NAUTICAL ORIGINS.....

 

Above Board

Anything on or above the open deck. If something is open and in plain view, it is above board.

All at sea

This dates to the time when accurate navigational aids weren’t available. Any ship that was out of sight of land was in an uncertain position and in danger of becoming lost..

Aloof

Now means to stand apart or be indifferent, but it came 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.

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.

As the Crow Flies -

When lost or unsure of their position in coastal waters, ships would release a caged crow. The crow would fly straight towards the nearest land thus giving the vessel some sort of a navigational fix. The tallest lookout platform on a ship came to be know as the crow's nest.

Back and Fill

A technique of tacking when the tide is with the ship but the wind is against it.

Bear Down

To sail downwind rapidly towards another ship or landmark.

Booby Hatch

Aboard ship, a booby hatch s a sliding cover or hatch that must be pushed away to allow access or passage.

Buoyed Up

Using a buoy to raise the bight of an anchor cable to prevent it from chafing on a rough bottom.

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 slipped on the deck, he could find himself between the devil and the deep blue sea.

By and Large

Currently means in all cases or in any case. From the nautical: by meaning into the wind and large meaning with the wind: as in, "By and Large the ship handled very well."

Chock-a-Block

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".

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..

Clear the deck

One of the things done in preparation for battle. Current usage similar to "Batten down the hatches"..

Close quarters

In the 17th century the barriers that sailors laid across a ship’s deck in order to provide a safe haven from the enemy were called close-fights. By the mid 18th century that confined defensive space became called ‘close quarters’, i.e. close dwellings. This eventually came to mean ‘near enough to to be able to fight hand to hand’.

Copper-bottomed

"Copper-bottomed" described ships that were fitted with copper plating on the underside of their hulls. The process was first used on ships of the British Navy in 1761 to defend their wooden planking against attack by Shipworms and to reduce infestations by barnacles. The method was successful in protecting ships’ timbers and in increasing speed and manoeuvrability and soon became widely used. Before long, "Copper-bottomed" began to be used figuratively to refer to anything that was certain and trustworthy.

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

Warships many times had their foresails or jib sails cut thinly so that they could maintain point and not be blown off course. 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.

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. Some sources define the "devil" as the below-the-waterline-seam between the keel and the the adjoining planking. Paying the Devil was considered to be a most difficult and unpleasant task.

Dressing Down

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.

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.

Fall foul of

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

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.

First Rate

Implies excellence. From the 16th century on 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 48 to 20 guns were fifth and sixth rated.

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.

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 to make the ship more stable in high winds or heavy seas. The term flotsam and jetsam shore-side means odds and ends of no great value.

Fly-by-Night

A large sail used only for sailing downwind and requiring rather little attention.

Footloose

The bottom portion of a sail is called the foot. If it is not secured, it is footloose and it dances randomly in the wind.

Flying colours

To come through a battle with flying colours means a ship has come through relatively unscathed and with her colours (flag) flying.

From stem to stern

From the front of a ship to the back. Now describes something in its entirety.

Garbled

Garbling was the prohibited practice of mixing rubbish with the cargo. A distorted, mixed up message was said to be garbled.

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.

Gone By the Board

Anything seen to have gone overboard or spotted floating past the ship (by the board) was considered lost at sea.

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.

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".

Groundswell

A sudden 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.

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 and fast

A ship that was hard and fast was simply one that was firmly beached on land. Has come to mean ‘rigidly adhered to – without doubt or debate’.

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.

Hit the deck

The prudent thing to do when subjected to a French broadside

High and dry

This term originally referred to ships that were beached. The ‘dry’ implies that, not only were they out of the water, but had been for some time and could be expected to remain so.

In the Offing

Currently means something is about to happen, as in - "There is a reorganization in the offing." From the 16th century usage meaning a good distance from shore, barely visible from land, as in - "We sighted a ship in the offing."

Junk

Old rope no longer able to take a load, it was cut into shorter lengths and used to make mops and mats.

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.

Leeway

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.

Let the Cat Out of the Bag

In the Royal Navy the punishment prescribed for most serious crimes was flogging. This was administered by the Bosun's Mate using a whip called a cat o' nine tails. The "cat" was kept in a leather or baize bag. It was considered bad news indeed when the cat was let out of the bag. Other sources attribute the expression to the old English market scam of selling someone a pig in a poke(bag) when the pig turned out to be a cat instead.

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.

Long haul

Operation on ship requiring the hauling of a lot of line. Also seen in short haul, an operation requiring little line.

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.

Mainstay

A stay that extends from the maintop to the foot of the foremast of a sailing ship. Currently, a thing upon which something is based or depends.

No Great Shakes

When casks became empty they were "shaken" (taken apart) so the pieces, called shakes, could be stored in a small space. Shakes had very little value.

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.

Over the Barrel

The most common method of punishment aboard ship was flogging. The unfortunate sailor was tied to a grating, a mast or over the barrel of a deck cannon.

Overbearing

To sail downwind directly at another ship thus "stealing" or diverting the wind from his sails.

Overhaul

To prevent the buntline ropes from chaffing the sails, crew were sent aloft to haul them over the sails. This was called overhauling.

Overreach

If a ship holds a tack course too long, it has overreached its turning point and the distance it must travel to reach it's next tack point is increased.

Overwhelm

Old English for capsize or founder.

Pipe Down

Means stop talking and be quiet. The Pipe Down was the last signal from the Bosun's pipe each day which meant "lights out" and "silence".

Pooped

The poop is the stern section of a ship. To be pooped is to be swamped by a high, following sea

Press Into Service

The British navy filled their ships' crew quotas by kidnapping men off the streets and forcing them into service. This was called Impressment and was done by Press Gangs.

Rummage Sale

From the French "arrimage" meaning ship's cargo. Damaged cargo was sold at a rummage sale.

Scuttlebutt

A butt was a barrel. Scuttle meant to chop a hole in something. The scuttlebutt was a water barrel with a hole cut into it so that sailors could reach in and dip out drinking water. The scuttlebutt was the place where the ship's gossip was exchanged.

Skyscraper

A small triangular sail set above the skysail in order to maximize effect in a light wind.

Ship-shape and bristol fashion

A reference to the precise nature of shipbuilding (and maintenance) as well as the exemplary work that came from Bristol shipyards.

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.

Son of a Gun

When in port, and with the crew restricted to the ship for any extended period of time, wives and ladies of easy virtue often were allowed to live aboard along with the crew. Infrequently, but not uncommonly, children were born aboard, and a convenient place for this was between guns on the gun deck. If the child's father was unknown, they were entered in the ship's log as "son of a gun".

A Square Meal

In good weather, crews' mess was a warm meal served on square wooden platters.

Start Over with a Clean Slate

A slate tablet was kept near the helm on which the watch keeper would record the speeds, distances, headings and tacks during the watch. If there were no problems during the watch, the slate would be wiped clean so that the new watch could start over with a clean slate.

Taken aback

A dangerous situation where the wind is on the wrong side of the sails pressing them back against the mast and forcing the ship astern. Most often this was caused by an inattentive helmsman who had allowed the ship to head up into the wind.

Taken Aback

A dangerous situation where the wind is on the wrong side of the sails pressing them back against the mast and forcing the ship astern. Most often this was caused by an inattentive helmsman who had allowed the ship to head up into the wind.

Taking the wind out of his sails

Sailing in a manner so as to steal or divert wind from another ship's sails.

Taking turns

Changing watches with the turn of the hour glass.

The Bitter End

The end of an anchor cable is fastened to the bitts at the ship's bow. If all of the anchor cable has been payed out you have come to the bitter end.

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.

Tide over

At first glance, this would seem to be an obviously nautical term. Today it means to make a small bit of something, usually money, last until a supply comes in, as in borrowing some money to tide you over till payday. However, the meaning has changed over the years. Once upon a time, ships could move under sail power, or in the absence of wind, float along with the tide, called a tide over. One could say the floating would tide the ship over until wind came again to move it along.

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.

To Know the Ropes

There was miles and miles of cordage in the rigging of a square rigged ship. The only way of keeping track of and knowing the function of all of these lines was to know where they were located. It took an experienced seaman to know the ropes.

Touch and Go

This referred to a ship's keel touching the bottom and getting right off again.

True colors

The current meaning, ‘to reveal yourself as you really are’, actually came about because of the opposite phrase “false colors” – from the 17th century referring to a vessel which sailed under a flag not her own. This tactic was used by almost everyone as a ruse de guerre, but the rules of gentlemanly behavior (and possibly actual legal rules) required one to raise one’s true colors before opening fire on another ship.

Try a different tack

The direction in which a ship moves as determined by the position of its sails and regarded in terms of the direction of the wind (starboard tack). If one tack didn’t bring the ship up properly, one could always attempt another.

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

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.

Warning shot across the bow

From the literal practice of firing a warning shot across another ship’s bow to encourage the captain to strike without engaging.

Windfall

A sudden unexpected rush of wind from a mountainous shore which allowed a ship more leeway.


 

A big thank you to Captain Ganesh Srinivasan who compiled this