“Wyrd biõ ful ãræd.”

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Etymology. Seagoing words and phrases from the days of Sail.


The Good Old Days at Sea.



Son of a Gun:  During the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy pressed sailors. In essence, they grabbed sailors off merchant ships, or in ports, and forced them into service on warships. Because desertion was such a problem, they rarely granted shore leave. So  a ship might be out for months or more between home port visits, and you couldn't go ashore when you got back.  In port, "wives" were allowed on board. Most of the "wives' were actually Ladies of the Night, but some were legitimately married women. Consequently it happened that women had their babies aboard ship from time to time. Women had their children on the lower deck, where the crew lived and the guns were mounted. To help in a difficult delivery, the ship would sometimes fire off a blank round from a cannon. A male child born in these circumstances was forever more known as a "son of a gun."



Going  the whole hog: Warships of the day carried live animals as food sources. Chickens, pigs, sheep and even cattle were sometimes brought aboard by the officers.  It was customary for a popular , well respected Captain to occasionally be invited to dine with the ship's officers on Sunday after quarters for the evening meal. The officers mess was called "the gun room", and had it's own cook. Usually, when an animal was slaughtered,  some of the  fresh meat was eaten by the gun room but some choice pieces were preserved in brine for other meals. However, when the Captain was a guest in the mess, the entire animal was served up in different dishes. This was known as "going the whole hog." Today it means the same thing as "going for broke", doing something all the way without reservation.




Toe the Line: During this period, Sundays were always utilized for the Captain's inspection of the ship.  All hands were assembled by divisions on the main deck, and the Captain would read the Articles of War. Then, if he was so inclined, he would read from the bible. Then he inspected the divisions. The Royal Marines were always perfectly aligned, but the sailors , more free spirited, were given an aid to forming their straight lines. A line was chalked on the deck for each division, and the men in the first rank were required to put their toes on it.  So, when you tell someone to "toe the line" it refers back to that.




Up to scratch: Bare knuckle fights were popular in the Royal Navy of the day,  Ships champions contended for the honor of being the best fighter in a squadron, on up to champion of the fleet. Two men fought until one was thrown or knocked down. That constituted a "round."  The fight continued until one of the men was unable to stand up and walk back to a line drawn across the ring, called "the scratch." So a person who is not "up to scratch" is a loser.




The phrase " dog don't bite bitch" was an admonition against doing violence to women . It was considered "low" and "common" for a male to hit a female or physically harm her in any way. This was a firm rule on the lower deck (among the sailors) and breaking the taboo could have fatal consequences.


"Tell it to the Marines"  there are all sorts of stories about the origination of this phrase, but it was in use in the Royal Navy at least as early as the American Revolution.   Marines were said to be credulous and the easy prey of sailor's practical jokes. If someone wished to express disbelief or incredulity , they would say to the speaker "tell it to the Marines."




"Giving a boost" was an expression for pushing an unpopular individual overboard.  If Joe the Ragman made himself unpopular, by thieving or "peaching" on his shipmates, he might well turn up missing at morning muster. Then it would be said that "someone gave Joe a boost."




Bully:  When a Royal Navy vessel needed more sailors, they would send a "press gang" ashore. This consisted of the biggest, strongest sailors from the ship, under the command of a Bosun, and usually a Lieutenant or Midshipman.  Men chosen for this duty were called "bully boys" because they could intimidate their victims and get them back to the ship without undue violence.



Scuttlebutt:  Even today, in the U.S. Navy and the Marines, "scuttlebutt" means rumors. Usually to do with movements, exercises, or events within the unit. The word comes from wooden stands that held buckets or small kegs , known as scuttlebutts, on the old sailing ships. Men were allowed to drink from the scuttlebutt, and they would naturally congregate on hot days. While they were waiting their turn they would exchange rumors and gossip.



Join the Navy and see the World! Or else.


Thought for the day:





14 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. I've always been fascinated by word origins. My mom was a school teacher, and she used some word origin word sheets when I was a kid. I used to help her find the words and their origins, and this was long before computers. We used books at the library.

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  2. Here's one: "Swears like a Sailor"--phrase commonly heard in describing the Trump/Clinton election cycle. --Troy

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    1. Makes sense to me! "Spending like a drunken sailor" comes from this time period too. People got their "Prize money" and would go ashore and blow it all off.

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  3. Hey Harry,

    (captaincrunch)

    I remember a few phrases here and there. One particular one that was interesting was 'Kneelhualing' or attaching lines to hands and feet of a 'not so nice sailor' and dropping them off the bow of the ship only to have the ship run over the sailor and allowing the barnicles to scrap the sailors hide off. I would say that a fitting end to many of the detainee's at Gitmo under terrorism charges deserve to be 'kneelhualed'

    'Burning off a dead horse, geedunk, limey, float test (we used 'float test' often) means throwing something of no value over the side of the boat. boondocker, gig line, boat hook, scuttle, etc, etc, etc.

    I'm sure I may remember more terms later:)


    A friend of mine has a 19 year old brother in law that recently joined the Army and currently is in boot camp. The last news I got was the young man was complaining about his forced marches, knee pain, and all the physical stress of being a soldier. I told the young man last year to look into the Coast Guard, Navy or the Air Force, but no. He had to be a soldier like his older brother. I wish him well but I choose the Navy because carrying a fifty pound pack all day and sleeping in a hole was not my forte.
    'Sailors have some excuse (being on a ship) to be 'a little out of shape' Now we did make up for it for scaling ladder wells like monkeys.
    I hope that kid makes it through boot camp. The last I heard is that he was going into 'Air Defence' the Patriot Missle System. The physical strains should not be too bad compared to Infantry.
    I will write him a letter sometime soon. His company is nicknamed 'Savages' I respect the bravado but I think if that if his company was dropped in Isis territory at this moment. The 'Savages' would be 'tamed'
    The fear of facing people that want to seriously kill you is a sobering reality. The endless hours of training, intelligence and maturity help build courage and confidence. 'Bravado is as dangerous as Hubris in any combat situation.

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    1. I remember "gedunk" the sweets and such you bought at the ship's store. Pogey bait.

      I know the "float test" too. That could happen to overages on the T/E if you had an at sea inspection. Limey is a Brit, comes from the fact that the Royal Navy added lime juice to their grog rations until the 1920's, to fight scurvy. Gig line is the imaginary line made by aligning the buttons on your shirt with those on your fly. Boat hook is used to "hook on" a ships side from a small boat. Scuttle goes over a port. But you got me on burning off a dead horse, unless it refers to repaying an overpayment of pay, in installments, which was called a dead horse back in the day. I'm just guessing on that one.

      Christ, if you can't handle the Army's boot camp, then he'd probably be better off as a civilian. But then, as you say, the Air Force and the Coast Guard are not known for the rigors of their basic training.

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    2. Hey Harry,

      (captaincrunch)

      'Burning off a dead horse' refers to the days when sailors were paid in advance and spent all their money in port.
      A long time ago when I was in Navy bootcamp we had to run a mile in six minutes or something like that, once a week. That's right, once a week. We did more calisthenics, lots of pushup's. The physical rigors were minimal compared to the Army or Marines. It was the nature of the Navy to spend more time on drills and other activities than physical conditioning. I think most young men and women need to consider their physical abilities before deciding on what branch of service they join.

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    3. Hey Harry,

      (captaincrunch)

      Almost forgot.

      'Burning off a dead horse' refers back to the days when horses were carried onboard sailing vessels and when I horse died. The horse was burned onboard the ship and then the carcass was thrown over the side. That way the floating, bloated horse would give away the position of that vessel. It then became a phrase as I said in the previous paragragh about being paid in advance and spending all the money in port.

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  4. I'm fond of "three sheets to the wind." Sheets are lines that control a sail. If they "to the wind" that means they are flapping around loose and the sail is out of control.

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    1. I know that one. "He was three sheets to the wind and fell off the dock into the bay." I know that in very ancient times, releasing the foresheets to the wind on a warship signaled the approach of an enemy fleet. I have studied diagrams of the old ships til I am gray headed, but I cant' get it all straight. I guess you have to be a sailor to do that.

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    2. You release the foresheets and trim to fighting sails in preparation for combat at sea. A ship with full or 3/4 sail takes a lot of sailors to maintain, and also make the ship pitch, yaw and roll too much, screwing up gunnery. Or if damaged during combat with a full set of sails, the ship could heel too much and capsize (especially if the rudder was shot out.)

      In combat, if a ship started adding sail, it was a sign that that ship was getting ready to run.

      So, of course the silly amateur Americans during the War of 1812 were known to sometimes fight with full sails in order to gain the better position. As the phrase goes, "If you ain't cheating, you ain't winning."

      Another good old naval term is kedging. Old salts used this term to signify dragging ass. Kedging was the art of rowing the ship's anchors as far ahead of the ship in order to drag it forward, only used in calm seas (no or little wind.) The USS Constitution used kedging to escape the brit navy once.

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    3. Kedging figures prominently in several of the Hornblower stories, usually to get a ship stuck on a sandbar off.

      The "Hornblower Hand Book" is out of print now, but it's a good source for people who want to look up the terms used in the book. My license for 30 foot sailboats was of little or no help in learning seamanship, alas!

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  5. I love the origin of phrases. Brass monkeys being one and strapping young lad. Great post.

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    1. Kev, I've been researching word origins since I was a kid, my mom used them in her English lessons, in her classroom and I helped her with the work sheets. She and I had a lot of fun with that.

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