Nautical Sayings and Phrases - Part 2

Post by: Dee White
11 September 2011

Nautical Sayings Part 2

Some more nautical phrases for you to “fathom out”. Go on! “Push the boat out”, or you could end up (“by and large”), “all at sea” and “dead in the water”.

  • All at sea – in a state of confusion.  In the days of sail before navigational aids, boats out of sight of land, or having lost their bearings, were in an unknown position and in danger.
  • By and large – on the whole, or generally speaking. In the days of sail “large” was a term describing the wind when it was blowing from a point behind the ship’s direction of travel. When this favourable “large” wind was blowing the “largest” sails could be set and the boat could travel downwind. “By” is a nautical term meaning “in the direction of”….eg “by the wind” means to face more or less into the wind. It could be that to sail “by and large” meant the ability to sail not only with the wind but also against it. However, another theory is that to steer a course “by and large” was to keep slightly off the wind, so there was less need for constant adjustment in steering direction.
  • Dead in the water – not going anywhere or brought to a halt. A ship that was “dead in the water” had no wind in its sails to make it come alive and was therefore not able to move forward.
  • Fathom out – to deduce something from the facts. A fathom is a unit of measurement – the distance from finger tip to fingertip with arms outstretched. In 14th century, “fathoming” meant embracing someone, so to “fathom out” may have just been a way of measuring with outstretched arms.
  • Foot loose – free to do as one pleases (maybe romantically unattached). The lower edge of the mainsail is called the “foot”. If this is not attached it will hang or fly free and be much more difficult to control.
  • Go by the board – finished with (thrown or lost overboard). The “board” is the side or the decking of the ship. The phrase could refer to things that went over the side or that merely fell on the deck.
  • Grog or Groggy – a ration of alcohol or the state of drinking too much. In 1740 Vice Admiral Sir Edward Vernon issued a decree that the sailors’ daily ration of half a pint of rum should be diluted with an equal amount of water. The sailors referred to the Vice Admiral as “Old Groggy” because of the impressive Grogram cloak which he wore on deck. Hence the disdainful nickname of “grog” was given to their watered down drink. Sailors who drank too much were referred to as “groggy”.
  • Let the cat out of the bag – disclose a secret. This refers to the cat o’ nine tails, a whip made of rope with nine unbraided strands at the end, used to flog sailors. The “cat” refers to the scratches and wounds the sailors would incur from the flogging. The “cat” was kept in a bag and when it was brought out there was obviously going to be trouble ahead.
  • No room to swing a cat – a very confined space.  When a sailor was punished by flogging with the “cat o’ nine tails”, the whole ship’s company was required to witness it. The deck became very crowded and there was sometimes “no room to swing a cat”.
  • Over a barrel – to be in a situation where one cannot change one’s mind. The most common form of punishment for sailors was flogging. The culprit was tied either to a grating, the mast, or over a barrel. “Kissing the gunners daughter” was being tied to the barrel of a deck cannon while it was fired.
  • Push the boat out – to spend generously. Boats are often too large to be handled by one individual, especially when they are beached and need to be pushed back into the water. It was an act of generosity to help someone to push their boat out into the water. It later became used to mean buying a round of drinks or standing someone a treat.
  • Shake a leg ( or show a leg) – rouse yourself and get out of bed. “Show a leg” seems to have been the Royal Navy command for putting a foot out of your hammock and getting up. Another meaning could derive from the 19th century when women were sometimes allowed on board when the boat was in port. Legs were hung over the side of a hammock so that the hairy men’s legs could be distinguished from the more shapely and smooth women’s legs.
  • Shiver my timbers – an oath expressing annoyance or surprise. It is not certain whether this was a genuine sailor’s oath or just a literary invention, but by the 14th century the meaning of “shiver” was to “break into pieces”. So in a nautical context it would mean “if so and so happens let my boat break to pieces!”
  • Slush Fund – money put aside to bribe or influence. In 18th century “slush” or “slosh” was the fat or grease skimmed off by the cook when boiling up salted beef. This “slush” was a perk for the ship’s cook who sold it when the ship reached port. The money derived in this way was known as the “slush fund”.
  • Square meal – a substantial, nourishing meal. Many people believe the phrase to refer to the square plates used by sailors. But as far back as the 16th century the word “square” was used to mean “proper”, “honest” or “straightforward”. This is more likely to be the derivation of the phrase.
  • Take the wind out of his sails – to take away someone’s initiative, disconcert or frustrate them. This could derive from the art of sailing so that you “steal” the wind from another boat. A boat under sail can be slowed down if another boat sails between it and the wind, preventing their sails from filling.
  • Touch and go – in a precarious situation. This refers to the situation a vessel would be in, in shallow water, when it touched the bottom but did not become grounded and was able to move off again.
  • Whistle for the wind – hope for the impossible. This possibly derives from the nautical superstition that the wind could be summoned to help a becalmed vessel by whistling for it. Possibly it was thought that the wind would blow in sympathy with the sailors’ blowing. Conversely they should refrain from whistling during a gale. Some sailors believe that whistling raises not a fair wind but a storm.

Read part 1

Author - Dee White

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