What the Navy gave English

The English language comes from England, an island nation off the coast of Europe. For almost 200 years, England was the world’s premiere maritime power. Consequently, hundreds of nautical phrases have made their way into the language.

Sometimes the nautical origin of such phrases is obvious. A “shot across the bow” originally meant a warning shot fired towards another ship. It lives on today in the media any time two Goliaths go at it, such as “Google fires shot across the bow at Microsoft in lawsuit” or “Celtics fire shot across the Heat’s bow in game 1 of playoffs”.

Sometimes, though, the naval origin of phrases is somewhat less obvious. At some point in your life, you’ve probably been told to “pipe down”. This comes from an order given by a captain to a boatswain (or bosun). The boatswain usually carried a whistle-like device called a pipe or call (picture here) that was used to convey orders throughout the ship. At the end of a typical day, the captain would call “pipe down”, which was a signal to dismiss everyone not on watch. It’s the naval equivalent of the army’s “lights out”, meaning “shut up and go to sleep”.

Here’s a partial list of some other nautical phrases you might use every day without even knowing it. But before we begin, allow me to say that I know that ropes are called “lines” on ships. I’ve called them “ropes” in this post because it might be confusing to non-nautical types. So don’t email me about it, OK? 🙂

“All hands on deck” – This was an order for everyone on the ship to assemble on deck, perhaps for a Sunday church service, or to convey news to the crew. Its nautical origin should seem obvious, except that in the past few years it’s been shortened to just “all hands” by jargon-loving businesspeople. A company might hold an “all hands” meeting, which requires all employees to attend, for example.

“Press into service” – This originally concerned impressement, the practice of drafting sailors into the Royal Navy against their will. In wartime, the navy would create “press gangs” that would go to ports and round up any spare merchant sailors and force them to serve on Royal Navy ships (with compensation, of course). Contrary to popular belief, press gangs didn’t go around impressing just anyone. An inexperienced person, like a farmer or clergyman, was useless on a ship, and was very rarely (if ever) pressed into service. The term is still used today for anyone who is coerced into taking a job they don’t really want to do, as in “with Edward’s abdication, George was pressed into service as King George VI”.

“First rate” – During the age of sail, Royal Navy ships were rated based on the number of cannon they carried. A small ship carrying 20 guns or fewer was “sixth rate”, 48 guns or fewer was “fifth rate”, 60 guns or fewer was “fourth rate”, 89 guns or fewer was “third rate”, 98 guns or fewer was “second rate”… and 100 guns or more was “first rate” Serving on a such a ship was prestigious and the ships themselves were the best in the navy, so in time “first rate” came to mean something top of the line.

“Knowing the ropes” – If you’ve ever seen an old-fashioned sailing ship, you know they have miles and miles of ropes on them. One of the first things a young sailor would have to learn is which rope did what. Thus, an experienced sailor would “know his ropes”, a term expanded today to anyone knowledgeable about a certain thing, even if ropes aren’t involved.

“Clean bill of health” – Sailors visited ports all over the world, and by the late 17th century it was clear that they sometimes brought communicable diseases home with them. Ships were often quarantined until the local port authority could issue a certificate (a “bill of health”) certifying that the ship was free of disease. Nowadays it’s used almost any time a negative (i.e. positive) result is found, as in “the mechanic looked at the used car I was thinking of buying and gave it a clean bill of health”. Incidentally, the word quarantined comes from the Italian for “40 days”, the original length of time a ship would be isolated.

“Under the weather” – A sailor on duty at the bow of a ship for a long period of time would be constantly hit with spray as the ship moved through the water. He was literally “under the weather”, a term that has come to mean “sick”, as people once thought that being cold and wet could give you a cold.

“Rub salt in [his\her\your] wounds” – I’m not sure I buy this one, as it reeks of folk etymology. Misbehaving sailors would be whipped with a cat o’ nine tails, a whip with multiple “tails”. Each tail had a barb of metal or knotted leather at the end, and each barb would cut into the sailor’s skin as he was whipped. So the story goes, after the whipping was done, the ship’s doctor would pour salt (the cheapest, most plentiful antibiotic) on the sailor’s wounds to prevent infection. Understandably, this hurt almost as much as the whipping itself, so “to rub salt” into someone’s wounds is to make a bad situation worse for someone.

“Over a barrel” – When it was time for a whipping, those misbehaving sailors might be tried down to a temporary structure built for the purpose, or might be lashed to a mast and whipped there. Most often, a barrel was rolled out on the deck. He was tied to it, with his belly against the barrel and his back exposed to the sky. To be “over a barrel” is to be in a bad position, as in “Citibank has me over a barrel with this mortgage”.

“Cup of Joe” – This is also a likely folk etymology, but I include it here because it is one of the few (alleged) naval terms of American origin. Josephus Daniels was appointed Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson in 1912, and one of his most infamous acts was to ban alcohol on U.S. Navy ships. Disgruntled officers began referring to coffee in his name as an “honor”.

“Shake a leg” – This one also sounds like a folk etymology, but it’s actually very well documented. When a ship arrived at port, impressed sailors weren’t allowed on shore, out of fear that they’d desert the second their feet hit dry land. The Royal Navy wasn’t totally unsympathetic to their needs, however, and women would sometimes be allowed on board the ship. When it came time to leave, a couple of sailors would go into the dark area below deck with lanterns and demand that each person “show a leg”. Those with dainty female legs were ordered to get dressed and leave. Over time, this morphed into “shake a leg”, which still retains its meaning of “it’s time to go”.

“True colors” – It was a common tactic for ships to fly the flag of another country when sailing. This might be because the ship was damaged or her crew sick, and the captain wanted to avoid confrontation with an unfriendly ship. Or perhaps the ship would fly the same flag as another ship, to lure the unsuspecting vessel closer before opening fire on it. Whatever the case, the rules of war stated that the ship had to take down the “false flag” and fly her “true colors” before opening fire. The phrase is still used today when the “true nature” of someone or something is revealed.

“Nipper” – A small piece of rope, typically used to secure the large anchor cable. It was once a popular slang term for a small boy, although it’s not heard so much today.

“Rummage sale” – Before “garage sales” and “moving sales” were common names for people selling off their old junk, they were mostly known as “rummage sales”, thanks to practice of the merchant navy selling off damaged cargo at a steep discount. The word “rummage” comes from the French arrimage, meaning “cargo”.

“Field Day” – This originally meant a day set aside for cleaning up every part of the ship, and it later came to mean to review all military aspects to the ship. How it obtained its current meaning of “an easy victory”, as in “the Steelers had a field day over the Browns”, is a mystery to me.

“Keep your shirt on” – Cloth used to be quite expensive, and so clothes were therefore also expensive. Most sailors wouldn’t want to risk harming an expensive shirt when fighting, so they’d take them off before throwing punches. If a situation got heated, other sailors might tell the hothead to “keep his shirt on”, a phrase still used today to calm down people.

“Long shot” – In the age of sail, a captain might decide to attack a ship several miles away. The gunners would go to work immediately, and they’d open fire on the other ship as soon as she was anywhere near the range of the ship’s guns. Most of these first shots would fall short or wide, thanks to the wind, humidity, the size of the guns, the temperature of the guns (warm cannon fired farther than cold cannon), the quality of the gun powder, and the amount of powder used. However, every once in a while, one of these “long shots” would hit their targets, setting off a cheer from the crew. Today, a “long shot” is a person, sports team, race horse or any other thing not given much of an initial chance to win at the outset of an event, but who comes back and wins it all.

“Above board” – A common wartime trick was for a captain to order the majority of his crew below deck. Another ship, observing the first ship through a telescope, might see the ship so thinly manned and think it might be easy pickins. So the unaware ship would approach the other, and as soon as it got close enough to board the other ship, the first captain would give the order for all his hidden crew to attack. The crew of the second ship, taken by surprise, could then be easily defeated. A captain who kept his crew “above board” wasn’t taking part in such a deception, and thus today something “above board” is genuine and accurate, as in “I reviewed the applicant’s references, and everything appears to be above board”.

“Toe the line” – When assembled on the deck, sailors were expected to stand at attention with their toes on a line of deck planking. To “toe the line” was to accept authority, a meaning the phrase still has today.

“Dressing down” – An old sail might be worn thin or have holes in it. This was bad, because air going through holes in a sail aren’t pushing the ship forward. To restore the sail’s effectiveness, it was “dressed down” with a coat of oil, wax or tar. Today a lax employee might be given a “dressing down” by their employer to restore their own effectiveness.

“Scuttlebutt” – To scuttle a ship was to drill holes in her hull, so she’d sink and not fall into enemy hands. A butt was a small barrel that held two days’ worth of fresh water. Thus, the barrel with holes drilled into it so that sailors could get water was known as a scuttlebutt. Just as people gossip over the water cooler at the office these days, sailors used to gossip during water breaks. In time, such gossip became known as “scuttlebutt”.

“Filibuster” – This was the original English word for pirate, having come into the language from the Dutch vrybuiter (freebooter) via the French flibustier. Today it means to stop or delay the passage of legislation, which makes sense in a way, as the original term involved the stopping or delaying of legitimate commerce.

“Squared Away” – Some ships had square sails, and if they were properly rigged, the sails looked like squares. Thus, to be “squared away” means that everything is in order.

“Take another tack” – Sailing ships need wind to move. However, the wind doesn’t always move in the direction the ship wants to go. So to get from point A to point B, ships often had to travel in a zig-zag line, a process called tacking. To “take another tack” is to try something from a different angle, although now it’s usually a figurative angle and not a literal one.

“Main stay” – One of the most important ropes on the ship, the main stay would help support the main mast. Nowadays, a “main stay” is something that supports something else, as in “Brett Favre was the main stay of the Green Bay Packers for over a decade”.

“Skyscraper” – One of the topmost sails on a ship, so named because it seemed to scrape the sky. Interestingly, when the first skyscraper buildings were built, a large portion of the construction workers were former sailors who were used to climbing and working at great heights. It was, in fact, the former sailors who coined the term for the buildings, and it stuck.

“Aloof” – This word originally had the nautical-only meaning of “keeping distance from another ship”. It’s now common for anything “aloof” to be distant, as in “I tried talking to my mom about it, but she was aloof”.

“Dismantle” – This word also used to have a specific nautical meaning, which was to remove all the rigging and stores (food, ammunition) from a ship. Over time, the word came to mean disassembling anything.

“To turn a blind eye” – This one also has a specific (and amusing!) origin. British naval hero Lord Nelson was blinded in his right eye early in his naval career. At the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, the commander of the British naval forces, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, issued an order for the British ships to retreat. Nelson thought Parker was being too cautious, so when Parker gave the retreat order via signal flags, Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye and claimed to see no such order. Nelson went on to a great victory that day, popularizing the story and the phrase.

“Even keel” – A keel is the backbone of a boat. If you’ve ever seen a sailboat out of the water, the keel is the fin-like structure on the bottom of the boat. To be at “even keel” means that the ship is upright, and not listing to either side. This makes for smooth sailing, so a person at “even keel” is steady and calm. Incidentally, many scholars think that “keel” is the first known written English word, recorded in the 500AD era by English cleric Gildas in De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain).

“Keeling over” – If the keel flips over on a sailboat, the boat is upside down… which isn’t good. Sailors used the term “keeling over” to mean “death”, a phrase still used to this day.

“Figurehead” – A figurehead was an ornamental wooden carving mounted to the bow of a ship (see this). The figurehead served no purpose other than to look pretty, so anyone who had a similar role became known as a “figurehead”.

“Taken Aback” – If the wind suddenly reversed direction on a sailing ship, there was the very real possibility that the sails would slap back against the masts, and there was the chance that the masts could break. This was a horrifying moment for the captain and crew, and we’re still momentarily stopped (and possibly fearful) when we are “taken aback”.

“Slush fund” – Based on a Scandinavian word for slops, “slush” was the fat that rose to the surface of the pot when ships’ cooks made pork or beef dishes. The fat would be skimmed off and stored in vats, and later sold to soap or candle makers. The resulting money – the slush fund – would be used to buy goods or entertainment by the crew, like liquor or musical instruments. Today it means a secret political or corporate fund used for various misdeeds.

“Take someone down a peg” – Although various explanations are given for this phrase, it most likely comes from flags on ships, which were raised or lowered by a system of pegs. To be the highest flag was a great honor, but by moving them down a peg or two, you’d lower their prestige.

“Three sheets to the wind” – This phrase is somewhat controversial, not because of what it means, but how it came to mean it. Someone that’s “three sheets to the wind” is drunk, but scholars argue over whether it comes from the sailing prowess of drunken sailors (which made the ship list back and forth, so it moved like a drunk person), or whether the drunken sailors just stopped caring, and thus let the ropes controlling the sails to fly free in the wind.

[Pack a] Wallop – In 1513, a French fleet burned the English city of Brighton. An outraged Henry VIII ordered Sir John Wallop to retaliate. Wallop gathered some ships and 800 men and invaded 21 French villages and burned several harbors and ships to the ground. Wallop did such a good job that “giving them a Wallop” became naval slang for annihilating the enemy.

Careen – Ships often get barnacles below the waterline, and ships then and now often needed minor repairs after scraping the bottom. Nowadays such cleaning and repairing is done by using hydraulic lifts to take most smaller craft out of the water, and using dry docks for larger vessels. In the old days, a ship would be beached and careened to one side, so that the hull could be cleaned and repaired. It’s interesting that the modern use of the word (“the car careened off the road”) often implies reckless behavior, since careening a ship was a delicate task left to the most experienced sailors.

“Take the wind out of his sails” – This one has an obvious naval origin, but the meaning of it is pretty interesting. To “take the wind out of” a ship’s sails was a battle tactic. You know how race car drivers draft each other? Basically, a driver comes up close behind another driver and, because of aerodynamics, both cars will travel faster. Well, the opposite thing happens with ships – one ship will overtake another and “hog up” all the wind, leaving the trailing ship stopped completely, or traveling at a much reduced speed. This allowed the first ship full mobility to attack the stopped vessel. So to “take the wind out of someone’s sails” is to stop them in their tracks.

“Splice the main brace” – You don’t see this one much outside of nautical or pirate themed bars these days, but it also has an interesting origin. Sailing ships cost almost as much back then as aircraft carriers do today. Plus, European navies had a tradition where the captain and crew of a ship that captured another ship would be given a share of the proceeds from the sale of the captured ship and any cargo it might have held. Thus, the main goal in most naval battles (especially one-on-one encounters) wasn’t to sink the other ship, but to disable it. And the easiest way to do that was for the gunners to aim for the sails and the rigging, the rat’s nest of ropes and pulleys that supported the sails. After a battle was over, sailors would have to repair the sails and rigging, and one of the most difficult jobs was to splice (repair) the main brace, one of the largest, most important ropes on a sailing ship. Because this was a long, hard task, sailors often saved this for last. When the main brace was spliced, captains often rewarded the men with rum. Over time, captains often gave the order to “splice the main brace”, even though the rope was undamaged. So the order became something of “code word” for drinking (and remained so after steam-powered ships took over).

“A stern lecture” – This is perhaps the most interesting “naval” phrase, mainly because it sounds so much like a folk etymology… but I can’t find a lot on the Internet to discredit it, either. I’d always thought that the “stern” in “stern lecture” referred to the demeanor of the person giving the lecture. If I got in trouble as a teenager, my dad would often lecture me, and would be deathly serious when doing so. But it’s possible that “stern” instead refers to the rear of the ship. Sailing ships often had a small office near the stern, and this was restricted to officers only. For a common sailor to be brought to the office – usually because he messed up in some way – would be a rare, unpleasant thing. Thus, you wouldn’t want a stern lecture.


4 Replies to “What the Navy gave English”

  1. very interesting, but I am really looking for the origin of the word “sheet” the rope that controls the position of the sail to port or starboard, so far all I can find is that it comes from a 14th century dutch word “sceate” meaning sail
    any suggestions?

  2. Thanks for the Navy words, I enjoy them very much, you didn’t have how the words Port 7 starboard came about, In the Greek & Roman ships had a large paddle on the right hand side, so when those ships docked the left side was at the dock, the right side was steer board, which became starboard. The nave word for a bathe room in Head. that came from the British Navy had a toilet at the bow of the ship or head.
    I think I am giving you the true way they came about but please check me out. I think you for this site & will be checking backi

  3. Field day. When I was a kid, the last day of school was a field day. An easy day of fun outdoor activities like relay races, potato sack races , etc. “We’re were having a field day”, always ment to me that we were having a really fun time. I never thought of it as a naval term.

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