14 Common Phrases and their Nautical Origins

In case you guys missed it, I started a new channel! It’s all bout history videos and the like, and this week is 14 common phrases and their nautical origins, all in time for the anniversary of a first in American Naval history! The video is below, as is the full script and lovely links to all the sources! Enjoy!

As I’m sure many Americans and still still resentful Brits know, this April 19th marks the 240th anniversary of the start American Revolution which successfully declared and secured the Thirteen American Colonies as the independent United States of America. This day today however, April 6th 2015 marks the 239th anniversary of a lesser known but still recognizable feat in the American history- the first successful capture of an enemy ship by the American Navy. The_Lexington_-_NARA_-_513013 The USS Lexington, named after the first battle of the war, was a converted Merchant Ship originally called the The Wild Duck (no doubt named after the popular Nintendo game). On April 6th, 1776 she tried to slip past an English blockade of the Delaware river fresh out of her refit as a warship. She was spotted by the HMS Edward, a tender ship for the larger British warships in the blockade. Edward was a smaller sloop with fewer guns than the Lexington but its crew, like most British seamen, were much more experienced and drilled for battle than their colonial counterparts. After an hour of fierce fighting,  the Edward struck her colors, surrendering from the fight and the Lexington’s Captain John Barry took command. They sailed the captured Edward back to Philadelphia where Barry would become a national Hero and later to be called a Father of the US Navy. However what’s this got to do with that title? Well, it comes back to the moment when the Edward capitulated and “struck her colours”, which is the act of lower your flags or “colours” as an indication of surrender. You may have heard or said variations of this term, for example letting others see what someone or something is really like by “showing their true colours”, or maybe achieving something triumphantly “with flying colours”. It might seem quite obvious now the nautical origins of these phrases, as up until relatively recently the main way ships could be identified or communicate was the use of flags and colours- namely to surrender, disguise their origins, nationalities, intentions or to avoid capture. Similarly, “liking the cut of ones jib” comes from a similar origin, as many sailors would look to try and recognise the distinctive forward sail of a ship, know as the jib, before flags or colours could be made out.  For a country such as England and later the United Kingdom that has been so historically in love with it’s navy and the sea, it’s no surprise that there are dozens upon dozens of terms and phrases originating on board ships and between sailors that have been adopted into the English language. Some are famous, such as the ships whip, the Cat-o-nine-tals, used for dealing out punishments lending itself to terms like “room to swing a  cat” and “letting the cat out of the bag”. Many are plainly obvious, such as shipshape, loose cannon, shot across the bows, taking the wind out of one’s sails, pushing the boat out, keeping wide berths, sailing close too the wind and being high and dry to name but a few. However here are fourteen..ish words and phrases you may not have known originated on the high seas. To “Up Sticks” is commonly known as a term for moving and living somewhere else, upping sticks and relocating for example to another street, neighborhood, village, town, city, metropolis, post-apocalyptic underground bunker or anywhere generally on land but the term is actually believed to be nautical in origin. Sticks often referred to masts or a portion of a mast and can often be unshippedremoving them from their fixed or regular position when the ship is at anchor or under maintenance. The mast or masts must then be set up or “upped” again to prepare for departure. I should mention that another theory put forward by a BBC documentary claims the term to be of Scottish origin, the upping of sticks referring to the rough frame of temporary housing set up when land was being worked, but most dictionary etymologies agree on the more seaworthy origin. Ropes, the essential item on every sailing ship spawned many terms around their use we might not be so aware of. Hand over fist refers to the pulling in of ropes as fast as possible. Chock a Block, as in those mysterious crates are crammed chock a block into that secret government warehouse, refers to the blocks and tackles found in pulleys and rigging. When all the blocks and tackles used to hoist the sails were at their limits, it was said to be chock-a-block, chock meaning ‘full’. ‘Money for old Rope’ comes from corruption in dockyards, when unscrupulous officials would sell old ropes officially designated to be used for cauking and plugging holes in the King or Queens ships for tidy profit. Back at sea, young sailors literally and figuratively “learning the ropes” by racing up and down the lines and rigging after mealtimes and during free time as practice for clambering over the web of ropes and masts, a practice that was referred to as “skylarking”, which it, and it’s contraction “Larking” came to be known as playing about and enjoying oneself.

If there was one thing I would not associate with larking about, it would be this.

If there was one thing I would not associate with larking about, it would be this.

Food and drink on board ships was nothing to write home about- ships could be at sea for months and months at a time, and very soon fresh food was no where to be found, and often years old stores of rations had to be relied upon. One such foodstuff was “Salt Junk”, the hated bane of every sailors appetite. Taken out of its aged barrel, these old cuts of salted fish or meat were washed off and boiled in copper pots. As the water boiled, the fat separated and and rose to the top of the water, forming a thick scum on the pots surface that was scraped off by the cook. This fatty slush was useful stuff, and could be sold on to waterproof ropes or even make candles. The handy profit accrued by the cook for this practice came to be known as a slush fund, something we now associate with more reprehensible business practices. The sailors then picked up their boiled salt junk on small square plates, a “square meal” as we might know

Can't imagine he looks on his legacy as a swill-naming rum rationer too fondly

Can’t imagine he looks on his legacy as a swill-naming rum rationer too fondly

it and would then sit at their tables and talk while trying to tackle their tough, chewy meals and giving rise to the term “chewing the fat”. In 1740 an Admiral Vernon introduced a rum ration diluted with water and lemon juice, half a pint of the spirit each day to a man. Vernon wore a black waterproof fabric known as ‘grogram‘ and The Admiral came to be known as “Old Grogam” by his crew, and the rum ration as “Grog”. Skilled Sailors, after training on their perilous positions high in the masts and sails were referred to as “top men”. These were dangerous positions- Edward Barlow’s experience in the Royal Navy gives a stark account of the perilous position topmen faced-

“In stormy weather, when the ship rolled and tumbled, we had much ado to hold ourselves fast by the small ropes from falling by the board; and being gotten up into the tops, there we must heave and pull to make fast the sail, seeing nothing but air above us and water beneath us, and that as raging as though every wave would make a grave for us: and many times in night so dark that we could not see another and blowing so hard that we could not hear one another speak”


How anyone took this man seriously I’ll never know.

Other valuable seamen, such as those skilled at painting became known as a “dab hand” for their proficiency with a paintbrush. The opposite of these skilled professionals were “wasters”, not derived from “waste” with an “e” but rather the “waist” with an “i”, men who worked at the “Waist” of a ship hauling the miles upon miles of rope day in day out. Going further, the derogatory term for a waister’s work would be “sloppy”, coming from the “slops” or loose, rough working clothes that were sold at the mast of the ship by the purser. Finally, when all was said and done and if arguments between waisters and dab hands flared up, conversations or lights at night might be put down by the bossum sounding of his pipe and telling the crew to “pipe down”. So there you have- it fourteen-ish words and phrases passed down from our nautical history. So the next time you’re in court being deposed for an illegal slush fund that’s embezzled millions from your companies pensions, at least you’ll know your meal in prison is probably a damn site better than the salty, slushy junk served on board the crew of the victorious USS Lexington 439 years ago today.                             nd Wasters

Say Something!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s