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Etymology: By Lynn Whitney
No, etymology is not the study of bugs. It is the history of words, their origins and how their meanings have morphed over time. Now, it is a well -known fact that sailors have a rather colorful language. That and the romanticized notion of life at sea have created much false etymology. The completely fictional CANOE, the “Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything,” doesn’t really exist, but we wish it did.
Below is a list of phrases that we would like to believe originated in the seafaring life. True or not, they sound genuine!
Above Board: Honest and forthright. Pirates would masquerade as peaceful merchants by hiding most of their crew below deck. An honest Captain with nothing to hide would keep his crew “above Board.”
Adrift: Not moored. At the mercy of the wind and tide. The word “drifter” comes from this. A person with no purpose or aim in life.
Bail Out: Remove water from a swamped boat. Now refers to helping out someone in trouble.
Bear Down: To sail downwind quickly towards another ship. It now means moving quickly toward someone with an intent purpose.
Bitter End: The loose, unsecured end of a line. Now used to say that someone will continue doing something until it is finished, no matter what.
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: The “devil” is the longest seam of a wooden ship, running from the bow to the stern. When in need of caulking, a sailor would sit in a bo’sun’s chair suspended between the “devil” and the “deep” – a very precarious position.
Chew the Fat: Tough salted beef required a lot of chewing to make it edible. This has come to mean a friendly conversation.
Doldrums: An area of calm winds near the equator. With no wind, a trip through the doldrums was long, hot and boring. “In the doldrums” refers to being emotionally down or bored.
Even Keel: A ship floating upright without list was on an even keel. This has come to mean calm and steady. Keeled over, or upside down, was a sailor’s term for death.
Feeling Blue: When a ship lost a beloved Captain, she would fly a blue sail, or have a blue stripe painted around the hull. Now, a feeling of sadness.
Filibuster: Buccaneers, known as filibusters, from the Dutch word for freebooter, would obstruct the passage of a ship. Translated into French as filibuster, it is now a political term to delay passage of legislation by non-stop talking.
Footloose: The foot is the bottom of the sail attached to the boom. A sail not attached is said to be footloose and very difficult to control. “Footloose and fancy free” alludes to the motion of a footloose sail.
Hand Over Fist: The act of moving quickly up a rope or hoisting a sail. Now meaning to advance or accumulate rapidly.
Hard and Fast: A ship aground on the rocks. Now meaning inflexible.
Knowing the Ropes: An obviously important skill on a sailing vessel. It still means having experience or skill.
Mayday: Since 1948, an internationally recognized signal for ships in trouble, loosely translated from the French, m’aidez, “help me.
Let the Cat Out of the Bag: The cat ‘o nine tails was kept in a cloth bag and pulled out immediately before a flogging, signifying an act of misconduct. It now refers to revealing a secret.
Loose Cannon: A cannon having come loose on the deck of a pitching boat could cause injury and damage. It now is used to describe an unpredictable person who is likely to cause unintentional damage.
P.O.S.H: Port Outward, Starboard Home. When sailing to India from Britain and back, kept your cabin on the shady side of the ship. Now meaning elegant and stylish.
Starboard: The Vikings called the side of their ship its board and placed their steering oar, the “star” on the right side.
Three Sheets to the Wind: On a smaller sail boat, there are 3 sheets that control the sails. If the sheets are flying in the wind, there is no control of the boat. This has come to refer to someone who has had too much to drink.
Under the Weather: A crewman standing watch on the weather side of the bow would be subject to a constant battering of the wind and sea spray. Hence, he would be under the weather, now commonly known as sick.
Whole Nine Yards: A square rigger has 3 masts with 3 yards on each mast. If all square sails were flying the whole nine yards would be in operation. In other words, everything.
So, go ahead! Speak proudly, using the language of our sailing nation and let the rest of the landlubbers wonder what you are talking about!