Three Sheets to the Wind: Nautical Slang in Common Usage

by Chris on November 9, 2010 · 64 comments

in Manly Knowledge

The spoken word is an extraordinary thing. Each language and its intricacies are in a constant state of flux, with words and phrases falling in and out of common usage. As such, we often adopt words and phrases we have heard used without ever considering their original meaning. A perfect example of this is the many colorful phrases in the English language which derive from nautical terms. Chances are you can pick out quite a few phrases from this list that you use at least every once in a while, yet you probably never knew where the term or phrase originated.

Editor’s Note: Critics will point out that there seems to be a penchant in etymological spheres to attribute a nautical origin to just about anything. This idea is so prevalent, in fact, that etymologists even conjured up the tongue-in-cheek (and completely fictional) organization C.A.N.O.E., aka the Committee to Attribute a Nautical Origin to Everything. With this in mind, we’ve tried to avoid some of the phrases with questionable nautical origin.

Let’s take a look at some prime examples of nautical terms left over from the age of sail that are still in use today.

To turn a blind eye to” – To refuse to see or recognize something

Credited to the famous British Admiral Horatio Nelson whose naval exploits during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) are the stuff of seafaring legend. Nelson was injured early in his naval career, leaving him completely blind in one eye. During the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, the fiery Nelson was serving under a much more reserved and cautious Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. With the tide of battle seeming to turn against them, Parker raised the signal flag, ordering retreat at the discretion of the captains. When Nelson was notified by his flag captain of the signal, he replied, “You know, Foley, I have only one eye – I have a right to be blind sometimes.” Calmly raising his telescope to his blind eye and aiming it in the direction of the signal to withdraw, he continued, “I really do not see the signal.” Thus, having turned a blind eye to the signal of retreat, he continued to fight, and within an hour had secured victory.

As the crow flies” – In a straight line, the shortest route between two points

It was common for 18th and 19th century ships to carry crows on board for use as a last resort when other attempts at navigation failed. When released, a crow will instinctively head to shore if it is near. Navigators would often time the crow’s flight as a means of measuring the distance from ship to shore.

Over a barrel” – In a helpless, weak, or awkward position; unable to act

Several theories of origin for this phrase exist, all with convincing supporting evidence. One of the most common theories relates to corporal punishment aboard ship. During the age of sail, sailors found guilty of some infraction of law would often be flogged while bent over the barrel of one of the ship’s guns, leaving them helpless while their punishment was carried out.

Know the ropes” – To understand or be familiar with the particulars of a subject or business

Ships under sail required a great deal of rope to be properly controlled. These ropes held sails in place, moored the ship at port, and served many other critical roles as well. Knowledge of which ropes did what, as well as a sound knowledge of various knots and their function, was mandatory for every sailor aboard ship. Knowing the ropes was a fundamental part of being a sailor.

The bitter end” – The very end of something, however unpleasant it is

The cleat or post on which a rope or anchor line was attached at the bow of the ship was often known as the “bitt” or “bitts.” Thus, when the anchor line had been let out in its full extent, with no more available slack, it was said to have reached the bitter end.

Slush fund” – Money set aside by a business or other organization for corrupt activities or money set aside to use for fun or entertainment expenses

During the age of sail, salted meat was preserved throughout the duration of a voyage in barrels below decks. When a barrel of salted meat had been finished off, there was often a slushy, foul mix of fat and salt at the bottom of the barrel which the ship’s cook would save and resell once they arrived in port. This money would then regularly be used to purchase some form of luxury for the crew usually not afforded to them. The practice is recorded in an 1839 edition of Evils & Abuses in Naval & Merchant Service by William McNally:

“The sailors in the navy are allowed salt beef. From this provision, when cooked nearly all the fat boils off; this is carefully skimmed and put into empty beef or pork barrels, and sold, and the money so received is called the slush fund.”


Three sheets to the wind” – In a state of drunkenness or intoxication

While one might assume that the word “sheet” represents the sail of the ship, it actually refers to the line used to control the sail. When several sheets were loose, a ship’s sail would flail wildly about, often causing the ship to appear to be staggering uncontrollably, as if in a drunken state. The expression was used to refer to drunkenness even during the age of sail and was often part of a sliding scale. When a sailor was just a wee bit tipsy, he was one sheet to the wind. Two sheets to the wind described a sailor who was well-oiled, while three sheets to the wind represented a sailor who was a stumbling, slurring mess.

“Maybe you think we were all a sheet in the wind’s eye. But I’ll tell you I was sober.”

-Long John Silver, Treasure Island

Jury rigged” – To rig or assemble for temporary emergency use, to improvise

A nautical term dating back to the mid-18th century, jury rigged refers to an improvised, temporary solution to a problem similar to those wonderful contrivances produced by MacGyver when he found himself in a pinch. When a ship lost its mast at sea, either to accident or battle, a new mast had to be improvised from available materials. This mast and accompanying replacement rigging was known by sailors as a jury rig.

Start over with a clean slate” – An opportunity to start over without prejudice

During a sailor’s turn on watch, he would record the heading to which they steered the ship on a slate kept near the wheel. At the end of the watch, these headings would be recorded in the ship’s log, and the slate would be wiped clean and given to the new watch guard. Thus, the new watch was given a clean slate.

Son of a gun:” – A person or fellow, a rascal

Aboard merchant vessels, it was not uncommon for prostitutes to be kept aboard ship. In the event that one of these women of ill repute became pregnant and carried to term while aboard, the most convenient place to deliver the child was often between two of the ship’s guns, which the lady would lean on for support during the delivery. Upon delivery, the child’s name along with the name of father and mother would be recorded in the ship’s log. If no paternity could be established, the child would be entered as “son of a gun.”

Scuttlebutt” – Rumors about somebody’s activities, often of an intimate and scandalous nature

Kegs or barrels were often referred to aboard ship as “butts.” Often, when a barrel contained drinking water, it would be “scuttled,” or have a hole cut into it so that men could dip their cups in and retrieve water to drink. Much like the water coolers of modern day offices, these kegs became gathering places to secure some juicy gossip or perhaps plot a mutiny.

First Rate” – Foremost in quality, rank, or importance

Ships under sail in the British Navy were often ranked and rated by how many cannon they had aboard. A first rate ship would have 100+ guns, while a second rate carried 90 to 98 guns, third rate carried 64 to 89 guns, and so on. Thus, a first rate ship was the best available ship in the fleet.

This is just a sampling of words and phrases that have arisen out of nautical terms. What are some that you may be aware of? Share your contribution in the comment section!

{ 64 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Adrian November 9, 2010 at 12:42 am

I’m surprised that you fail to mention “a change of tack” which is frequently written and pronounced incorrectly as “change of tact.” Nothing questionable here, sailing ships tack to change direction.

2 Alex Aries November 9, 2010 at 1:08 am

To “Have the devil to pay” nowadays is used quite frequently. Originally, sailors had to ensure their ships were water tight by going over every joint of her hull with a sealing solution. This was called ‘paying’. The longest seam on the ship, found on her keel, was referred to as the ‘devil’.

3 Josh Surber November 9, 2010 at 2:48 am

The entomology of the phrase “jury rig” itself comes from the French word “jour”, meaning “for the day”.

4 Victor Wierda November 9, 2010 at 4:00 am

Something being A1, or A #1, being derived of Lloyd’s naval rating for the safety of ships. A1 is the best rating, and even in some country’s the only rating allowed.

5 Alan Poling November 9, 2010 at 4:55 am

“Cold enough to freeeze the balls off a brass monkey” The brass monkey was a brass ring on the gun deck used to stack solid shot cannon balls. In cold weather, the ring would shrink, causing the top cannon ball to fall off the pile.

6 Ed November 9, 2010 at 7:17 am

One of my favorites is “to be at loggerheads.” Back when the ships were made of wood and men were made of steel, pitch was used for a variety of uses, but in order for it to be used it had to be melted/heated. To do that, a metal bar was heated until it was red hot, then dipped into the barrel of pitch to melt it. These metal bars were called loggerheads.

To be at loggerheads was serious business. Imagine two rowdy sailors laying into each other with red hot iron bars.

7 seks shop November 9, 2010 at 8:06 am

Although the technology has developed so much in time people have done a beautiful thing ..

8 Dave November 9, 2010 at 8:24 am

I’m not so certain that all of these are really derived from nautical terms.
Snopes.com gets rid of the “son of a gun” and the brass monkey mentioned above.
Other places have endlessly discussed “jury rig”. “devil to pay” seems far more likely to be related to Faustian bargains than to ships.

I’m not so sure about the others. “Scuttlebutt” seems a bit contrived, but apparently etymonline.com agrees. “At loggerheads” seems to have questionable etymology – most references don’t seem to think it is anything nautical at all.

9 Keith Brawner November 9, 2010 at 8:29 am

That reminds me of one of my favorite Navy jokes:
Q: Why aren’t there any First Class cooks in the Navy?
A: Because all the cooks are third rate.

Toe the Line (citation: wikipedia and a few others)
The most likely origins of the term go back to the usage of the wooden ships in the Royal Navy. Barefooted seamen had to stand at attention for inspection and had to line up on deck along the seams of the wooden planks, hence to “toe the line”

10 Martin November 9, 2010 at 9:21 am

Not sure about “know the ropes” either. There aren’t any ropes on a ship, they are all called lines.

11 Robert November 9, 2010 at 9:32 am

Agreed with #8 Dave, and #10 Martin.

Brass monkey has a good entry on wikipedia that mentions the myth that it was derived from on board a ship.

The first thing I thought while reading this was that when you take a rope onto a vessel, it becomes a line. I love sailing, but I’m not sure about some of these.

12 STW November 9, 2010 at 10:04 am

I have to wonder how navigators were able to measure the crow’s flight time. If the navigator could be at the beginning of the flight (on the ship) and at the end of the flight (on the land) where was the need for loosing the crow in the first place?

13 Peter Saydak November 9, 2010 at 10:13 am

Posts like this are always a lot of fun. I really liked the manly slang from the 19th century too.

14 John O'Connell November 9, 2010 at 3:20 pm

Surprised you didn’t list – ‘Square Meal’ – as in ‘Three Square Meals A Day’ – the promise made to all naval recruits, as the plates were squared to stop them rolling in heavy seas when stacked vertically in the galley.

15 Colin N. November 9, 2010 at 4:39 pm

“Three sheets to the wind” is more historically, and accurately said as “Three sheets in the wind”.

Because the sheet is the rope, as you mentioned, being “in” the wind would mean it is subject to the wind’s will, flapping about. “to the wind” is a more modern idiomatic way of saying it.

16 Colin N. November 9, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Also, I would question “to the bitter end”.

Though I have heard it described as it is here, I have also heard from reliable sources that in 18th century taverns “tavern pipes” were offered to patrons for a small fee. One would get a bowl of tobacco in a long-stemmed clay pipe and when they were done they would clip off the very end of the stem for the next user.

Those remaining at the end of the night would be paying for a very short pipe and smoking on the very “bitter end” of the bowl.

17 Paul November 9, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Several other expressions of naval origin-

“Don’t let the cat out of the bag”
and
“No room to swing a cat”

both referred to the cat-o-nine tails, a rope whip-like instrument with separated ends (hence the ‘nine tails’) used to flog seamen as punishment. The ‘cat’ was kept in a red bag (so as not to show all the blood) belowdecks, and punishment was carried out on deck.

Obviously conditions belowdecks were cramped, so there was, literally, “no room to swing a cat”

and “don’t let the cat out of the bag” meant, obviously, not getting in trouble (or, more accurately, not getting caught!) and thus being punished with a flogging.

18 Eric November 9, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Not to be argumentative, Paul, but I’ve heard from two different sources that the phrase “letting the cat out of the bag” is not nautical in origin. According to what I’ve heard, in the days of heavily agricultural societies, when the farmer’s market was the primary source of goods in a community, some tricksters would show up with piglets for sale, but when one was purchased, they would hand the purchaser a bag with a much less valuable cat inside, instead of the piglet that was paid for. Thus, “letting the cat out of the bag” referred to when the cat would escape from the bag, revealing that the buyer had been cheated. Now, the expression simply refers to the discovery of information that was meant to be kept secret.

19 VIc November 9, 2010 at 7:14 pm

Eric, you’re thinking of the phrase “buying a pig in a poke”…

20 Rock Harris November 9, 2010 at 9:24 pm

1. Bitter end is, indeed, a nautical term. What’s not is the unpleasant aspect to it. That was landlubbers unfamiliar with what the bitter end was.

2. First rate had nothing to do with quality. They were simply the largest ships of the line. They were massive. So massive, in fact, that they rarely went to sea. Too big to man and supply for any length of time.It was a function of the number of guns they were able to carry. Many fourth rate ships or fifth rate ships were of exceedingly high quality. Why? They were used the most, as they were fast and still were better armed than many merchantmen ships.

3. The scuttlebutt definition is a bit strained, but the water barrel was called the scuttlebutt, and talk around it was eventually named the same thing.

4. To Martin, “know the ropes is correct.” They are collectively called rope, but are called lines when actually in use on ship. Just like sheets were originally rope. Now they are all wire rope.

The best nautical terms are the ones not in the general public lingo. Such as “splice the main brace” or “shed a tear for John Paul Jones.”

21 Rob November 9, 2010 at 10:38 pm

Not to quible, Martin, but, to be technical, most sails have at least one rope (the boltrope and/or the footrope), and there are several other devices such as cables which are also often made of rope. Lastly, back then they were ropes instead of wires, the standing rigging (shrouds, stays, etc.) were considered ropes not lines. Jibbooms and bobstays! I certainly am a carrying on with a full head of steam, and if I continue, you will likely detest the cut of my jib (though, I must say, Dave Curtis cuts a mean jib, best one design sailmaker in the world). Regardless, etymology is not precisely my bailiwick, but sailing is. Apropos, Alfred Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History is an excellent work. Highly recommended.
- R

22 Tom Humbert November 9, 2010 at 10:49 pm

Nobody mentioned “batten down the hatches”

23 weno November 10, 2010 at 12:35 am

The Jury Rigg one doesn’t really explain anything. That’s like saying, “Well, we call it skimming from the top, because back 150 years ago, when people wanted to take something for themselves that was not owed to them, they would take from the top and thus, people called it skimming off the top”

Jury? I thought it was Jerry. I’ve also heard Yankee-Rig and some other unfortunate prefixes. Other explanations were good though.

24 John Jones November 10, 2010 at 12:44 am

How about, “Dummy it up,” alluding to securing hatches, and a nasty way to tell someone to stop talking. Sure way to start a fight.

25 Richard Ambler November 10, 2010 at 1:19 am

“Navigators would often time the crow’s flight as a means of measuring the distance from ship to shore.”

Really? How would navigators time the crow’s flight? Would the crow fly back to the ship again? If so, how would the navigators know if the crow had reached land, or, if it had, how long it took before it set off again for the ship? If not, how would they know when to stop timing?

26 Alan November 10, 2010 at 1:35 am

I too have heard the term “jerry rigged’ for a short term ‘bodge’, not “jury rigged”.

27 P.M.Lawrence November 10, 2010 at 3:06 am

“Toe the Line” comes from bare fisted prize fighting. A line was marked or scratched on the ground between the fighters, and they had to toe the line at the beginning of a round. “Coming up to scratch” was almost the same, but related to getting back into position after being knocked down before being counted out.

“Letting the cat out of the bag” comes from the same idea as “selling a pig in a poke [pouch or sack]” (Vic, there’s no contradiction there – both sayings have the same origin): at fairs, people would pretend to be selling a struggling piglet in a sack, but they would be cheating by having a stray cat to produce the proof there was a struggling animal there. Buyers were warned not to let it out as it would escape, but if it got out of the bag that gave the game away. The cat of nine tails was NOT kept in a bag on ships, but was specially made each time from old rope (often by the prisoner the night before, for more psychological punishment). Bags like that WERE used – but in prisons, in the days when whipping was prison discipline.

Weno wrote “Jury? I thought it was Jerry”. That comes from a sloppy confusion I have often seen in USAian: there are two unrelated terms, jury-rigged and jerry-built, and some people confused the two, getting “jerry-rigged” (which nothing nautical ever was).

28 Jive Dadson November 10, 2010 at 3:29 am

I go all pendant when I read or hear, “hanging on until the bitter end.” It’s “hanging onto the bitter end.” A person who is trying to keep a ship moored by hanging onto the bitter end is in one heck of a predicament.

29 Jive Dadson November 10, 2010 at 3:29 am

I go all pedant when I read or hear, “hanging on until the bitter end.” It’s “hanging onto the bitter end.” A person who is trying to keep a ship moored by hanging onto the bitter end is in one heck of a predicament.

30 Sweet Old Bob November 10, 2010 at 5:23 am

I went to sea for a few years (military and merchant) and appreciated learning some that I had missed.
I was under the impression that all ropes, save two, became lines once broken out of the rope locker. The two exceptions were the seldom used, nowadays, anchor rope and the bell rope.
I’m not sure that I understand the difference between “sheets to the wind,” and “sheets in the wind.”
I enjoy the forum.

31 Dan November 10, 2010 at 7:08 am

Dover Publications has some very inexpensive yet beautifully done books on the art of seamanship in the days of sail. The Art of Rigging by George Biddlecombe, about $10, identifies every rope and line and it’s use, knots, splices, fittings, etc. Endlessly fascinating for those who enjoy this sort of thing, and a testimony to the incredible skill and teamwork needed to sail those things. Other Dover books give detailed accounts of precisely how they set, doused, and trimmed the array of sails, maneuvered the ships, and even turned one completely around in its own length by simultaneously setting and backing opposing sails. Somehow, I can’t imagine the Birkenstock types manning the replicas these days, or the Ivy League limp-wrist crowd of competitive sailing, mustering for battle with a glint in their eyes on board anything. Just as today’s mountaineers pay their way to the top with high-tech equipment, so, too, our modern day Corinthians buy their sailing prowess off the shelf.

32 Ed Roberts November 10, 2010 at 7:26 am

” Navigators would often time the crow’s flight as a means of measuring the distance from ship to shore.”

Now, how would a navigator time a crow’s flight if he couldn’t see land and the crow would quickly fly out of sight? Sorry but that statement is absurd.

33 art November 10, 2010 at 7:53 am

@Alex: Right, but caulking a particularly long seam is not in itself unpleasant. Getting sent down to pay the devil was slang for being keel hauled.

34 Bryan Morton November 10, 2010 at 8:59 am

The bitter end is the very tip of the rope, (line or sheet), while portion used to make a knot is the running end or working end. The standing end or standing part is the part that leads away from the knot and is in use. A bight is a bend in a rope where the rope does not cross over itself. A loop refers to a twist in the rope, where one part of the rope overlaps another part of the rope. When you make fast a line you secure that line to an object or another line and when you take a turn you wrap that rope around another object. There is only one “rope” on a sailboat. It is the bolt rope, sewn into the the luff and/or foot of a sail so that it can be fed into the mast or boom.

35 Native Son November 10, 2010 at 10:05 am

Guess no one noticed that crows tend to fly in straight lines, as opposed to most flocking birds that frequently deviate from straight courses when flying from point to point.
IN other words, nautical usage comes from landbound observation.
Watch a murder of crows and compare to a flock of pigeons and you’ll see.

36 Gary November 10, 2010 at 10:37 am

Thanks for the list.

@Dave: Snopes is a well known fraud of a site. The “editors” will purposely exclude information they find to be outside of their opinion. Their information on 9-11 is a classic example of ignoring science for the sake of pilitical correctness. Snopes and Wikipedia (the bathroom wall of the internet) should be taken with a grain of salt and verified against multiple sources (other than what they choose to “cite”).

37 John November 10, 2010 at 11:33 am

One very popular nautical metaphor is that of the “Loose cannon”… when a cannon on a ship deck was not properly secured, it could create damage and mayhem on rough seas.

38 billwald November 10, 2010 at 11:55 am

(I read) The saying was “The devil to pay and no tar hot.”

39 Richard F. November 10, 2010 at 12:56 pm

As an avid reader of the late Patrick O’Brian’s novels, here are a few not mentioned:

“By and Large:; sailing ‘by the wind’, or close hauled (difficult) as opposed to sailing ‘large’ or running (easy, with the wind behind). Thus someone who is a good worker “by and large” is competent most times with tasks both difficult and easy.

“Little Nipper”: During the age of sail, the youngest and smallest members of the crew – cabin boys – were assigned to fasten or “nip’ small lengths of line to the “messenger’, a handling line, connected in parallel to the much larger and unwieldy anchor cable. As the anchor was pulled aboard a ‘nipper’ would tie a short piece of line to the messenger and cable and another in a series of little nippers would remove it as the cable entered the orlop deck….sort of like a nautical musical chairs.

“Letting the cat out of the bag”: Arguable. The cat o’ nine tails was most certainly and customarily kept in a baize bag in the 17th-18th century British Navy…so no doubt as to “the cat coming out of the bag” meaning.

“go to the head”: the toilet…located in the bow or head.

40 detroitjoe November 10, 2010 at 2:22 pm

A friend of mine bought me this book some years ago… the entire thing is available to read on google books.

Salty Dog Talk: The Nautical Origins of Everyday Expressions by Bill Beavis and Richard McCloskey

41 Scot C. November 10, 2010 at 2:31 pm

Richard F.,

I was wondering how long it would take before someone mentioned O’Brian. I, too, am an avid reader of the Aubrey/Maturing series. I think, though, that early on in the series, Jack explains to Steven that the head refers to the cat head upon which the anchor is hung when not in use. It was name so because it often had the head of a large cat carved onto the end. Sailor’s would use it to do their business by hanging their…um…business end off the cat head. In one of the books, one of the young mid-midshipmen was punished by being sent to the head to clean it.

Does that sound accurate to the rest of you O’Brian fans lurking out there?

42 Heath November 10, 2010 at 2:45 pm

To second Richard, #39, Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey and Maturin novels contain a wealth of naval slang and jargon, not to mention humor and adventure.

43 derangedlunatech November 10, 2010 at 2:45 pm

One I have always suspected, but never bothered to look into was “pipe down” – on the old ships (todays navy uses them as well, but more ceremoniously) the bos’n used a pipe to send out various notifications to the crew – when to change the watch, when to man battle stations, even when to wake up and wen to go to bed. I always guessed that “piping down” was the equivalent to the modern day use of taps on navy ships – time for everyone to go below, turn in, and, er, “pipe down.”

44 Joe November 10, 2010 at 2:46 pm

The “head” was the one I thought of too. A lot of people think it’s strange that the bathroom facilities would be located at the front of the ship, until they realize that on a sailing ship, the wind is traveling from the back to the front.

45 Joan November 10, 2010 at 5:06 pm

According the Phrase Finder, Three Sheets to the Wind etymology is nautical.

From Phrase Finder:
“To understand this phrase we need to enter the arcane world of nautical terminology. Sailors’ language is, unsurprisingly, all at sea and many supposed derivations have to go by the board. Don’t be taken aback to hear that sheets aren’t sails, as landlubbers might expect, but ropes (or occasionally, chains). These are fixed to the lower corners of sails, to hold them in place. If three sheets are loose and blowing about in the wind then the sails will flap and the boat will lurch about like a drunken sailor.”

46 William Schultz November 10, 2010 at 5:45 pm

For an exhaustive and entertaining read on all this seafaring lingo, try:
“When a Loose Cannon Flogs a Dead Horse, There’s the Devil to Pay.” By Olivia Isil.
It’s available on Amazon.

47 Michael November 10, 2010 at 7:14 pm

I believe the phrase “to turn a blind eye to” comes from Aesop:

THE STAG WITH ONE EYE

A Stag, blind of one eye, was grazing close to the sea-shore and kept
his sound eye turned towards the land, so as to be able to perceive
the approach of the hounds, while the blind eye he turned towards the
sea, never suspecting that any danger would threaten him from that
quarter. As it fell out, however, some sailors, coasting along the
shore, spied him and shot an arrow at him, by which he was mortally
wounded. As he lay dying, he said to himself, “Wretch that I am! I
bethought me of the dangers of the land, whence none assailed me: but
I feared no peril from the sea, yet thence has come my ruin.”

Misfortune often assails us from an unexpected quarter.

48 Earl Haehl November 10, 2010 at 9:00 pm

The sheet bend is one of the most useful knots I know. It is used for attaching two lines or ropes of different diameter together. It is also used with lines of the same diameter and out performs the standard Boy Scout square knot (reef knot in nautical parlance) in all tasks save tying shoes.

49 Tubby Mike November 10, 2010 at 9:25 pm

Put forward for your comment, the following I thought were nautically derived expressions, although I’m happy to be disabused.
“Swinging the lead”; to be lazy or disinterested in performing an onerous task. In modern speech; slacking off. Back in the days before echo location, depth soundings were taken by lowering a measured plumb line over the side. This had to be done with some care to obtain an accurate reading of the depth to the bottom. However, being a boring job it could lead to day-dreaming and the plumb line would swing, producing false readings indicating the depth to the bottom was deeper than was actually the case. The consequenses of “swinging the lead” I suspect you can all appreciate.

“Copper bottomed”; of superior quality.
Back in the days of sail and wood, flora and fauna would attach itself to the ship’s hull below the waterline, slowing a ship and even boring through the hull resulting in expensive and time-consuming maintenance. In an effort to produce superior ships the (Royal) Navy plated their hulls with copper. This prevented said flora and fauna attaching to the hull resulting in increased speed and reduced maintenance; desireable qualities in a warship. This made the Navy’s ships superior to their contemporaries. Thus, in modern use, if an investment is described as “copper bottomed” it implies that it is superior.

This is only my understanding of these terms and I stand to be corrected by those of superior learning.

50 Tubby Mike November 10, 2010 at 9:37 pm

Apologies for the typo’s. This is what you get for trying to type long missives on an iPhone and have pudgy fingers!

51 Peter O'Reilly November 10, 2010 at 9:48 pm

Shiver me timbers. That was a fun article.

52 Mike November 10, 2010 at 11:44 pm

Sandbagging. I believe it was a term used by Catrigged fishing boats using sand bags for ballast to maintain a even keel while racing.
The boats were rather shallow hulled but wide. Moving ballast to keep them even was done with sandbags

53 Matt Groves November 10, 2010 at 11:58 pm

It makes perfect sense that most terms are nautical. Most people lived on the ocean, that is true still today.
Although not common today, ‘splice the main brace’ is one of my favorites.
Terms that get thrown around today are mostly jokes: shore line, and keys to the water locker.

54 Melissa November 11, 2010 at 8:10 am

Ok Guys! I have to say that reading this is making me kind of excited. Language dorks! I love it… seriously…it’s nice to see a passion for something from people that doesn’t involve Paris Hilton or Nascar. Thanks for affirming my belief in the intelligence of man. I would date all of you if I weren’t already married.

55 Rhubarb November 11, 2010 at 4:46 pm

I grew up on the Great Lakes and one summer, as my college graduation present to myself, I sailed on all of them for four months and it was wonderful! I loved the history involved in Tall Ships/sailing and the culture that went with it.

I always liked the phrase: “between the devil and the deep blue sea”. The ‘devil seam’ being the curved one between the edge of the decking, the bulkhead, and the ocean. The hardest one to keep weather-tight, and to fit while installing the decking.
:)

Hard to live in an area where I can’t get on the water, I miss it a lot.

56 J November 11, 2010 at 7:08 pm

“Loose Cannon” Just as the name implies a loose cannon on the ship was a dangerous thing.

57 Steve November 12, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Ever wondered where the phrase “going to the loo” came from, in reference to using the bathroom? You’re about to find out, mateys. When men went to the “beak head” to relieve themselves–officers went over the edge of the stern gallery, but this applies to them too–it behooved them to go on the leeward side of the vessel, as opposed to the windward side (if the ship was ‘reaching’ across the wind, as was often the case) for obvious reasons. Real sailors pronounce “leeward” as LOO’-wrd.

58 Chris kavanaugh November 12, 2010 at 6:10 pm

ARGGG!!! I sends aloft a ABS to the crow’s nest with a glass. I release a crow and the lookout in the skys’ls tracks his flight and gives us a bearing toward landfall. We don’t sit becalmed like a old Mexico bound cruise ship with our heads backing up waiting for somebody to give us the bird. No, we lays on canvas and follows the bird.

59 Robert Desoisa November 13, 2010 at 8:42 am

” Its cold enough to freez the balls of a brass monkey” Brass monkeys were brass square cages, full of cannon balls which were normally kept on deck ,next to the gun, ready for the next battle. This cages prevented cannon balls rolling on deck, when the ship encountered heavy waves.
When it rained, and then got below freezing, the balls would freez togeather inside the cages, thus the saying ” cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey.”

60 Josh November 15, 2010 at 2:11 pm

Y’all got “going to the head”, but “going to the loo” in the queen’s english, referred to going to the loo’ard (or leeward) side of the ship, so as not to “piss into the wind”.

61 Andrew Thompson December 4, 2010 at 7:13 am

“Hairy bag” – Term used to refer to a sailor who has spent some time at sea.
The damp living conditions aboard ships inevitably caused mold to grow on most things, including a sailors ditty bag and clothing. A moldy ditty bag aka, a hairy bag.
We still use the term in the Canadian Navy.

62 Jeremy D December 4, 2010 at 10:37 am

I had heard that “three sheets to the wind” referred to windmills. Apparently, the traditional windmill had four blades, made of cloth stretched over a wooden frame, called sheets. Windmills had to have four sheets to keep it balanced. A three-sheet design made the windmill wobble and shake until it fell apart. Being somewhat of an amateur sailor myself, I’m partial to the nautical association, but I thought I’d share this alternate version too.

63 Cap'n Jack September 15, 2013 at 1:09 pm

The Cap’n is entirely honorary, however, being retired Navy I do have more than a passing interest in nautical terminology.
a suitable beach was looked for to careen the ship. She was layed on her beam ends on one side at near high tide and as the water receded the crew cleaned the seams as quickly as possible. New caulking was put in and the seams payed with molten pitch. Obviously the last seam uncovered was next to the keel and had to be cleaned and recaulked and payed as quickly as possible before the tide turned and covered it again, a devil of a job. Hence, the devil to pay.
There are at least two reasons to disbelieve the idea of cannon balls coming loose on deck. One, if a loose cannon is a hazard then so is an eighteen pound ball of iron or two rolling around. Two, when the crew was very unhappy with the command and possibly thinking about mutiny a cannon ball would be set loose during the night to roll around to let the officers know about their feelings. This implies that everyone on board would find unplanned cannon ball rolling to be a very bad thing.

64 Alan December 30, 2013 at 3:11 am

Would “Sling you hook” be nautical and where did it originate?

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