Hey don’t get us wrong. we don’t hate everything about sailing. In fact, there are lots of things about sailing that powerboaters are thankful for, such as…uh, hmmm, well, for one thing, it keeps sailors off the streets. Also, sailing is responsible for many common words and expressions that all of us use.
Chances are you’re already aware of the roots of several such phrases. Take the word “bitt,” for example, which refers to the deck hardware used to attach a boat’s anchor. While dropping anchor, obviously you must always be aware of where the anchor’s line ends. Hundreds of years ago on wooden sailing ships, a crewman would tie a rag a few feet from the deck end of the line. The length of rope between the rag and the deck end of the line became known as the “bitt end,” which evolved into the expression, “the bitter end.” Pretty neat, huh? Here are some other expressions that originated during the age of sail.
By and Large. Sailing “by” means to close-haul a ship, steering it on a course close against the wind. If the wind is from the quarter, the ship is sailing “large.” Alternating from one direction to the other, a helmsman who sailed his ship “by and large” was generally able to keep his ship on course.
Cut and Run. This refers to a tactic used by ship’s crews to make a quick escape while at anchor. Rather than take time to haul anchor, a crewman would simply grab an ax, chop through the anchor line, and be off.
Dead in the Water. An expression known all too well among our sailor friends, it refers to a boat sitting motionless on the water during a windless day.
Whistling in the Wind. When they found themselves dead in the water, sailors used to believe they could rouse a wind by whistling. Because the wind usually proved deaf to such ploys, the phrase “whistling in the wind” came to refer to someone whose attempt at an endeavor was likely to fail.
At Loose Ends. Ropes on old wooden sailing vessels were under constant stress and continually unraveling. Crews were ordered into the rigging to check for “loose ends” and make repairs.
Spic and Span. On a ship, the word for a tack or nail was “spick.” A piece of wood was called a “span.” If you were walking about a ship and saw several spicks and spans lying about, obviously you were aboard a brand-new ship.
Three sheets to the wind. For reasons only they can fathom, sailors refer to the ropes that maneuver a ship’s sails as “sheets.” When they’re mishandled, sheets fall “to the wind.” A ship with three sheets to the wind has lost its control and is wallowing from side to side, not unlike someone who’s had a tad too much grog.
You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. If the sailor who was three sheets to the wind got caught by his ship’s officers, he would have been bound in front of the entire crew and flogged with a cat o’ nine tails, often at the hands of one of his mates. However, many members of the crew had an agreement among themselves to use the lash gently, in case they found themselves in similarly dire circumstances and in need of a favor.
Under the Weather. A sailor suffering from a severe back scratching might be ordered to stay belowdecks. By placing a stricken sailor under the deck, or “under the weather,” his chances for a quick recovery were improved by limiting his exposure to the harsh conditions outside.
A Square Meal. The wooden trays or dishes for eating used on ship were square shaped for secure stowage. So what would you call a meal served on a square tray?
Freeze the Balls Off a Brass Monkey. Speaking of trays and bad weather, cannonballs on old wooden warships were stacked into pyramid shapes. At the base of each pyramid was a large, cupped tray. Made of brass, this tray was called a “monkey,” and it held the iron cannonballs in place. During frigid weather the brass tray would contract, causing the stack of cannonballs to spill. As you can see, the weather aboard a ship was literally cold enough “to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.”Brrrrr.