Ahoy, Southern Boaters! How is your craft, gear, and your boating attire holding up? Have you dressed ship? Did you begin with a clean slate this year? Nautical terms are used regularly in modern times. Here are a few phrases from the time of masted sailing ships. Some newer to the boating life may recognize some idioms, but did you know they came from life on the sea, such as down the hatch, where the 18th century expression was used as a toast in the Navy referring to the opening where cargo is loaded in the boat.
There are also certain maritime customs—proper language for renaming a boat and christenings, for example—that must be observed for ensuring fair winds and calm seas, but that’s for another time.
No doubt you have said on one occasion or another several of the following idioms.
A-1: In Lloyd’s Register, A1 was the mark of a first-class wooden ship.
Above board: Defined as “over the deck; a term used for open fair dealing without artifice or trick,” pirates would use it to have crew members gather on decks rather than below to fool victims into thinking it was an honest merchant ship.
All hands on deck: Referring to the whole ship’s company, it’s used to gather and discuss or take action to complete a task.
Barge in: This term today is a tactless appearance or interruption. It is believed to have come about due to a barge’s difficulty in maneuvering.
Clean slate: Although originally referred to clearing debts kept on a slate marked with chalk, daily logs aboard ship were also kept on a slab of slate, and each new watch officer would erase the previous entries.
Devil to pay: The “devil” seam which ran along the hull at the deck level was the hardest to caulk. To “pay” meant to caulk, in many cases, by hanging off the deck and said to be “between the devil and the deep blue sea.” It was also the name for the garboard seam along the keel and usually caulked when the boat was careened which made for wet and difficult conditions.
Knows the ropes: To have experience and know how to get the job done, the idiom is possibly linked to knowing all the ropes used in the rigging of a ship, particularly sailing vessels.
Long shot: Early ships’ guns tended to be inaccurate. If a shot made impact from a great distance, or a “long shot,” it was considered out of the ordinary.
Pipe down: Crews received a variety of signals from boatswain’s pipe. One was the order to “pipe down” which dismissed the crew from the deck when a duty was performed or to go belowdecks to sleep.
Tide over: A small amount until a larger amount is available. With no wind to fill the sails, sailors would float with the tide until the wind returned and were said to “tide over.”
Taken aback: Meaning startled or surprised, the sails of a ship went “aback” when the wind blew them flat, or back, against their supporting structures.
Toe the line: The order to stand in a row, the British Royal Navy had crew stand barefoot for inspection (or in some cases punishment) with toes touching seam lines of the deck planks or “toeing the line.”
Under the weather: The sailor who had to stand watch on the bow taking all the pounding and spray and was said to be “under the weather.”
Worth their salt: Salt was a very valuable commodity back in the day, and any sailor “worth his salt” earned the pay received.
Nautical terms found their way into our modern language despite many not realizing their sailing origins. Whether you are a seasoned sailor or new to the boating lifestyle, these phrases can add a little nautical flair to your conversations. Remember, it’s not just about the journey but the language that comes with it.
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