Origins #2: Expressions from the sea

Origins Category

Instead of explaining just one term, I’m going to let everyone in on a fact not so commonly known – that many common, everyday terms have nautical origins. There are actually hundreds of terms that we use every day that were originally used only on the open seas that we now would never think were associated that way.

A few examples:

1. Black Book
From the 1300’s – a collection of maritime laws and conduct that became known as the Black Book of the Admiralty. The punishments for offenses was harsh, to say the least. Drowning, starvation, and marooning were punishments for serious offenses such as repeatedly sleeping on watch. As used today, if you’re listed in someone’s black book, you have offended them in some way. Luckily for you, physical punishments no longer apply.

2. Blind Eye
In 1801, during the Battle of Copenhagen, Admiral Nelson deliberately held his telescope to his blind eye, in order not to see the flag signal from the commander to stop the bombardment. He won. Turning a blind eye means to ignore intentionally.

3. Boot Camp
During the Spanish-American War, sailors wore leggings called boots, which came to mean a Navy (or Marine) recruit. These recruits trained in ‘boot’ camps.

4. Chewing the Fat
Literally, eating the seaman’s daily ration of tough, salt-cured pork or beef. Long before refrigeration, cured meats were tough but durable and it took a lot of chewing to make them edible. Has come to mean a friendly conversation (or talking too much, depending who’s talking).

5. Clean Slate
Prior to GPS and onboard computers, courses and distances were recorded on a slate. At the end of each watch these were transcribed into the ship’s log and the slate wiped clean for the next watch. Has come to mean starting anew.

6. Colors, True Colors, False Colors, Flying Colors
The flag flown by a vessel indicating its nationality was referred to as her colors. Long before radios, you can imagine how important this might have been, especially when engaged in battle. False colors were sometimes flown to avoid capture or to approach unsuspiciously (see bamboozle above). This was frowned upon in International Law, wherein it is accepted as a ‘ruse of war’ only if the ship is in immediate danger.

7. Cranky
Possibly from the Dutch krengd, a crank was an unstable sailing vessel. Due to a faulty design, the imbalance of her cargo, or a lack of ballast, a crank would heel too far to the wind. Has come to mean irritable.

8. Haze
Long before fraternal organizations, hazing was the practice of keeping the crew working all hours of the day or night, whether necessary or not, in order to deprive them of sleep and to make them generally miserable. In the 19th century, many captains used this practice to assert their authority. Hazing has come to mean the initiation of a newcomer to a group by humiliating and harassing him or her, thereby asserting the authority of the group.

9. Hulk, Hulking
A large and unwieldy ship of simple construction and dubious seaworthiness. On shore, it means big and clumsy.

10. Idler, Idle
Idler was the name for those members of a ship’s crew that did not stand night watch because of their work. Carpenters, sailmakers, cooks, etc. worked during the day and were excused from watch duty at night. They were called idlers, but not because they had nothing to do, simply because they were off duty at night.

11.Show his true colors
Early warships often carried flags from many nations on board in order to elude or deceive the enemy. The rules of civilized warfare called for all ships to hoist their true national ensigns before firing a shot. Someone who finally “shows his true colors” is acting like a man-of-war which hailed another ship flying one flag, but then hoisted their own when they got in firing range.

OK, so I just gave you eleven terms that at first glance don’t have nautical origins, but actually do. There are literally HUNDREDS of these terms in every person’s daily lexicon. I took these terms and definitions from here. Please feel free to visit them and check out the rest of them.

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