I love to read. I usually have a few books going at once: something informational, something inspirational and something fictional. In the summertime, when I’m relaxing, I especially enjoy reading novels that are set by the ocean. I like to read them outside in the early evening when it’s starting to cool off; if the weather cooperates by sending a breeze through my backyard, my imagination lets me believe it’s an ocean breeze and for an hour or so I feel like I’m on vacation.
This summer, a few of the ocean-themed books I’ve read had plots that included sailing. I’ve never been sailing, so the lingo the characters used was foreign to me. Again and again I had to look up unfamiliar terms like “tacking”, “jib”, “mizzen”, and so on. In the process of looking up those words, I stumbled on a list of commonly used expressions that have nautical origins. I thought it might be fun to share a few of them here.
Above Board – Anything on or above the open deck: if something is open and in plain view, it is “above board”.
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 toward the nearest land, which gave the ship a navigational fix. “As the crow flies” came to mean the most direct route or in a straight line. On a related note: the tallest lookout platform on a ship was nicknamed the “crow’s nest”.
Groggy – In 1740, British Admiral Vernon (whose nickname was “Old Grogram” because the coat he wore was made of a fabric called grogram) ordered that the sailors’ daily ration of rum be diluted with water. The men named the mixture after Vernon, calling it “grog”. Drinking too much grog made a sailor “groggy”.
Loose Cannon – In the days when sailing ships were rigged for battles at sea, a cannon that came unfastened from its restraints was a very dangerous thing. Those cannons weighed thousands of pounds and one of them careening around the deck could easily squash a sailor!
Overwhelm – This comes from the Old English, whelmen, which means to turn upside down. To “overwhelm” meant to capsize or fill with water and sink.
Pipe Down – The “pipe down” was the last signal from the bosun’s (petty officer’s) pipe each day and meant “lights out” and “silence”.
Pooped –The “poop” is the stern, or back section, of a ship. To be “pooped” is to be swamped (flooded with water) by high waves heading in the same direction as the ship.
Rummage Sale – This comes from the French word, 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, and became known as the place where the ship’s gossip was exchanged.
Slush Fund – A slurry of fat was obtained by boiling or scraping 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 gotten this way became known as a “slush fund”.
Square Meal – Today we tend to think of a “square meal” as a well-balanced, healthy meal, but back in seafaring days the term was much more literal; the crew’s meal or “mess” was served on square wooden platters, which tended to stay on the table better than round plates as the ship tossed and turned.
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.
Under the Weather – If a crewman was standing watch on the weather side of the bow, he would be subject to the constant beating of the sea and the ocean spray, and it would be said that he was “under the weather”.
I hope you enjoyed this little language history lesson.
And I hope these last few weeks of summer will find you feeling happy and healthy and relaxed—not pooped or under the weather or overwhelmed!
Photo by Bobby Burch via Unsplash