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Everyday Phrases and their Nautical Origins
A-K

Admiral
An admiral is a senior ranking officer in the US Navy, and the word signifies a commander of a fleet, or part of a fleet, in all maritime nations. From the Arabic word amir meaning prince or leader.

Adrift
Not moored, at the will of the wind and tide. From the middle English drifte (to float). Sailors used the word to describe anything missing or come undone. From this word came drifter, a person without purpose or aim in life.

Ahoy!
This traditional greeting for hailing other vessels was originally a Viking battle cry.

Aye, Aye
Aye is old English for "yes."   The seaman's reply "Aye aye, sir," means, "I understand and I will obey."  

Bamboozle
From the 17th century, it described the Spanish custom of hoisting false flags to deceive (bamboozle) enemies.


Barge

The word barge has two nautical meanings. First as a term applied to a flag officer's boat or highly decorated vessel used for ceremonial occasions. The second usage refers to the more common, flat-bottomed work boat which is hard to maneuver and difficult to control. Hence the term . . . barge in.

Before the mast
The position of the crew whose living quarters on board were in the forecastle (the section of a ship forward of the foremast). The term is also used more generally to describe seamen as compared with officers, in phrases such as, "he sailed before the mast." Most ships today have cabins for their crew.

Between the Devil and the Deep
The devil was the longest seam of the ship, thought to be the first plank on the outer hull of a wooden vessel from stem to stern. When at sea and the devil had to be caulked, the sailor hung from a rope to do so. He was suspended between the devil and the sea —  a very precarious position, especially when the ship was underway.

Bitter End
The end of the anchor line secured to a sturdy post on the deck called a  bitt. The line was paid out in order to set the anchor. However, if the water was deeper than anticipated the rope would pay out to the bitter end . . . ooops.

Bluejacket
The first uniform that was ever officially sanctioned for sailors in the Royal Navy was a short blue jacket open in the front.  It is now used as a generic name for a Navy enlisted person.

Black Book
From the 1300's - a collection of maritime laws and conduct that became known as the Black Book of the Admiralty. The punishments for offenses was harsh, to say the least. Drowning, starvation, and marooning were punishments for serious offenses such as repeatedly sleeping on watch. As used today, if you're listed in someone's black book, you have offended them in some way. Luckily for you, physical punishments no longer apply.

Blind Eye
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.

Blood Money
Originally known as bounty money, it was the financial reward for sinking an enemy ship. The amount of the reward, however, was not based on the size or importance of the ship but on the number of crew members killed.

Boat
From the Anglo-Saxon bat that meant a small ship or vessel.  A generic term for a small, open craft. Many people use the term when, in fact, they mean ship.  


Boatswain
(pronounced bo'sun)
From the Saxon word swein which meant a boy or servant. It is his/her responsibility to assure that all equipment on deck, i.e. anchor, rigging, sails, etc., functions properly and have suitable spare parts. In spite of the name, the ship's boats are not usually his responsibility.

Boatswain's Pipe
An unusually shaped whistle, it was used in ancient Greece and Rome to keep the stroke of galley slaves. The pipe was used in the Crusades to call English cross bowmen on deck for attack.  A variety of tones can be produced, and each order had its own unique call. In time, the pipe came to be used as a badge of office by commanders. The pipe is still used, in the British and some other navies, for saluting visiting officers and other dignitaries.

Booby Hatch
A booby hatch is a small, covered compartment under the deck, toward the bow. Sailors were punished (perhaps by the Black Book) by confinement in the booby hatch. The term has come to mean (politically incorrectly) a mental institution, or to characterize some places I have worked.

Boot Camp
During the Spanish-American War, sailors wore leggings called boots, which came to mean a Navy (or Marine) recruit. These recruits trained in 'boot' camps.

Brightwork
Brightwork originally referred to polished metal objects and now is used to refer to varnished items made of wood, such as trim.

Brought Up Short
A sailing ship underway could only be brought to an emergency standstill by dropping the anchors. Not a pleasant experience. Used today to mean a person brought to an unexpected standstill by a sudden change of fortune or circumstance.

Buccaneer
From the French boucan, or grill, for cooking dried meat. Originally referring to those who hunted and smoked meat, it expanded to include those who ate it (or stole it) as well. Predominantly in the Caribbean in the 1650's, buccaneers differed from pirates in that they did not attack their own nation's ships. Early groups were made up of adventurers of all kinds, excellent seamen all, many of whom made remarkable voyages around the world. Sir Henry Morgan organized them to capture Panama in 1671. The start of the European war in 1689 was the end of the buccaneers, though many went on to become "legit" privateers. Their romanticized legend lives on in the writings of Defoe, Masefield and Stevenson, and in Emily Dickinson's poem 'Bees are Black . . .' in which she refers to bees as "Buccaneers of buzz".

Bumboat
A boat selling supplies or provisions to ships. Derived from the Dutch boomboat, a broad-beamed fishing boat. Or, possibly from bumbay, an old Suffolk word meaning quagmire. This word appeared in England in 1695 referring to scavenging boat regulations. These boats were employed to remove 'filth' from ships and also to carry fruits and vegetables for sale on board. (I didn't make that up!)

By Guess and By God
An early form of navigation, relying upon experience, intuition and faith. Has come to mean inspired guesswork.

By the Boards
Beyond the wooden boards that make up the deck and ship's planking. To throw over the side, or to pass by the side, of a vessel. To come aboard, on the other hand, means to come 'on the boards (deck)' of the vessel. (Still used today, though the wood is in short supply on most new boats.) By the boards has come to express a lost opportunity or to let something pass.

Careen
From the Latin carina (keel) or French carener. Prior to hydraulic lifts, hulls still needed to be cleaned, patched, caulked, etc. Careening is a deliberate heeling to one side in order to accomplish these tasks. Usually was done on a careenage, a steep, sandy shoreline.

Carry On
In the days of sail, the officer of the deck kept a weather eye constantly on the slightest change in the wind so sail could be reefed or added as necessary to ensure the fastest headway. Whenever a good breeze came along, the order to 'carry on' would be given. It meant to hoist every bit of canvas the yards could carry. Today, the term means to continue with your work.

Castaway
A shipwrecked sailor. Not, as often used, a sailor marooned or put ashore as punishment. To cast away was to commit a deliberate act to cause a ship to sink, to be lost or to make it necessary to abandon her.


Cast Off

Letting go the lines to a mooring, wharf, dock, buoy or another ship in order to move away. Shore-side, the term refers to second-hand clothing.

Channel
From the Latin canal, referring to the movement of water, it is the area within a body of water of adequate depth to be used for navigation. As used by bureaucratic land-lubbers, 'the proper channels' do not necessarily assure a pleasant passage.

Chewing the Fat
Literally, eating the seaman's daily ration of tough, salt-cured pork or beef. Long before refrigeration, cured meats were tough but durable and it took a lot of chewing to make them edible. Has come to mean a friendly conversation (or talking too much, depending who's talking).

Clean Bill of Health
A certificate signed by a port authority attesting that no contagious disease existed in the port of departure and none of crew were infected with a disease at the time of sailing. Shore-side, it means in good shape.

Clean Slate
Prior to GPS and onboard computers, courses and distances were recorded on a slate. At the end of each watch these were transcribed into the ship's log and the slate wiped clean for the next watch. Has come to mean starting anew.

Close Quarters
A small wooden fortress or barricade erected on the deck of a merchant ship when attacks by privateers were expected. Small openings, called loopholes, allowed the sailors to fire small weapons to protect the ship (and themselves, one would assume). Land-side, close quarters has come to mean in close contact or a small area. Loophole, from the French louvre (window), has come to mean a gap in the law.

Colors, True Colors, False Colors, Flying Colors
The flag flown by a vessel indicating its nationality was referred to as her colors. Long before radios, you can imagine how important this might have been, especially when engaged in battle. False colors were sometimes flown to avoid capture or to approach unsuspiciously (see bamboozle above). This was frowned upon in International Law, wherein it is accepted as a 'ruse of war' only if the ship is in immediate danger.

Coxswain (pronounced cocks'n)
A coxswain was the helmsman of a ship's boat. Originally, small boats carried on ships were known as cockboats or 'cocks', from whence the term derived. With the passing of time the coxswain became the helmsman of any boat, regardless of size.

Cranky
Possibly from the Dutch krengd, a crank was an unstable sailing vessel. Due to a faulty design, the imbalance of her cargo, or a lack of ballast, a crank would heel too far to the wind. Has come to mean irritable.

Crossing the Line
An ceremony performed onboard when passengers and/or crew cross the equator for the first time. A special initiation ceremony in which King Neptune and various other mythological characters participate. Owes its origin to ancient pagan rites.

Bluejackets (see above) treasure the certificate which testifies that "in Latitude 00-00 and Longitude xx-xx," and usually addressed to all Mermaids, Sea Serpents, Whales, Sharks, Porpoises, Dolphins, Skates, Eels, Suckers, Lobsters, Crabs, Pollywogs and other living things of the sea," __(name)__ has been found worthy to be numbered as one of our trust shellback, has been gathered to our fold and duly initiated into the solemn mysteries of the ancient order of the deep."  

Cup of Joe
Navy lore: Josephus Daniels (18 May 1862-15 January 1948) was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Among his reforms of the Navy were inaugurating the practice of making 100 Sailors from the Fleet eligible for entrance into the Naval Academy, the introduction of women into the service, and the abolishment of the officers' wine mess. From that time on, the strongest drink aboard Navy ships could only be coffee and over the years, a cup of coffee became known as "a cup of Joe".

Cut and Run
Most often thought to mean the cutting of an anchor line in an effort to make a quick getaway. Hard to imagine that many ship's masters enjoyed routinely losing an anchor or two, so it 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 His Jib
The term originated in the 18th century, when sailing navies could determine the nationality of a sailing vessel by the shape of their jib, long before her colors could be seen. (A jib is a triangular sail in the front of the boat.) Shore-side meaning is to judge a person by outward appearance.

Dead Horse
A ceremony held by British crews when they had been at sea four weeks and had worked off their initial advance, usually one month's wages (and usually long gone). The term 'flogging a dead horse' alludes to the difficulty of getting any extra work from a crew during this period, since, to them, it felt as though they were working for nothing.

Deep Six
A fathom, the unit of measurement in most maritime countries for the depth of the sea, is six feet. Sailors used the term to refer to throwing something overboard and it has come to mean getting rid of something.

Deliver a Broadside
A broadside was the simultaneous firing of the guns and/or canons on one side of a war ship. 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
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 hot pitch'. Landlubbers, having no seafaring knowledge, assumed it referred to satan and gave the term a moral interpretation.

Ditty Box or Ditty Bag
Possibly from the Saxon word dite, meaning tidy or from the English word dittis, a type of canvas material. A small box or bag in which a sailor kept his valuables such as letters, small souvenirs, and sewing supplies. 

Doldrums, In the Doldrums
Between the tradewinds of the northern and southern hemisphere lies an area of calm winds, close to the equator, called the doldrums. Since sailing vessels relied upon the wind, a trip through the doldrums was often long, hot and boring.

Down the hatch
A toast that seems to have its origins in sea freight, where cargoes are lowered into the hatch. First used by seamen, it is thought to date from the 1930s and has been attributed to author P.G. Wodehouse.

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.

Even Keel, Keeled Over
A vessel that floats upright without list is said to be on an even keel and this term has come to mean calm and steady. A keel is like the backbone of the vessel, the lowest and principal centerline structural member running fore and aft. Keeled over (upside down) was a sailor's term for death.

Fall Foul Of, Foul Up
Foul is an often used nautical term generally meaning entangled or impeded. An anchor tangled in line or cable is said to be a foul anchor. A foul berth is caused by another vessel anchoring too close wherein the risk of collision exists. A foul bottom offers poor holding for anchors. A screw up!

Fathom
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.

Figurehead
An ornamental figure placed on the front of a ship, under the bowsprit. Originally a religious and/or protective emblem. The custom continued but for purely decorative purposes. Hence the term figurehead - a leader with no real power or function except to 'look good' or appeal to a certain group.

Filibuster
Buccaneers (see above) were known in England as filibusters. From the Dutch for vrybuiter (freebooter) translated into French as flibustier. It is now used as a political term meaning to delay or obstruct the passage of legislation (as opposed to sailing vessels) by non-stop speech making.

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.

Flake, Flake Out
In order to keep the anchor chain of a ship in good condition, the chain would be laid out up and down the deck (flaked) in order to locate and replace any worn or weak links. The term is still in use, as the captain will often instruct the crew to flake out the anchor line in preparation for anchoring. The anchor line is looped on deck in such a way that it does not become fouled (tangled) when the anchor is dropped. So if someone calls you a flake, you are either a weak link or about to disappear.

Flotsam and Jetsam
These are legal terms in maritime law. Flotsam is any part of the wreckage of a ship or her cargo that is lost by accident and found floating on the surface of the water. Jetsam are goods or equipment deliberately thrown overboard (jettisoned) to make the ship more stable in high winds or heavy seas. (Lagan are goods cast overboard with a rope attached so that they may be retrieved and sometimes refers to goods remaining inside a sunken ship or lying on the bottom.) The term flotsam and jetsam shore-side means odds and ends of no great value.

Fluky
A light wind at sea that does not blow steadily from any one quarter. Variable.

Fly-by-Night
An easily set extra sail used temporarily when running before the wind (wind coming from behind). Has come to mean 'here today, gone tomorrow', or a less-than-stellar reputation.

Footloose
The foot is the bottom of a sail, whether triangular or square, that is attached to the boom to keep it stretched. A sail that is not attached to the boom is said to be footloose and is very difficult to control as it moves with the wind. The term 'footloose and fancy free' refers to the motion of a footloose sail.

Gripe
A sailing vessel gripes when, by poor design or imbalance of sail, it tends to end up with its bow into the wind when sailing close-hauled. The sails flap around, forward progress is halted and she is very hard to steer. On land, the term means to complain, complain, complain.

Grog, Groggy
Rum diluted with water. Brandy was part of a sailor's daily rations in the Royal Navy until the conquest of Jamaica in 1687 when rum replaced it. In 1740, Admiral Vernon decided his fleet got a little too much rum and issued an order to have the daily ration of one pint of rum diluted with water. Since Vernon's nickname was 'Old Grogram' because of the material out of which his (apparently rather ostentatious) 'boat cloak' was made. The watered down rum immediately became known as grog. Groggy is what happens to you when you indulge in it (even watered down).

Ground Swell
A sudden swell, which is the rise of water, along the shore. It often happens when the weather is fine and the sea behind it appears calm. Said to occur when undulating water from a far away storm reaches the shoreline where friction causes the swell. In common use, the term groundswell means a growing change in public opinion.

Half Seas Over
A ship run aground on reef or rock with seas breaking over her. Not much can be done in this situation. The expression has come to mean a person so inebriated as to be incapable of steering a steady course. 

Hand Over Fist
Hand over hand was a British term for the act of moving quickly up a rope or hoisting a sail, which was a matter of pride and competition among sailors. It is thought that American sailors changed this term to 'hand over fist', and the term now means to advance or accumulate rapidly.

Hard Up
Hard is another often used nautical term. To put the helm hard over is to put it as far as it will go in that direction. Hard and fast describes a vessel firmly aground and unable to make progress and has come ashore to mean rigid. 'Hard up in a clinch and no knife to cut the seizing', the term from which hard up derives, was a sailor's way of saying he had been overtaken by misfortune and saw no way of getting clear of it. Shore-side, the term means in need.

Haze
Long before fraternal organizations, hazing was the practice of keeping the crew working all hours of the day or night, whether necessary or not, in order to deprive them of sleep and to make them generally miserable. In the 19th century, many captains used this practice to assert their authority. Hazing has come to mean the initiation of a newcomer to a group by humiliating and harassing him or her, thereby asserting the authority of the group.

Hot Chase
A principle of naval warfare, though without basis in law, that allowed a fleeing enemy to be followed into neutral waters and captured there if the chase had begun in international waters. The term hot pursuit derives from this 'principle'.

Hotchpotch, Hodgepodge
Hotchpotch was a maritime term describing the method of equally dividing cargo and property damaged when two ships have collided and both are deemed to be responsible. Current usage of hodgepodge means 'a jumble'.

Hulk, Hulking
A large and unwieldy ship of simple construction and dubious seaworthiness. On shore, it means big and clumsy.

Idler, Idle
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.

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.

Jury Rig
A temporary repair to keep a disabled ship sailing until it could make port, such as a jury sail erected when the mast was lost or a jury rudder as an emergency means of steering when the ship's rudder was damaged.

Keel Hauling
A severe naval punishment during the 15th and 16th centuries. The victim, presumably a delinquent sailor, was dragged from one side of the boat to the other, under the bottom of the boat (keel). Tossed over one side and pulled up on the other, he was usually allowed to catch his breath before suddenly being tossed overboard again.  Keel hauling lost favor at the beginning of the 18th century, to be replaced by the cat-o-nine-tails. The term still means a rough reprimand.

Knowing the Ropes
This is pretty obvious if you've ever seen a tall ship. It was such an important skill on sailing vessels that an honorable discharge from service was marked, at one time, with the term 'knows the ropes'. Land-side it still means a person with experience and skill.

 

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