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The Persistence of Nautical Expressions

a lithograph of a ship navigating through waves

I love words. As a little kid I used to read reference books, including the dictionary. My favourite part of each definition was the etymology; I just found it fun to find out where certain words came from. In the world of business and marketing, everyone encounters jargon of obscure origin without realizing what it once meant.

A surprising amount of modern English vernacular derives from nautical words and phrases. There are some obvious ones we all know, like above board, even keel, from stem to stern, go overboard, hit the deck, high and dry, etc… but for every nautical phrase you intentionally use, there are probably a dozen more that you use unknowingly. Here are some cool nautical references you might not have known about:

  • Aloof is an adjective meaning distant, or conspicuously uninvolved. It comes from the Old Dutch word loef, meaning “windward” and described a ship sailing higher to the wind, being drawn apart from the rest of the fleet.
  • Chock-a-block means crammed tightly together. It originally referred to a block-and-tackle pulley system being raised to its highest extent so that there was no more free rope, and the blocks jammed together.
  • Clean slate. Synonymous with a fresh start, this expression originates with the keeper of the watch on a ship who would keep track of details (such as speed, distance, changes in heading, etc.) on a slate. At the beginning of the next watch, that slate would be wiped clean.
  • Cut of one’s jib. Though it’s a fairly dated reference to someone’s appearance or demeanour, this is still a recognizable phrase. The foresail of a ship is called the jib sail. Warships, in lieu of a single jib sail, would often have three or four jibs cut thinly to maintain point and not be blown off course. Sighting a thin foresail on a distant ship could be the first sign of hostile intent; if a captain “didn’t like the cut of their jib” he might take the opportunity to steer clear and avoid a fight.
  • Fathom today means to understand, to make sense of something. It originates from a measure of depth equal to six feet, and the verb form referred to the act of dropping a marked and weighted rope overboard to ascertain the depth of the water in which one was sailing. There’s another, more modern phrase with a very similar meaning and etymology: Sounding out means to test or investigate a situation, and comes from measuring depth by sonar.
  • Filibuster was originally an English word for buccaneer (pirate), or anyone engaged in unauthorized warfare with a foreign power. It comes from the Dutch word vrybuiter (freebooter) via the French filibustier. It now refers to a prolonged speech made to obstruct progress in a legislative assembly without breaking the established rules.
  • First Rate, Second Rate, etc. While this expression today is a way of generally expressing excellence, it dates to the time before steam power when warships were rated according to the number of cannon they carried. First rate meant a ship had 100 guns or more; second rate was 90 to 99, third rate 64 to 89, and so on.
  • Footloose means being free and able to do as one pleases, without responsibilities or commitments. It originally referred to an unsecured sail– the bottom portion of a sail is called the foot– if it was blowing freely in the wind, the sail was said to be footloose, footloose, kick off your Sunday shoes. Please, Louise, pull me off of my knees. Jack, get back, come on before we crack. Lose your blues, everybody cut footloose. It also apparently has something to do with Kevin Bacon teaching the squares about the value of dance.
  • Grasping at straw is an odd phrase that is almost never used correctly. Ships frequently carried livestock that required straw bedding. If a ship went down, there would be a telltale patch of flotsam left behind that included large quantities of straw. The unfortunate sailor struggling in the water, unable to find anything to grasp onto to stay afloat, would be grasping at straw (which of course would be of no help to him). It’s another way of saying you’re doomed, despite all effort. If you’re saying “grasping at straws” you’re using it wrong.
  • Groggy is a reference to British Admiral Edward Vernon, called Old Grogram for the cloak he wore (grogram, a.k.a grosgrain, being a coarse fabric of raw silk and wool). In 1740 he was the one who ordered that sailors’ daily ration of rum be diluted with water. This mixture was derisively called grog, and a groggy sailor was one who had had too much.
  • Hazing was the practice of keeping the crew working all hours, often unnecessarily, merely in order to for the captain to assert his authority. It has come to mean initiation of a newcomer to a group by humiliation, thereby asserting the group’s authority.
  • In the offing means something is likely to happen soon. Offing referred to that part of the sea visible from land; a ship in the offing was one that could land imminently.
  • Junk originated as a term for rope that was old, weathered and unable to take a load. It would be cut up to make other things, like mats and mops.
  • Knows the ropes is a fairly obvious one. We’ve all heard the phrases know the ropes, learn the ropes, show them the ropes. Sailing depended entirely on experience and skill with the rigging of the sails. An honourable discharge from naval service was once marked with this phrase.
  • Listless meant a ship was sitting still and upright because there was no wind to make her lean over and drive ahead. Now it means lacking drive or enthusiasm.
  • Loose cannon today refers to a person who is unpredictable, uncontrolled and likely to do unintentional harm. It’s origin is totally literal; a cannon having come loose on the deck in rough seas could cause severe injury and damage to the ship.
  • Over a barrel originally was a part of punishment aboard a ship; transgressors would be flogged, often while tied over the barrel of a deck cannon. Today, having someone over a barrel means they’re at your mercy in a helpless position.
  • Overbearing now means to be domineering, but it originally meant sailing downwind directly at another ship, thereby stealing the wind from their sails.
  • Pooped. Heheheh. You said “pooped.” Heheheh. The highest, rearmost deck of a sailing ship was called the poop deck. If a ship was overtaken by a massive wave drenching her from astern, she was said to be pooped. Now it just informally means exhausted.
  • Scuttlebutt is rumour and gossip, like the talk around the water cooler at the office… and that’s exactly where the term comes from. Butt is another term for barrel, and to scuttle is to make a hole. The scuttlebutt was a drinking barrel where sailors went for water and idle chitchat.
  • Slush fund refers to a reserve of money used for illicit purposes, such as bribery. It originated as nautical slang for money collected to buy luxuries. Such monies often came from the sale of refuse grease from meat cooked aboard ship; this material was known as slush.
  • Son of a gun was an epithet applied to babies born aboard ship. Between guns on the gun deck was a convenient place for birthing when necessary.
  • Square meal refers to the crew’s mess in good weather, a warm meal served on square wooden platters.
  • Swing a cat is another reference to shipboard punishment. It has nothing to do with animal abuse! Having room to swing a cat means having enough space to flog a sailor with the cat o’ nine tails (a whip also known as the Captain’s daughter, as it was only to be used on the Captain’s personal orders). The cat o’ nine tails was usually kept in a baize bag, and this is a possible origin of the phrase “the cat’s out of the bag.”
  • Taking turns derives from changing watch onboard ship, shifts that were marked by turns of an hourglass.
  • Toe the line is sometimes misconstrued as tow the line, implying doing one’s part, but the phrase has nothing to do with pulling your weight! When called to attention, the crew would form up with their toes touching a seam in the deck planking. To toe the line is to obey the rules completely, and not get out of line.
  • True colours currently means to reveal yourself as you truly are. It came about because of the opposite phrase false colours, referring to the tactic of a warship sailing under a flag that was not her own. The rules of gentlemanly conduct required one to raise the true flag before opening fire on another ship.
  • Try a different tack refers to a sailing ship changing course by turning into and through the wind so as to bring the wind on the opposite side. It has become synonymous with changing one’s approach.
  • Turn a blind eye is a really good one! An idiom describing the ignoring of undesirable information, it started as a reference to Admiral Lord Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. A cautious Admiral Parker gave the signal to stop fighting; Nelson held his spyglass up to his blind eye, declaring “I really do not see the signal” and his forces, contrary to orders, continued to victory. After the battle, Parker was recalled in disgrace and Nelson was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the British fleet for being a total badass.
  • Under the weather is to be suffering from an illness. The worst watch station on a ship was on the weather, or windward, side of the bow. The sailor assigned here was subject to constant pitching and rolling of the ship, and was soaked by waves crashing over the bow. To have this unpleasant duty was to be under the weather, and these men sometimes fell ill and died as a result of the assignment.
  • Windfall refers to unexpected good fortune, or fruit blown from a tree. However, it originally meant an unexpected rush of wind from a mountainous shore that allowed a ship more leeway, that is, making it less likely to be driven onto the shore.

I could go on an on, but this should tide you over for now. Thanks for staying for the long haul. In fact, congratulations on making it this far without abandoning ship!  Keep an even keel, and don’t let anyone take the wind out of your sails, even if you’re three sheets to the wind.

Nyuk nyuk nyuk.

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Richard Erickson
About the Author - Richard Erickson
A master of nit-picking and an artful user of words, Richard’s love of language began as a kid. He enjoyed reading (including reading the dictionary!), winning spelling competitions, and analyzing word usage. As senior editor and copywriter at Tenato, his 20+ years in information technology and the performing arts have enhanced both the technical and creative elements of his writing style.

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