Friday, July 10, 2015

Fun with Nautical Terms

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. 

26 comments:

  1. I knew a cup of joe had come from some sort of coffee term. But the other ones were surprising to me.

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    1. I never heard it came was from Joseph Daniels, who was a native of North Carolina and an interesting figure. According to wikipedia, it may just be a myth. The Daniels family has an interesting history with my home state, so I knew who he was talking about even though I had not heard of the name in relation to coffee.

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  2. Far be it for me to question the two star, but since it's never halted me before here goes.

    Over a barrel; was where you stood with ankles and arms tied before being hoisted by ones neck up and out.

    A jack is a flag; as in Union Jack. That Don't Tread On Me that flies on US naval ships referencing the 13 now joined is a Jack. When referring to a Jacktar it was when a formal review with yards dressed with the crew. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Brooklyn_%281858%29#/media/File:USS_Brooklyn_%281858%29_at_Naval_Review.jpg
    And a Monkey was a boy, as in Powder Monkey who ran through the hoops to bring the powder charges from the below water level powder store to each gun. They made close to certain there was never more than sufficient to have one firing of a gun above water at a time. The Monkeys were 'two a penny' from the poor houses and also had teh advantage of sharp eyes. So they would be sent to the Top as lookouts.
    Kissing the gunner's daughter was the term for a flogging.
    The navy's never did things as Hollywood made out, well not quite. The idea with the barrel was when it was kicked out the person's own weight strangled them. Granted they were being held by a section of men maybe ten of them. But they wouldn't hoist him until he was insensate. The same with the flogging. The crewman would be tied to a gun with his face over the crest. So 'room to swing a cat' meant overhead room for the tails came down not across.

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    1. If I remember right, he said the "barrel flogging" was generally reserved for midshipmen, as they were not as painful as being tied to a mast or over a grating.

      It sounds like you're describing, "kicking the bucket" for hanging.

      I was not as familiar with jacktar as waterproof clothing and don't believe he said anything about it as a review. I do know that he mentioned "powder monkeys" (young boys bringing up powder). That is also a term used in mining--it was often a boy or young man who would bring explosives to where holes had been drilled for charges and again, you'd not want any more powder near the guns or explosion than you were igniting.

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    2. I seem to remember Shanghaied was due to the Sacramento gold rush where crews would jump ship and then the owners/captain would need replacements.

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  3. Yep these terms pretty much size up good many old happy sailors! Fun post.

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    1. Thanks--the interesting thing was how they find their ways into regular language

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  4. Those were interesting to read, we learn everyday. Best wishes!

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    1. Thanks, they were interesting even if their may be debate as to if the interpretation is 100% correct

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  5. I'd heard of some of these before, some I'd forgotten. Another English naval term is for the executive officer of a ship, just under the captain. The captain called them "Jimmy".

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  6. I love stories about the origins of words and sayings. It's fascinating - great post. At the end, I was still wanting more, ha ha.

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    1. Well, this was essentially my notes after an hour talk... But if I am at another such talk, I'll see what I can report on :)

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  7. You've doubtless noticed my interest in philology, Sage. Thanks for this excellent collection of term-origins!

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    1. I often chuckle at your philology, Geo!

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  8. Fascinating to learn where these phrases originated. I was most surprised by hunky dory!

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  9. "Hunky Dory" is also one of my favourite records by David Bowie. :-)

    Greetings from London.

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  10. Cold fallen brass monkey balls? Doesn't sound good, but I'm laughing at the last one. I also like the origins of Hunky Dory. That's a fun and interesting bit of trivia, as is this whole post. Thank you, Sage. Be well.

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  11. I knew these terms but didn't know their origins. Fun stuff.

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  12. This was an amusing and insightful post about terms that we often take for granted. When you said "nautical", I was prepared for a look at "gib", "kiln", "nautical miles" etc. Needless to say, this one was far more interesting.

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  13. Always interesting to me to hear where phrases we use all the time come from, even though sometimes there may be several different ideas about where the same phrase started.

    I never think of "knowing the ropes" as being derogatory these days.

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  14. I love these! We say many of these things without knowing where they originated. The first book in my next series is set in the circus and I had a "fun facts" before each chapter. One of the facts was a list of terms they use in the circus--most of which I'd never heard before. They have their own terminology and if a stranger were backstage, that stranger would have no idea what they were talking about!

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  15. I only knew a few of these. It was interesting reading and learning the meanings behind these terms.

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