Salty Speech

Salty Speech

Do you realise how many of your figures of speech come from the days of sail?

Here are just a few...

All at sea - anyone who didn't really know what they were doing was said to be...

Batten down the hatches - the wooden covers on the open deck hatches were secured in place with extra wooden batons when rough weather was expected.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea - when the wind was blowing a ship towards a rocky shore (the devil) where it might find water shallow enough to drop anchor, but if the anchor didn't hold then it would be unable to sail into the wind to deep blue water, and would be smashed on the rocks. This dilemma left the captain...

Broad in the beam - a very wide ship (or person) was said to be very broad in the beam.

Chock-a-block - a rope and pulley system can be made up of 2 sets of pulley wheels, one called the block and the other the chock. When the rope was tightened as far as it could go, the chock touched the block and could go no further.

Go by the board - anything which fell over the protective board around the edge of the deck and into the sea was 'overboard' or had gone by the board.

High and dry - anchoring above a sand bank at high tide could leave your ship high and dry at low tide.

Know the ropes - every sail on every ships' mast was adjusted by several ropes, which can be confusing unless you...

Plain sailing - easy sailing conditions, with no complications.

Three sheets to the wind - a drunken crew's attempt to set the sails.

Not enough room to swing a cat - too cramped to flog a sailor with a special whip with 9 lashes, known as a 'cat-o-nine-tails'.

Let the cat out of the bag - this cat-of-nine-tails whip was normally kept in a bag, until someone did something wrong which required its immediate removal from the bag and use on the guilty person.

Give them a wide berth - ships with incompetent crews were always allocated lots of room to dock.

Box the compass - a test of navigation skill to sail North for 1 mile, then East for 1 mile, then South for 1 mile, then West for 1 mile and end up exactly at the starting point.

Sling your hook - when the anchor (a big metal hook) was raised and slung safely out of the water, then the ship was ready to leave.

Shipshape and Bristol fashon - a ship tied up in any shallow port may touch the bottom at low tide and lean to one side, throwing things off the tables and shelves below deck. The huge tidal range at the port of Bristol required extra care in stowing everything especially thoroughly, as the ship would lean over at an even greater angle.

Shiver my timbers - running aground at full speed would send a shock wave through a wooden ship and shake or even snap the masts.

Taken aback - a sudden shift in the wind direction from a following wind to a head wind could stop a ship in its tracks.

I like the cut of your jib - a well designed sailing ship would look very smart and impressive, even at a distance.

Show a leg - sailors in their bunks were ordered to do this, to check there were no women hiding there.

The bottom dropped out - marine worms gradually ate away at the hulls of wooden ships, until one day..!

A copper-bottomed investment - but later, ships' hulls were covered in sheets of copper to stop marine worms eating the wood away.

Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey - on deck a pyramid of iron canon balls was held in a metal frame made of brass (no sparks near the gun powder) called a 'monkey'. If it was very cold, the brass frame would contract enough to roll the canon balls off the monkey and across the deck.

Taking the piss - empty coal boats returning to Newcastle from London brought barrels of human urine to Whitby for processing the alum in the local cliffs. These crews would claim they were actually transporting 'barrels of wine', which sounded much better, but people in the know would accuse them of just...


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