Delving into the world of nautical phrases its enlightening how many historical phrases have moved into the day to day language. Not that I am suggesting that we willl be “Shivering timbers” and “delivering broadsides” on a regular occassion but its quite interesting to see which ones you use….possibly none. 

 

  • Above board – refers to anything on or above the open deck. If something is open and in plain view, it is above board.
  • Aloof – This comes from the Old Dutch word loef which meant “windward” and was used to describe a ship within a fleet which sailed higher to the wind and was thus drawn apart from the rest of the fleet. Nowadays it means to stand apart or be indifferent!
  • At loggerheads – An iron ball attached to a long handle was a loggerhead. When heated it was used to seal the pitch in deck seams. It was sometimes a handy weapon for quarrelling crewmen and today can be used in the same way.
  • Chock-a-block – A block and tackle is a system regularly used on sailing ships to hoist the sails and tighten lines. They are Chock-a-block when there is no more rope free and the blocks jam tightly together. Predictably this lead to its current meaning, “crammed so tightly together as to prevent movement”.
  • Clean bill of health – This was a certificate signed by a port authority attesting that no contagious disease existed in the port of departure and none of the crew was infected with a disease at the time of sailing. Shore-side, it means that you are in good shape.
  • Clear the deck – One of the things done in preparation for battle. Currently widely used to clean bedrooms and living spaces. 
  • Cut and run – While this is thought to refer to tthe cutting of an anchor line in an effort to make a quick getaway. Which would not be the preferred action of any captain is probably more likely referring to the practice of securing the sails of a square-rigged ship with rope yarns that could easily be cut away when a quick departure was necessary. 
  • Cut of one’s jib – In order to maintain pointing and forward momentum many warships had their foresails or jib sails cut thinly. Upon sighting thin foresails on a distant ship a captain might not like the cut of his jib and would then have an opportunity to escape. This is slightly more obscure in its modern usage but I have definitely heard it used…maybe just in the company of sailors and in jest. 
  • Deliver a broadside – the simultaneous firing of the guns and/or canons on one side of a warship. Quite a blow, as can be imagined. Today it means much the same type of all-out attack, though done (usually) with words.
  • Devil to pay – Included because it was quite interesting and I am sure sometimes used. Originally, this expression described one of the unpleasant tasks aboard a wooden ship. The devil was the ship’s longest seam in the hull. Caulking was done with pay or pitch (a kind of tar). The task of ‘paying the devil’ (caulking the longest seam) by squatting in the bilges was one of the worst and most difficult jobs onboard. The term has come to mean a difficult, seemingly impossible task. ‘The devil to pay and no pitch hot’.Those with no seafaring knowledge, assumed it referred to satan and gave the term a moral interpretation.

 

  • Dressing down – Thin and worn sails were often treated with oil or wax to renew their effectiveness and elongate their lives. This was called “dressing down”. An officer or sailor who was reprimanded or scolded received a dressing down and has made it’s way into a modern context.
  • Dutch courage – Dates to the 1600s Anglo-Dutch wars and was likely British propaganda claiming that the Dutch troops were so cowardly they wouldn’t fight unless fortified with copious amounts of schnapps. The term has come to mean false courage induced by drink, or the drink itself.
  • Fits the bill – A Bill of Lading was signed by the ship’s master acknowledging receipt of specified goods and the promise to deliver them to their destination in the same condition. Upon delivery, the goods were checked against the bill to see if all was in order. If so, they fit the bill and are also used today in a similar fashion.
  • Give 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. Today it can be used in the same context or related to giving people some space. 
  • Groggy – In 1740, British Admiral Vernon (whose nickname was “Old Grogram” for the cloak of grogram which he wore) ordered that the sailors’ daily ration of rum be diluted with water. The men called the mixture “grog”. A sailor who drank too much grog was “groggy”.
  • In the offing – This phrase is quite simple to understand once you know that ‘the offing’ is the part of the sea that can be seen from land, excluding those parts that are near the shore. Early texts also refer to it as ‘offen’ or ‘offin’. A ship that was about to arrive was “in the offing”, therefore imminent, which is how the phrase is used today.
  • Idle/idler – Idler was the name for those members of a ship’s crew that did not stand night watch because of their work. Carpenters, sailmakers, cooks, etc. worked during the day and were excused from watch duty at night. They were called idlers, but not because they had nothing to do, simply because they were off duty at night. Today it focuses on the inactivity of the person. 
  • Junk – Old rope no longer able to take a load, it was cut into shorter lengths and used to make mops and mats. Land-side, junk is all that stuff in your garage you know you’ll need right after you throw it away.
  • Listless – When a ship was listless, she was sitting still and upright in the water, with no wind to make her lean over (list) and drive ahead. Whether you or someone else feels listless I have definitely used this to describe myself. 
  • Long shot – In old warships, the muzzle-loading cannon were charged with black powder of uncertain potency that would propel the iron shot an equally uncertain distance with doubtful accuracy. A 24-pounder long gun, for instance, was considered to have a maximum effective range of 1200 yards, even though, under the right conditions, a ball might travel some 3000 yards. Similarly, a short, stubby 32-pounder carronade’s lethality faded fast beyond 400 yards. Thus, the odds were against a hit when one fired a long shot.
  • Loose cannon – A cannon having come loose on the deck of a pitching, rolling, and yawing deck could cause severe injury and damage. Has come to mean an unpredictable or uncontrolled person who is likely to cause unintentional damage.
  • No room to swing a cat – The entire ship’s company was required to witness flogging at close hand. The crew might crowd around so that the Bosun’s Mate might not have enough room to swing his cat o’ nine tails. This has come to refer to small confined spaces and luckily has nothing to do with swing our furry friends. 
  • Overbearing – To sail downwind directly at another ship thus “stealing” or diverting the wind from his sails. Another phrase used in regards to strong personalities. 
  • Pipe down – A boatswain’s call denoting the completion of an all hands evolution, and that you can go below. It was the last signal from the Bosun’s pipe each day which meant “lights out” and “silence”. Self explanatory and I am sure that if not used regularly then you definitely think it. 
  • Slush fund – A slushy slurry of fat was obtained by boiling or scraping the empty salted meat storage barrels. This stuff called “slush” was often sold ashore by the ship’s cook for the benefit of himself or the crew. The money so derived became known as a slush fund, which was separate from their wages. 
  • A square meal – In good weather, crews’ mess was a warm meal served on square wooden platters.
  • Three sheets to the wind – A sheet is a rope line which controls the tension on the downwind side of a square sail. If, on a three masted fully rigged 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.
  • Toe the line – When called to line up at attention, the ship’s crew would form up with their toes touching a seam in the deck planking.
  • Turn a blind eye – From Admiral Lord Nelson’s awesome display of badassery at the Battle of Copenhagen. When the signal was given to stop fighting, Nelson held his spyglass to his blind eye and insisted he didn’t see the signal. He then proceeded to kick butt, of course.
  • Under the weather – Keeping watch onboard sailing ships was a boring and tedious job, but the worst watch station was on the “weather” (windward) side of the bow. The sailor who was assigned to this station was subject to the constant pitching and rolling of the ship. By the end of his watch, he would be soaked from the waves crashing over the bow. A sailor who was assigned to this unpleasant duty was said to be “under the weather.” Sometimes, these men fell ill and died as a result of the assignment, which is why today “under the weather” is used to refer to someone suffering from an illness. A related theory claims that ill sailors were sent below deck (or “under the weather”) if they were feeling sick.