For those of you who are new to sailing or for those who occasionally like to learn a little from a good read, I thought it would be interesting to learn where some of the common sayings used in everyday life originate from. Of course the sayings listed below all have a nautical origin behind them.
Hope you enjoy your reading.
To Know the Ropes
There is miles of rope in the rigging of a square rigged ship. The only way to keep track of all the functions was to memorize where they were located. It took an experienced seaman to know the ropes.
Thin and worn sails were often treated with oil or wax to renew their effectiveness. This was called dressing down. An officer or sailor who was reprimanded or scolded received a dressing down.
The bottom portion of a sail is called the foot. If it is not secured, it is footloose and dances randomly in the wind.
From the sixteenth century until steam powered ships took over; British naval ships were rated as to the number of heavy cannon they carried. A ship of 100 or more guns was a First Rate line-of-battle ship. Second rates carried 90 to 98 guns; Third Rates, 64 to 89 guns; Fourth Rates, 50 to 60 guns. Frigates carrying 20 to 48 guns were fifth and sixth rated.
The Pipe Down was the last signal from the Boson's pipe each day which meant lights out and silence.
Meaning something is filled to capacity or over loaded. If two blocks of rigging tackle were so hard together they couldn't be tightened further, it was said they were Chock-a-Block.
The weather side of a ship is the side from which the wind is blowing. The Lee side is the side of the ship sheltered from the wind. A lee shore is a shore that is downwind of a ship. If a ship does not have enough leeway it is in danger of being driven onto the shore.
When a ship’s captain died during a voyage, his ship would return to port flying a blue flag and bearing a blue stripe on its hull. The term “feeling blue” signifies depression or sadness today.
Three Sheets to the Wind
A sheet is a rope line which controls the tension on the corners of a square sail. If, on a three masted ship, the sheets of the three lower course sails are loose, the sails will flap and flutter and are said to be in the wind. A ship in this condition would stagger and wander aimlessly downwind acting much like a drunken sailor.
Slush was the slurry of fat obtained by boiling salted meat and was often sold ashore by the ships cook. The money he received was then called the slush fund.
Under the Weather
If a crewman is standing watch on the weather side of the bow, he will be subject to the constant beating of the sea and the ocean spray. He will be under the weather.
To capsize. Also a sailor’s term for death.
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
The devil seam was the curved seam in the deck planking closest to the side of the ship and next to the scupper gutters. If a sailor were hanging off the side in a boatswains chair you would be between the devil and the deep blue sea.
The Devil to Pay
To pay the deck seams meant to seal them with tar. The devil seam was the most difficult to pay because it was curved and intersected with the straight deck planking. Paying the Devil was considered to be a most difficult and unpleasant task, sometimes used as mild punishment.
Let the Cat Out of the Bag
Aboard ship the punishment prescribed for most serious crimes was flogging. This was administered by the Boson's Mate using a whip called a cat o' nine tails. The cat was kept in a red dyed bag. It was considered bad news indeed when the cat was let out of the bag.
No Room to Swing a Cat
The entire ship's company was required to witness flogging at close hand. If the ship was crowded the Boatswain might not have enough room to swing his cat o' nine tails.
Give (someone) a Wide Berth
To anchor a ship far enough away from another ship so that they did not hit each other when they swung with the wind or tide.
Batten Down the Hatches
Prepare for trouble. The securing of property, especially the covering with protective sheeting (tarpaulin), is called 'battening down'. A batten is a strip of wood used to secure the sheeting. It has a nautical origin and 'battening down' was done on ships when bad weather was expected.
In 1801, during the Battle of Copenhagen, Admiral Nelson deliberately held his telescope to his blind eye, in order not to see the flag signal from the commander to stop the bombardment. He won. Turning a blind eye means to ignore intentionally.
A nautical measure equal to six feet, used to measure the depth of water at sea. The word was also used to describe taking the measure or “to fathom” something. Today when one is trying to figure something out, they are trying to fathom it or get to the bottom of it.
If you have some common sayings that originate from nautical terms please let us know so we can add them to our list. You can email them to us at email@example.com
Phrases courtesy of Dauntless Privateers
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