|Sailing in the Wilmington River|
A few days before heading to NYC, I attended a lecture in Savannah on “Sailor Speak.” The presenter was a retired rear admiral and his purpose was to enlighten us on how nautical terms came into the common usage. I thought I would share some of the terms and his explanations. On other notes, it is very hot here again. But I'm spending time on the water. The photo to the left is from Wednesday evening.
He started out with the tale of a Savannah native, Josiah Tattnall (born 1812). He became an American Commodore. In 1859, he broke US neutrality in China to aid the British fleet. When he was asked to explain his decision, he responded, referring to our kinship with the British, “Blood is thicker than water.” Variations of this term had been around for years, but this brought it into American conversations.
It appears all things “Jack” came from the British, whose sailors were known as “Jack” in the same manner as our soldiers were often called “Joe.” Jacktar came from a set of clothes embedded with tar to make them waterproof. “Hijack” came from a come-on line (Hi Jack) used by a prostitute who would lure a unsuspecting sailor into her “den” where others waited to bound him and to impress him into service upon their ships. If the ship was bound to China, he was “Shanghaied”
Limely was another name used for British sailors as lime juice was used to help prevent scurvy. In time the name was applied to all Brits.
Hunkey Dory, meaning everything is good, came from a street in Japan (Hunkidori) where you could get anything you wanted.
Posh is another term that comes from Britain. Wealthy passengers on long journeys to Indian in the days before air conditioning would demand a “POSH” stateroom (port outbound, starboard homebound) in order to avoid the morning sun heating up their stateroom. Today, post refers to elegant.
HMS Blazer is from where we get the term “Blazer” which implies a jacket with buttons on the sleeves.
“A blind eye” comes from Horatio Nelson, the British sea hero who had lost an eye in a battle. At the Battle with the French in 1801, he refused to call off the attack when ordered and won a great victory. It was said that he had turned his blind eye to the telescope and didn’t see the flag calling for the fleet to retreat.
Several terms came from forms of discipline at sea. “Over the barrel” referred to being bent over a barrel while flogged. “Room to swing a cat” referred to having enough room to lash someone with a cat of nine-tails. ‘Get the point" comes from British court-martial... if the sword points toward the one charged, he knew he was found guilty.
“Between the Devil and Deep Blue Sea” came from the caulking of the ship, the last seam to be caulked before going overboard.
“Under the weather” referring to being sick came from sick bays being on the quarter deck, under the weather deck, of sailing ships
Skuttlebutt: A keg to store fresh water in which sailors gathered around to share rumors.
Romans put figure of their gods (puppi) on the back of ship, this reference led to the term “poop deck”
“Knows the Ropes” was a derogatory term for a sailor which implied it was “all he knew”
“Put through the hoops”: Hammocks in which seamen slept were to be rolled tight enough that they could fit through a hoop and then stored along the side of the ship (as an additional barrier to shot coming at the ship). The tight roll provided protection.
“Sewed up” as “it is finished” came from putting a deceased sailor in his hammock with a cannon ball and sewing the hammock up before dropping the body overboard.
A “clean slate” comes from the notes made on a slate with caulk during a watch. When the watch was over, the slate would be cleared for the next watch.
“A cup of Joe.” Joe as a name for coffee came from the American navy who, during Presidents Wilson’s term, prohibited serving alcohol on ships (a ration is still supplied on British ships). Joe refers to Josephus Daniels who was the Secretary of the Navy, from where the order was sent. A “cup of joe” referred to coffee as a dig at the Secretary of the Navy who cut the booze.
Mind your p's' and q's originally referred to pints and quarts of booze
“At Loose Ends” comes from attempts to keep a sailor busy such as whipping the ends of a rope.
“Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.” Many things on a ship were referred to as a monkey including the rack used to hold cannon balls in place. On the quarter deck, these frames were often brass (for show) and the bottom set of balls would be inside the frame, then the balls would be mounted upwards. When the temperature dropped significantly, the brass could contract causing the stacked balls to fall.