Your Talk is Saltier than You Think
By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)
We get up every morning and sail through the day tossing words by the thousands to the winds, with little thought for their precise meanings and usage, and still less for where they came from. When young, we must study grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and learn something about the dictionary. But very few ever take the time to discover the sometimes wonderful way in which those words and phrases we use every day came into being.
Men of the sea were the first international society on earth, traveling to all its corners and carrying its riches to every part. It was these world travelers who brought new products and new words back to their home lands, and enriched both lives and languages. The seafarers who followed Vasco da Gama to India came back with that most famous material “dungaree,” which we find today in our blue jeans, and that simple bed, the “cot.” In Columbus’ wake there came into our language the “hammock” and the “hurricane,” both words contributed by the “Indians” he met.
There are many words and phrases in use every day that have their origins in the seafarers’ world. Many of these have become so ordinary that we no longer recognize their beginnings. You might suspect that phrases like “he knows the ropes,” “he’s squared away,” or “on an even keel” came from the sea, but that’s also true for “the devil to pay,” “in the dog house,” and “a good deal.” To seamen, the “devil” was the longest seam in a wooden ship’s hull that needed to be stuffed (“caulked”).
Located down near the keel, “paying” it (filling it with caulking) was an unpleasant job that had to be done while you were in a sort of stoop squat, and so was very uncomfortable. This same “devil” is the one referred to when someone is said to be “between the devil and the deep blue sea,” or in a difficult position.
Being in the “dog house” was something the crews of slavers often had to tolerate on their trips across the tropics from Africa to the Caribbean. Many a slave ship master totally gutted his ship and to fit it out with as more benches or shelves on which to stow slaves. As a result, small hutches, slightly wider and longer than a man, and high enough to cover him when lying down, were built aft on the upper deck as sleeping places for crewmen. Trying to get some sleep in them on a hot, humid, airless night was, indeed, like being in the dog house — an unpleasant state of affairs.
Finding a “good deal” really comes from the shipbuilder rather than a sailor. Large timbers, free from defects and big enough to be cut into ship’s timbers, were hard to come by. Looking at a standing tree would not tell a lumberjack with certainty that it could be felled, trimmed, and shaped without some kind of defect like a knot, a crack, or a rotten spot showing up just where it wasn’t wanted. In the timber trade long ago, a cut wooden plank was called as a “deal;” so, when someone was lucky enough to have one of usable quality, he had a “good deal.” It’s still true today, but now we use the word “deal” to mean a sale or an opening action in a poker hand.
Have you ever felt “listless” or “pooped,” or had someone insist that you “shake a leg?” Well, welcome aboard, matey, you’re on the high seas!
When a ship was listless, she was sitting still and upright in the water, with no wind to make her lean over (list) and drive ahead. It’s the same way with us: when we are listless, our “get up and go” has “got up and went.”
We might use the word “pooped” to mean the same thing, but its seagoing origin is quite different. The rearmost, highest deck of a sailing ship was called the poop deck, from the Latin word “puppis.” If a ship were unlucky enough to be overtaken by a massive, breaking sea which drenched her from astern, she was said to have been “pooped.” When you think about it, the sea and shore uses of the word aren’t that different: in both cases, you’re washed out.
“Pooped” or not, when a sailor aboard ship heard “shake a leg” it was an order to rise and shine. In the good old days, the men sometimes were allowed to take their “wives” to sea with them. The women, being the “idlers,” did not have to get up when their men did because they had no ship’s duties to perform. When “shake a leg” was heard on the berthing deck, a woman would swing a leg out of the hammock so that the boatswain and his mates could see that person wasn’t male. Any sailor slow to roll out could expect to feel the sting of a “starter,” a short length of knotted rope, striking the underside of his hammock just where it would give him the greatest urge to get up. Answering the boatswain’s insistent “shake a leg” was just one instance of being on the receiving end of the discipline of the sea, where everyone’s life depended on everyone else doing what they were supposed to do when they were supposed to do it. A couple of phrases in everyday use by landlubbers which owe their origins to this sea world characteristic are “toe the line” and “keep your shirt on.”
In the days of wooden warships, when men were required to muster at quarters, it was customary to arrange them in neat ranks, using the tar-filled seams in the deck as references for straightness. When the division petty officer stood at one end and checked out the alignment, any man not properly located would be ordered to “toe the line.” And with midshipmen and boys, young fellows in training to be officers or sailors, standing for long periods toeing the line was a punishment for minor misdeeds. Today, of course, the phrase means that one should obey social rules.
“Keep your shirt on,” meaning to keep calm and under control, has a much more dramatic origin. In their heyday, a thousand years ago, it was customary among Viking raiders to go into battle bare chested. The terror these marauders struck in many parts of the known world is legendary. It is fitting that we should make reference to their notoriety in the phrase “keep your shirt on.” Waterfront taverns were the source of another phrase we use today in a disciplinary sense: “mind your P’s and Q’s.” When we use it now, we mean that someone should mind his or her own business, or pay attention to the task at hand. The innkeeper’s use of the phrase to a jack-tar meant that he had better be sure he had the money to pay for what he already had consumed or ordered before calling for more — he had best mind his Pints and Quarts, of ale.
Phrases pairing opposites or actions are popular both on shore and at sea. Some that we mariners have contributed to landsmen kin include “cut and run,” “hard and fast,” “off and on,” and “by and large.”
“Cut and run,” meaning to drop everything and depart, has a similar connotation at sea. Often, it is used when a ship at anchor finds herself subjected to a bad storm which threatens to force her onto a lee shore. In that situation, the master will not trouble himself to weigh anchor, but will cut his anchor cable and seek to move to safer waters offshore, whether by sail or engine power. Being “hard and fast” meant that one was aground: hard and fast (fastened, caught) on the rocks and unable to get clear. This state of permanence came ashore, modified to mean something that is inflexible, such as a hard and fast rule.
Ashore, “off and on” means a condition of intermittence, more commonly spoken as “off-again, on-again.” Years ago, when a ship was in unknown waters and near land, a prudent master would, at sunset, sail back and forth, toward and away from the landfall, roughly maintaining his position until daylight would again permit him to see where he was going as he sailed into ever-shallower waters.
Sailing “by and large” meant that one had the good fortune to have a strong wind blowing steadily from the right direction and could sail with all canvas aloft. The crew enjoyed it because they rarely had to go above and manhandle the sails. When “by and large” was picked up by people ashore, its meaning changed a little to become an indication of a prevailing or general attitude or condition.
One phrase that almost certainly began ashore, then went to sea (where it continues today) is “beat a dead horse.” The uselessness of trying to get a dead horse moving was appropriate to the frustration felt by sailors early in a voyage when all their earnings were kept by the ship’s master as repayment for advances given before leaving port so that they could pay their bills. Months would go by before men were again receiving wages. Sometimes, they would mark that happy return to solvency by making a straw effigy of a horse, setting it afire, and letting it drift off into oblivion. Even today in the Navy, an advance of pay is known as a “dead horse,” but now only a portion of a man’s monthly wages are withheld until the account is squared.
Mention of a horse leads to thoughts of betting and the daring gambler who bets on a “long shot.” In old warships, the muzzle-loading cannon were charged with black powder of uncertain potency that would propel the iron shot an equally uncertain distance with doubtful accuracy. A 24-pounder long gun, for instance, was considered to have a maximum effective range of 1200 yards, even though, under the right conditions, a ball might travel some 3000 yards. Similarly, a short, stubby 32-pounder carronade’s lethality faded fast beyond 400 yards. Thus, the odds were against a hit when one fired a “long shot,” just as it is unlikely that a horse the bettors rate at a hundred-to-one will win the race.
“Showing false colors” and being “above board” are related and both come from the sea. Flying a flag other than your own (false colors) in order to delay an enemy’s recognition is a practice with ancient origins. It is a perfectly legitimate trick of war, so long as one hoists his true colors just prior to firing his first shot. Another trick, common to warships and pirates alike, both of which had very large crews, was to keep all but a few of their men out of sight. At long distance, someone inspecting them with a telescope might be fooled into thinking they were seeing a peaceful merchantman with a small crew, and so no threat. The devious captain kept his men low behind the bulwarks — or below the top deck; a captain with nothing to hide would keep his crew “above board.” Sometimes a secret or trick is revealed unintentionally, and we say someone “let the cat out of the bag.” At sea, letting the cat out of the bag meant that someone had broken regulations and was to be flogged with the cat-o’-nine-tails. The “cat,” a nine-tailed whip, normally was kept in a red cloth bag. When the boatswain’s mate was about to flog someone at the captain’s order, he would take the cat out of the bag in front of the assembled crew and there would be no secret about what would happen next.
You now must be aware that there is a lot of salt in your everyday speech. There are many more words and phrases we could talk about, but perhaps now you would like to discover some origins yourself: try “chew the fat,” “chockablock,” “spin a yarn,” “crackerjack,” “bitter end,” “the coast is clear,” and “parting shot.” Have fun.
Colcord, Joanna C. Sea Language Comes Ashore. New York: Cornell Maritime Press, 1945.
Day, A. Grove. “American Naval Slang A Hundred Years Ago.” US Naval Institute Proceedings, March 1942.
Morison, Samuel Eliot. “Sea Language Comes Ashore.” Book review. The American Neptune, Vol. 5, 1945.
Navy Department. Origin Of Navy Terminology. Booklet. ca 1976.
Windas, Cedric W. Traditions Of The Navy. 2nd ed. Annapolis: Leeward Publications, 1978.
A TIMONIER Publication
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