By Nomi Dayan
Have you ever been asked to please stand by? Ever told someone not to barge in? Have you hung on to the bitter end, or been given a clean bill of health? If so, you have spoken like a sailor.
Each type of human activity, noted essayist L. Pearsall Smith, has its own vocabulary. Perhaps this is most evident in the speech of mariners.
The English language is a strong testament to how humans have been seafarers for millennia, with a multitude of words and phrases having filtered from life at sea to life on land. Today, a surprising number of phrases, words and expressions still have nautical origins, notably from sailing terminology in the 18th and 19th centuries. While some adopted phrases have fallen by the wayside, many expressions in our everyday language are derived from seafaring.
Barge in: Referring to flat-bottomed work boats, which were awkward to control
Bitter end: The last part of a rope attached to a vessel
Clean bill of health: A document certifying a vessel had been inspected and was free from infection
Dead in the water: A sailing ship that has stopped moving
Down the hatch: A transport term for lowering cargo into the hatch and below deck
Figurehead: A carved ornamental figure affixed to the front of a ship
Foul up: To entangle the line
Fudge the books: While the origins of this term is unclear, one theory connects it to a deceitful Captain Fudge (17th century)
Give leeway: To allow extra room for sideways drift of a ship to leeward of the desired course
High and dry: A beached ship
Jury rig: Makeshift or temporary repairs using available material
Keel over: To capsize, exposing the ship’s keel
Show the ropes: Train a newcomer in the use of ropes on sailing vessel
Letting the cat out of the bag: One explanation links this phrase to one form of naval punishment where the offender was whipped with a “cat o’ nine tails,” normally kept in a bag
Passed with flying colors/Show one’s true colors: Refers to identifying flags and pennants of sailing ships
Pipe down: Using the boatswain’s pipe signaling the crew to retire below deck
A new slant: A sailor will put a new slant on things by reducing sails to achieve an optimum angle of heel to avoid the boat from being pulled over
Slush fund: The ship’s cook created a private money reserve by hoarding bits of grease into a slush fund sold to candle makers
Steer clear: Avoid obstacles at sea
Taken aback: Sails pressed back into the mast from a sudden change of wind, stopping forward motion
The author is the executive director of The Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor.