You Talk Like a Sailor!

photo courtesy of Thad Zajdowicz

photo courtesy of Thad Zajdowicz

Whether you know it or not, you talk like a sailor! Yes, that’s right. Many of the words in common usage today are derived from traditional sailing terms. We thought we’d give you some examples, so without going overboard, we’ve put on our best duds and had a field-day stocking up on interesting words and phrases.

Do you have some of your own?

Word or Phrase

Original meaning

Common Usage

1st Rate According to the British rating system introduced by Admiral Lord Anson in the 1750s, a ship with one hundred guns or more. Something that is of the highest grade or best among its peers.
A-1 Refers to the classification of ships used by Lloyd’s Register of Shipping which takes into account attributes such as condition of hull and quality of equipment. A-1 is the top classification. Generally something of top quality or in top condition.
above board Above the deck and therefore open and visible. Open and fair dealing.
bale out To move water out of a ship using buckets, cans, or the like when the pumps are ineffective or choked. To save someone from certain fate by providing additional help, often requiring drastic measures.

Isolated Old Bucket

Photo by Gary Scott
http://www.garyslens.ca

bear up To put the helm up in order to keep the vessel’s head away from the wind. To hold up under physical weight, or persevere under mental or emotional burden.
bitter end The inboard end of a ship’s anchor cable; also the end of any line, the other end of which is fixed to the ship. The last and direst extremity.

photo courtesy of "dancegirl"

photo courtesy of “dancegirl”

blood money Prize money shared by the crew of a ship in the service of a sovereign, or the crew of a pirate ship, after capturing another ship and taking its money and valuables. A reward for doing an evil deed.
cat is out of the bag Referring to the cat-o’-nine-tails being removed from its bag when a sailor was tied to a grating to receive punishment. A secret has been discovered.
chew the fat Talking while chewing a meat ration that usually contained a lot of fat and gristle. To talk in a casual way, often while doing something else.
chock a block When the lower block of a tackle is run close up to the upper one, so you can hoist no higher, the blocks being together. A situation where there is no more room to fit another person or thing into a space.
cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey A brass triangle, or “monkey”, was set on the deck and used to contain cannon balls. More cannon balls were then stacked on top of those and so forth into a pyramid; when the temperature was extremely low, the brass monkey and the iron balls shrank, but the brass shrank more, occasionally becoming too small to contain the balls and spilling them onto the deck. (there is some doubt about this definition, but it’s the most amusing!) It’s cold!

photo courtesy of Pierre Drap

photo courtesy of Pierre Drap

deep six The sounding line used to measure the depth of water was typically only 6 fathoms (36 feet) long; if the lead weight at the end didn’t touch the bottom, the sailor announced “by the deep, six”, meaning the water was deeper than six fathoms. To “deep six” something means literally to dispose of it into deep water or, in current usage, to get rid of something so that it will never been seen again.
in the offing Said of an approaching ship, or one visible from the shore or beyond the anchoring ground. An opportunity that could soon be realized.

photo courtesy of Kirsten Blackstock

photo courtesy of Kirsten Blackstock

latitude One of the spherical coordinates (the other being longitude) used to describe a position on the earth; measured from zero to ninety degrees either north or south of the equator. (given) the space or authority required to accomplish a task or act.
leeway The distance that a vessel loses by drifting to leeward in its course. A degree of freedom or flexibility to act.

photo courtesy of Roger Kirby

photo courtesy of Roger Kirby

little nipper A term given to the boys aboard a ship whose job it was to carry forward the coiled “nippers”, the lines used to bind the anchor cable to the endless messenger line around the capstan that is used to raise the anchor, to the nipper-men who tied them onto the next length of cable as it was pulled in. A term used to describe young children, especially boys.
on the wrong tack Sailing with the wind on one side of the ship (e.g. port tack) when it is necessary to sail with the wind on the other side (e.g. starboard tack) to reach the desired destination. Employing the wrong strategy or following the wrong path.

photo courtesy of Karin Lindstrom

photo courtesy of Karin Lindstrom

room to swing a cat Having enough room on deck to swing the cat-o’-nine-tails. Usually referred to in the negative, as in “there is not enough room to swing a cat”, in regard to a space or area that is deemed to be too small for some purpose.
scuttle-butt A wooden cask holding drinking water on a ship, lashed in a convenient place. Rumor or gossip, often referred to as coming from people around a water cooler in an office setting.

photo courtesy of David Ritter

photo courtesy of David Ritter

shake a leg Or “show a leg.” This exclamation by the boatswain’s mate or master-at-arms was for crew to extend a leg from their hammock to show that they were awake on being called. Some historians believe that it was also a way for women, who were known to accompany men on board, to be recognized as not being part of the crew with the privilege of staying in their hammock. Get moving, or get to work.
skyscraper A triangular sail set about the skysail to take advantage of light favorable wind. A tall building.

photo courtesy of Bartek Wilk

photo courtesy of Bartek Wilk

slush fund The fat of the boiled meat in the coppers, formerly one of the perquisites of the ship’s cook; often sold to the purser to make candles or to landsmen when in port. Money gathered for unspecified activities, in some cases bribery, entertainment, or emergency needs.
son of a gun An epithet conveying contempt to a slight degree, and originally applied to boys born afloat, when women were permitted to accompany their husbands to sea. Another version has it that couples bunked on the gun deck when in port or not at war, and children born there were thus named. Generally used as an oath, both as a term of derision and as an expression of surprise.

photo courtesy of stefano barni

photo courtesy of stefano barni

taken aback In reference to the sails of a ship, when wind is brought onto the front faces of the sails by an unexpected change of wind, or inattention in the helmsman, and the result is to deaden her way (bring her to a stop). Shocked by a sudden change in circumstances.
toe the line To stand in a row, with toes touching a line. Used as a command for the crew to stand with toes along a line, such as when hauling on an anchor cable so that they were all pulling in the same direction, or when assembling on deck for other purposes. To conform to a rule or standard of acceptable practice.

photo courtesy of Kriss Szkurlatowski

photo courtesy of Kriss Szkurlatowski

whole kit and caboodle A kit, or kitt, was an officer’s outfit and necessaries, or a sailor’s wardrobe. Caboodle was an American term referring to a collection of things. Thus, everything that an officer or a sailor required for his job. Used more generally to mean the entire contents or the complete set of articles.

452766_23356899 whole kit and caboodle

photo courtesy of Bill Davenport

References:

The Sailor’s Word Book, by Admiral W. H. Smyth, 1867, Algrove Publishing Ltd., 2004

A Sea of Words, Dean King, with John  B. Hattendorf and J. Worth Estes, Henry Holt and Company, 1995

An A – Z of Sailing Terms, Ian Dear and Peter Kemp, Oxford University Press, 1987

Featured image courtesy of Miguel Saavedra
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