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Words of the Sea

You can tell a surprising amount about a nation’s history from its language. A linguist once told me that if Shakespeare was to return, he would understand the English spoken by North Americans much better than that spoken by his countrymen. The reason is that for most of the two centuries after the first English-speaking colonist arrived in the New World their language remained relatively unchanged, compared with the rapidly evolving language in Britain. All languages are peppered with words and phrases that give clues to the past of those who speak them. For English, these speak to the central importance that the sea and seafaring has played in the recent past.

At first glance, discussing a new idea would not seem particularly nautical. Yet ‘By and large,’ we ‘take on board’ good ideas, especially ‘first rate’ ones. That said, if we can’t ‘fathom them out’ we are unlikely to go ‘overboard’ with them. Bad ideas we ‘steer clear of’ or ‘give a wide berth’ to, while we are ‘taken aback’ by any truly outrageous ones. Someone proposing an unwelcome idea might be asked not to ‘stick their oar in,’ or even told to ‘shove off.’ But before ‘showing your true colours,’ or even ‘nailing your colours to the mast’ it might be prudent to know what is ‘in the offing.’ Always try not to be the last to ‘spot which way the wind is blowing.’ After all, nobody likes to be left ‘high and dry.’

Drinking to excess, perhaps inevitably, has a close association with sailors. When we have drunk too much we may feel ‘groggy’, or ‘under the weather’ or even ‘three sheets to the wind.’ In these circumstances, do try not to ‘keel over.’ But while the link between drinking and the sea is more obvious, many nautical expressions spring up in the strangest places. Criminal gangs will ‘wait until the coast is clear.’ Students who have done well in a test are said to ‘pass with flying colours.’ A lazy employee who appears to be hard working will inevitably be accused of ‘swinging the lead’ (instead of casting it to find out the depth, the more demanding part of the job).

Industry and commerce use plenty of nautical expressions. New CEOs ‘take the helm’ of organisations, where they often like to ‘run a tight ship’, perhaps so they don’t become ‘overwhelmed.’ Once they ‘know the ropes’, they may feel able to ‘rock the boat’ by ‘embarking’ on a new strategy, although it could be ‘touch and go’ if it comes off. Particularly safe investments are described as ‘copper bottomed’, even though the practice of sheathing wooden vessels in copper to protect them from attack by ship worm has long since vanished. Conversely worthless investments are called ‘junk’ bonds, junk being worn or damaged rope that is only fit to be used to repair seams. In either case the investor will hope to make money ‘hand over fist’, which is how a sailor rapidly pulls home a rope. Less fortunate investors might require a small loan to ‘tide them over’ – reference to the method used by ships heading west up the English Channel against the prevailing wind. They used the westward flowing ebb tide to make progress and then anchored to ‘tide over’ during the eastward flowing flood tide.

With some expressions the influence of a maritime past is less obvious. Few people enjoying three ‘square meals’ a day will realise that this refers to the unusual square shape of Royal Navy mess plates, as well as the size of the portions. Or that when they wearily reach the end of a day’s labour and sigh ‘another day, another dollar,’ that they are referring to a 19th century American sailor’s daily wage. How much ‘scope’ for action you have is a reference to the amount of anchor cable a ship lets out, which defines how far the hull can turn around the anchor. Another expression based on anchoring is to ‘hold out to the bitter end.’ This is a reference to the end of an anchor cable that is made fast to the bits - solid vertical timbers that run through the decks of a ship to provide an anchor point. Not a good situation to be in if the anchor is still not ‘grounded’.

Some expressions are even more obscure, often because the nautical expression has repurposed a non-nautical word. Only once it is understood that the longest plank in a wooden hull is known as the devil and that ‘paying’ is repairing the seam between two planks does the expression ‘there is the devil to pay,’ i.e. a lot of work to do, make sense; or indeed why one would not like to be caught ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’. Those entering a disappointingly small room may assess it as being ‘too small to swing a cat in’ without realising that the cat they are referring to is the cat o’ nine tails used to administer floggings, and was stored in a red baize bag. I could go on, but I seem to have already let the cat out of the bag about nautical expressions.


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