Sunday, June 10, 2007

Bet you didn't know this...



Did you know that a lot of our common (albeit antiquated) terms have origins in nautical history. I love words. I found this interesting and thought I would use this time to teach. It's what I do...

Above board – On or above the deck, in plain view, not hiding anything.
Bear down – Turn away from the wind, often with reference to a transit. (I thought this was a labor & delivery term!)
Between the Devil and the deep blue sea – See Devil seam. (Devil seam – The curved seam in the deck planking closest to the side of the ship, next to the scuppers. A sailor slipping on the deck would be "between the Devil and the deep blue sea".)
Bitter end – The anchor cable is tied to the bitts, when the cable is fully paid out, the bitter end has been reached. The last part of a rope or cable.
By and Large – By means into the wind, while large means with the wind. By and large is used to indicate all possible situations "the ship handles well both by and large".
Cut and run – When wanting to make a quick escape, a ship might cut lashings to sails or cables for anchors, causing damage to the rigging, or losing an anchor, but shortening the time needed to make ready by bypassing the proper procedures.
Footloose – If the foot of a sail is not secured properly, it is footloose, blowing around in the wind.
Hand over fist – To climb steadily upwards, from the motion of a sailor climbing shrouds on a sailing ship (originally "hand over hand").
Know the ropes – A sailor who 'knows the ropes' is familiar with the miles of cordage and ropes involved in running a ship.
Let the cat out of the bag – To break bad news (the "cat o' nine tails" being taken out of the bag by the bosun was bad news, announcing a flogging).
No room to swing a cat – The entire ship's company was expected to witness floggings, assembled on deck. If it was very crowded, the bosun might not have room to swing the 'cat o' nine tails' (the whip).
Poop deck – A high deck on the aft superstructure of a ship.
Scuttlebutt – A barrel with a hole in used to hold water that sailors would drink from. Also: gossip.
Slush fund – The money obtained by the cook selling slush ashore. Used for the benefit of the crew (or the cook). (Slush is the greasy substance obtained by boiling or scraping the fat from empty salted meat storage barrels, or the floating fat residue after boiling the crew's meal.)
Son of a gun – The space between the guns was used as a semi-private place for trysts with prostitutes and wives, which sometimes led to birth of children with disputed parentage. Another claim is that the origin the term resulted from firing a ship's guns to hasten a difficult birth.
Square meal – A sufficient quantity of food. Meals on board ship were served to the crew on a square wooden plate in harbor or at sea in good weather. Food in the Royal Navy was invariably better or at least in greater quantity than that available to the average landsman.
Squared away – Yards held rigidly perpendicular to their masts and parallel to the deck. This was rarely the best trim of the yards for efficiency but made a pretty sight for inspections and in harbor. The term is applied to situations and to people figuratively to mean that all difficulties have been resolved or that the person is performing well and is mentally and physically prepared.
Stem – the extension of keel at the forward of a ship.
Stern – The rear part of a ship, technically defined as the area built up over the sternpost, extending upwards from the counter to the taffrail.
Taken aback – An inattentive helmsmen might allow the dangerous situation to arise where the wind is blowing into the sails 'backwards', causing a sudden (and possibly dangerous) shift in the position of the sails.
Taking the wind out of his sails – To sail in a way that steals the wind from another ship. cf. overbear.
Three sheets to the wind – On a three-masted ship, having the sheets of the three lower courses loose will result in the ship meandering aimlessly downwind. Also, a sailor who has drunk strong spirits beyond his capacity.
Touch and go – The bottom of the ship touching the bottom, but not grounding.
Under the weather – Serving a watch on the weather side of the ship, exposed to wind and spray.
Wide berth – To leave room between two ships moored (berthed) to allow space for maneuver.

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5 Comments:

At 10:58 PM, Blogger Sailor said...

You'd lose the bet... at least, many of them I did know. As a sailor that loves to read, and to attempt to write too, I've also long been facinated with the origins of the terminology.

 
At 10:58 PM, Blogger Kitty said...

This was very informative and interesting.

 
At 8:32 AM, Blogger Bob said...

How about components on a sailboat like "sheets" - you pull those in and they're not the sails. Shrouds: Along with the head and back stays they hold the mast in place. Gunk hole speaks for itself and we're not talking toilet. Wonderful terms all used for the wonderful sport of sailing. Remember, life's a reach and then you jibe.

 
At 12:53 PM, Blogger PLANET3RRY said...

Those are pretty cool. Seeing that transportation of the aquatic kind was all the rage a couple hundred year back, it is interesting to see how the language has changed (or stayed the same). Neat!

Attention on the Poop Deck!

 
At 6:38 AM, Anonymous jb said...

Good words.

Also Sweet Fanny Adams (a child that was cut up in a gruesome murder)as a truly disgusting reference to meat stew made of v-poor ingredients, as might be available on board ship having spent many months off shore.

 

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