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"10 Phrases You Never Knew Came From Sailing" Topic

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703 hits since 19 Jan 2019
©1994-2019 Bill Armintrout
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Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP In the TMP Dawghouse19 Jan 2019 12:56 p.m. PST

"When you stop to think about it… sailing is pretty amazing. From a historical perspective, through its role in travel, trade and war, it was the absolute hinge of western civilization for hundreds of years. Through that time, sailors' slang and terminology became rooted in the English lexicon and still exists profoundly to this day.

Here's a list of 10 everyday phrases that you may not have realized were born in the days when sailing made the world go round… wait… is that a nautical phrase?…"
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Personal logo ColCampbell Supporting Member of TMP19 Jan 2019 4:54 p.m. PST

They forgot "Letting the cat out of the bag" for revealing a surprise. Comes from the red baize bag that the cat o'nine tails (flogging lash) was stored in before it was used. Letting the cat of the bag was the beginning of a sailor being flogged.


Blutarski19 Jan 2019 11:07 p.m. PST

"the devil to pay" is another.


GildasFacit Sponsoring Member of TMP20 Jan 2019 3:59 a.m. PST

Toe the line was certainly used on land pretty early on too, can't honestly see that being purely naval.

A square meal coming from square plates – are they serious ? Wooden platters came in all shapes and sizes and were commonplace throughout the ages so unlikely to have been the source of a saying. Rich people – who would eat better – generally used circular plates of metal or pottery.

Garde de Paris Supporting Member of TMP20 Jan 2019 4:28 a.m. PST

I have always wondered if "under way" was originally "under weigh," and in "weigh anchor" and depart.


GildasFacit Sponsoring Member of TMP20 Jan 2019 6:08 a.m. PST

I doubt it but it is possible. It's earliest roots could imply lifting and travelling or moving something as well as more modern meanings.

Under way originally meant that you had enough speed to be able to steer (the moving sense) and weigh anchor is lifting it.

StarCruiser20 Jan 2019 9:01 a.m. PST

And another classic "He knows the ropes"… An able seaman already knows his job.

Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP In the TMP Dawghouse20 Jan 2019 3:15 p.m. PST



138SquadronRAF Supporting Member of TMP21 Jan 2019 2:53 p.m. PST

"Hand over fist" – I work sails on a schooner and you would pull the rope so quickly if you were not paying attention you'd loose the rhythm.

Weirdo21 Jan 2019 5:00 p.m. PST

A loose cannon meant an "uncomfortable time" for the crew? I think the sailors crushed by that cannon are more than uncomfortable…

Bozkashi Jones23 Jan 2019 3:04 a.m. PST

"10 Phrases You Never Knew Came From Sailing"?

I always think these stories odd – anyone with an interest in sailing or naval warfare in the age of sail surely knows these (and I see this was posted on a sailing website).

I'd add some more:

Three sheets to the wind – drunk
Not enough room to swing a cat
All above board (i.e. honest and trustworthy – ships entering port would put anything on which duty had to be paid on deck)
To 'sound' someone out
Plumb the depths
Put a shot across the bows
Shipshape and Bristol fashion
Swing the lead
Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey (though this is probably apocryphal)
'A1' – i.e. excellent and top class, comes from the Lloyds Register for classifying the quality of the rig and the hull of an insured ship
Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea (originally 'caulk between…'; the devil was the rope pushed into the gaps in the hull planks and covered in caulk to make a hull watertight)
Batten down the hatches
Sailing close to the wind

Being both a sailor and a naval wargamer I love the fact that so much of our nautical heritage still appears in our language.

And as I also trained as an actor – in case it's not widely known, the reason it's unlucky to whistle backstage is that the crew operating the 'fly' in an old theatre were usually ex seamen used to handling ropes and who used to pass orders by whistles. If you ever get the chance to see this hidden part of a theatre it does look very much like the deck of a sailing ship:



chironex25 Jan 2019 12:48 a.m. PST

"Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea (originally 'caulk between…'; the devil was the rope pushed into the gaps in the hull planks and covered in caulk to make a hull watertight)"
The devil was the seam itself; usually thought to refer to the garboard seam ie. it was called the devil because it was difficult to get to, or alternately, the seam between waterway and stanchions. Popularly, it is usually stated to be the seam between deck and wales; "paying" the devil being the practice of caulking by filling it with molten pitch. "Between the devil and the deep blue sea" therefore meaning sitting on the plank capping the wales.
Sources: "Glossary of Nautical Terms" – Wikipedia; Olivia a. Isil's "When a loose cannon flogs a dead horse, there's the devil to pay: Seafaring words in Everyday Speech".

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