitive phrasal verb.

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    Yes, and the captain is being somewhat sarcastic here. In asking "Can't you see what I mean?" or "Don't you get it?" he is saying I know you understand, it's not hard to decipher, but look! Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 13:06
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    Yes, and another example of the usage—this one not sarcastic—is, “The fog made driving difficult; I could barely make out the outline of the car ahead of us.” Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 15:28
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    The captain had run his dirty thumb along the line with the date November 26, so there's certainly a literal component to the question as well as the possible implication of "Aren't you quick-witted enough to see what it means?" Commented Oct 26, 2023 at 15:57

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