In the navy

Age of Sail

Age of Sail (Photo credit: Mark Faviell Photos)

Have you ever been taken aback? Do you know where the phrase comes from? Has anyone ever told you to get cracking? Have you ever struggled to make head nor tail of something?

English is one of the most pervasively spoken languages in the world. As a dialect developed in an island nation, it’s no great surprise that much of the phraseology comes from a life on the ocean waves. I managed to pick up a lexicon of nautical slang during our recent visit to Portsmouth and I’ve chuckled ever since!

The phrase “taken aback” comes from the age of sail where the wind fills your sails in completely the wrong direction. The phrase “get cracking” refers to the noise made when a sailing ship hoists more sails and the wind fills them making that characteristic “crack”. Naval signallers would typically respond with “can’t make head nor tail of it” when they received a garbled transmission.

The origin of some phrases is fairly obvious when you think about it. If something “takes the wind out of your sails”, you’re not going to make much progress. If you are expecting trouble, it makes sense to “batten down the hatches”. It certainly did if you were on a sailing ship heading into a storm.

Sometimes it takes a while to “get up to speed” on something – again, an expression from the age of sail. Often it takes a while until you “know the ropes”. Once you do, you can “fathom” things out. A fathom is a nautical measure of 6 feet of depth which quite literally referred to the amount a man could grasp.

In nautical terms, everything above decks is commonly referred to as “all above board”. This has come to mean that everything’s open and nothing’s hidden. If it weren’t, you could be forgiven for not “touching it with a bargepole”. But if it had a “clean bill of health”, you would be happy. A bill of health was the report filed by the medical officer on the physical condition of a sailor.

You might think this is a load of “codswallop”. Wallop was a name for beer. In 1875, Hiram Codd came up with a process for bottling carbonated water. Before long, sailors came up for the derogatory term of codswallop as a description of this very poor substitute for the beer they were used to.

I think my favourite nautical term has to be to “get your own back” which refers to the lavatory arrangements on submarines. Essentially, there is a tank into which whatever a sailor produces is deposited. Once the sailor has finished, the contents are flushed out to sea with air pressure.

Unfortunately, there is a top valve on the tank which can, either through incompetence of the sailor or through sabotage, can result in the tank contents coming inboard onto the poor sailor – hence the expression!


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