2021 Grateful 16: A new understanding

A recent sailing trip opened a porthole to a world of understanding. Not since I first saw Rob Brydon’s take on quoting Shakespeare, have I marvelled as much at the English language.

So many terms I use every day have their origins on the seas.

When I heard jib, I thought cut of. But little did I know that once upon a time, each country had its own jib (sail) making it easy to identify the ship’s origin. Hence, the cut of their jib.

I knew that the toilet on a ship is called the head but I hadn’t known why. According to the Navy Department Library:

“Head” in a nautical sense referring to the bow or fore part of a ship dates to 1485. The ship’s toilet was typically placed at the head of the ship near the base of the bowsprit, where splashing water served to naturally clean the toilet area.

I’ve heard the call to batten down the hatches, to get ready in times of crisis, and knew it was a nautical term but I thought it referred to closing the, ahem, windows. I was confused where I read that it refers to securing the tarps. I read some more to find:

This idiom is believed to have its roots in the sailing practice of securing a ship’s hatchways to prepare for bad weather. These hatchways were usually covered by a grill or left open to allow fresh air circulation. However, when bad weather threatened, the crew would cover these openings with tarpaulins and fasten them in place with wooden battens.

I’d never have reckoned pipe down to have come from the sea, but one of the signals given by the boatswain was to pipe down the hammocks – as in go below deck and get to bed.

Tide over is another one. As in loan someone a few quid to tide them over till payday. When there’s no wind, and the boat has no motor, you have to float with the tide until the wind returns.

Any port in a storm, as in, you’re not fussy, anything will do, is common enough.

There’s also the multipurpose on board – to mean part of, or in agreement with. Once you’re on board a ship, there’s no getting off.

I had thought that the term berth referred to where you slept aboard – as in a four-berth cabin. I didn’t know that the term to give a wide berth referred to allowing space around the berth (where the ship drops an anchor) because boats move as far as the anchor chain allows.

I’ve had occasion to describe someone as being three sheets to the wind (very drunk) without ever understanding where the term came from. Many say it has its origins in sailing – a sheet being the rope that secures the jib (sail). But one New York Times reader says that’s all a load of tosh.

The old Dutch-style windmill on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts, which is still grinding cornmeal for the tourists, has four wooden vanes to which are attached four sails — or more properly, sheets. If the miller leaves one off, only three are presented to the wind. The mechanism is then severely out of balance, and in a fresh breeze the entire structure of the mill goes into a violent and potentially destructive shudder, evoking the image of a staggering drunk.

Brendan McWilliams, writing in The Irish Times back in 2000, acknowledges this but adds to the mix:

In olden times, if a sheet broke under strain, it was necessary for a sailor to secure both it and the wildly flailing canvas as soon as possible, before the massive sail would flap itself to pieces. It was a dangerous task: one touch by a wire sheet, and a hapless sailor might find himself swept overboard to almost certain death. The story goes that a volunteer who successfully secured a sheet that was “in the wind” was given a generous tot of rum as a reward. A sailor, therefore, who had secured “three sheets in the wind”, and lived to drink his just deserts, was likely to end up very happy – but extremely drunk.

I prefer the latter.

Sailing close to the wind  – the close where is the difference between sailing very fast or not sailing at all. If you sail into the wind, you go nowhere. It’s a fine line clearly explained by Elizabeth O’Malley for Life of Sailing. When I use it, I mean just that – treading a fine line.

I heard tack and wondered if I’d been using on the right track all these years instead of on the right tack …

right tack/track, to take/on the

To take or be on the correct course of action or reasoning. The first expression refers to the tack of a sailing ship— that is, its course when it is tacking (steering in zigzag fashion when sailing to windward). The word “tack” was being transferred to a course of action by 1675. The second term, which dates from about 1880, alludes to the direction of a path. Both have antonyms—on the wrong tack or track—denoting a mistaken course of action or reasoning.

 There are lots more. Dead in the water. All at sea. Sink or swim. All hands on deck. Run a tight ship. Shipshape. And did you know that the term turn the corner was  first used by sailors who had passed the Cape of Good Hope (Africa) or Cape Horn (South America)? No? Me neither. Am grateful for the lesson.







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