One of the many pleasures to be had from reading Patrick O’Brian’s ‘Aubrey/Maturin’ series of novels – which describe the lives of Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend naval surgeon Stephen Maturin during the Napoleonic wars, and of which Master and Commander is the first and best known volume – is the way O’Brian shows us how much of our commonly used language originates from our relationship with the sea. This is probably true of many cultures and languages, but it seems the during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when British sea power was at its height, the migration of nautical phrases from ship to dry land turned into a flood. There are too many to attempt to catalogue them all, but here are a few.
‘Above board’ Pirates often hid crew members below decks to launch surprise attacks. Ships where all the crew were visible above board were thought to be honest and trustworthy.
‘Bite the bullet’ Before the days of anaesthetic, injured sailors were often given hard objects such as bullets to bite during operations or amputations.
‘Clean slate’ Each watch recorded their courses and distances on a slate, which was wiped clean at the changing of the watch.
‘Cut and run’ To cut a ship’s anchor cables and set sail quickly without hauling up the anchors. Only done as a last resort.
‘Devil to pay’ The crew had to seal, or ‘pay’ the seams between planks with hot tar to prevent water leaking below decks. The ‘devil seam’ was the longest and most inaccessible (and most dangerous) seam; so having the ‘devil to pay’ was to be given the worst job.
‘The bitter end’ The bitt is a post on the ship’s deck around which cables or ropes are wound, so when all the cable or rope has been payed out, you have reached the bitter end.
‘First-rate’ Now means simply ‘good’ but used to refer to the largest and best ships of the line in naval ranking. (Also ‘second rate’ and so on, down to ‘sixth-rate’, the smallest ship a Captain could command.)
‘Go to the head’ Apparently the toilet was usually located forward, near the figurehead of the ship (although this seems an odd place to put it to me.)
‘High and dry’ Describes a ship that has beached and deserted by the receding tide.
‘In the doldrums’ The Doldrums are an area either side of the equator known to have light and unstable winds, so being in them was a cause for anxiety.
‘Knowing (or learning) the ropes’ Sailing ships had a bewildering number of ropes that hands might be called upon to pull. Knowing which was the right one was fairly crucial.
‘Mainstay’ Now the word means stalwart or indispensable. On board ship, it was a particular rope (stay) supporting the main mast.
‘Not enough room to swing a cat’ The cat was the Purser’s whip, the cat o’nine tails. If the deck was crowded with hands eager to view a punishment being meted out, there could be…
‘Over a barrel’ Sometimes sailors about to be whipped were tied to the barrel of one of the long guns (cannons). So, not a good place to be.
‘Plane (or plain) sailing’ Used to describe the method of navigation based on simple geometrical calculations (planes). Now it more generally means uncomplicated.
‘Pipe down’ The watch officer had a whistle that he blew on completion of certain tasks, giving permission to the crew to go below decks.
‘Square meal’ The term originally described any proper meal served on plates, which were actually wooden squares on board (for ease of storage).
‘Touch and go’ A brief landfall.
However, it is worth noting that some people think many of these associations are bogus, and have been cooked up by enthusiasts who themselves may have been three sheets to the wind. These scholars have helpfully come up with their own acronym: CANOE – the Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything.