I’ve always been a bit of a history buff, and much of that fascination relates to our language, and its roots in times long ago. Many of the expressions and sayings we now use daily had their beginning hundreds of years ago. Today, I’d like to explore a portion of those expressions that can trace their beginning in the language of perhaps the most daring of adventurers – the sailor:
1) “All at sea“, meaning to be confused or disoriented.
This is an extension of the nautical phrase ‘at sea’. It dates from the days of sail when accurate navigational aids weren’t available. Any ship that was out of sight of land was in an uncertain position and in danger of becoming lost. ’At sea’ has been in use since the 18th century, as here, in Sir William Blackstone‘s Commentaries on the laws of England, 1768:
“If a court of equity were still at sea, and floated upon the occasional opinion which the judge who happened to preside might entertain of conscience in every particular case.”
The earliest reference to ‘all at sea’ in print is from Travel and adventure in south-east Africa, 1893, by Frederick C. Selous:
“I was rather surprised to find that he seemed all at sea, and had no one ready to go with me.”
2. “Broad in the beam“, meaning to be wide in the hips or buttocks:
This phrase derives from the nautical term beam – the widest point of a ship. Beam is first recorded in Captain John Smith‘s invaluable record of early seafaring terms - The Seaman’s Grammar, 1627:
“Suppose a Ship of 300. Tunnes be 29 foot at the Beame.”
The figurative use of beam referring to people’s hips came into being in the 20th century. An early citation of that comes in Hugh Walpole‘s Hans Frost, 1929:
“He stood watching disgustedly Bigges’ broad beam.”
3. “By and large“, meaning all things considered:
To get a sense of the original meaning of the phrase we need to understand the nautical terms ‘by’ and ‘large’.
When the wind is blowing from some compass point behind a ship’s direction of travel then it is said to be ‘large’.
When the wind is in that favorable large direction the largest square sails may be set and the ship is able to travel in whatever downwind direction the captain sees fit.
Understanding ‘By’ is a a bit more difficult. Basically, it means ‘in the general direction of’. Sailors would say to be ‘by the wind’ is to face into the wind or within six compass points of it.
The earliest known reference to ‘by and large’ in print is from Samuel Sturmy, in The Mariners Magazine, 1669:
“Thus you see the ship handled in fair weather and foul, by and learge.”
To sail ‘by and large’ required the ability to sail not only as earlier square-rigged ships could do, i.e. downwind, but also against the wind. This involves the use of triangular sails which act like airplane wings and provide a force which drags the ship sideways against the wind. By the use of this and by careful angling of the rudder the ship can make progress towards the wind.
4. “Chock-a-block“, meaning full to capacity:
“Chock” is a name given hundreds of years ago to the wedges of wood which are used to secure moving objects -chocks. These chocks were used on ships and are referred to in William Falconer‘s, An universal dictionary of the marine, 1769:
“Chock, a sort of wedge used to confine a cask or other weighty body..when the ship is in motion.”
Now, for block. This is where seafaring enters into the story. A block and tackle is a pulley system used on sailing ships to hoist the sails. The phrase describes what occurs the system is raised to its fullest extent – when there is no more rope free and the blocks jam tightly together. Frederick Chamier‘s novel The Life of a Sailor, 1832 includes this figurative use of the term:
“Here my lads is another messmate…” – What, another!” roared a ruddy-faced midshipman of about eighteen. “He must stow himself away, for we are chock-a-block here.”
5. “Give a wide berth“, meaning to keep a good distance away:
It was originally a nautical term. We now think of a ship’s berth as the place where the ship is moored. Before that though it meant ‘a place where there is sea room to moor a ship’. This derives in turn from the probable derivation of the word berth, i.e. ‘bearing off’. When sailors were warned to keep a wide bearing off something they were being told to make sure to maintain enough sea room from it.
Like many seafaring terms it dates back to the heyday of sail, the 17th century. An early use comes from the redoubtable Captain John Smith in Accidental Young Seamen, 1626:
“Watch bee vigilant to keepe your berth to windward.”
6. “Three sheets to the wind“, meaning to be drunk:
To understand this phrase we need to enter the arcane world of nautical terminology. The “sheets” aren’t sails, as many might expect, but ropes (or occasionally, chains). These are fixed to the lower corners of sails, to hold them in place. If three sheets are loose and blowing about in the wind then the sails will flap and the boat will lurch about like a drunken sailor.
7. “Tell it to the Marines!“, two meanings, really. One, it was used as a recruiting tool during times of war. Two, it was the scornful reply to a tall tale.
The US Marine Corps are probably the best-known marines these days and this American-sounding phrase is often thought to refer to them. My pals across the puddle will be thrilled to know, however, that this phrase actually originated in the 1830s in the UK, and the marines in question were the Royal Marines.
The first marines in an English-speaking country were The Duke of York and Albany‘s Maritime Regiment of Foot, formed in 1664, in the reign of Charles II. Charles I of Spain had established a similar marine corps – the Infantería de Armada (Navy Infantry) in 1537 but, being from a non English-speaking country, that corps are hardly likely to be the source of the phrase. The Duke of York’s men were soldiers who had been enlisted and trained to serve on-board ships. The recruits were considered green and not on a par with hardened sailors, hence the implication that marines were naive enough to believe ridiculous tales, but that sailors weren’t.
Most of the early citations give a fuller version of the phrase – “You may tell that to the marines, but the sailors will not believe it”. This earliest reference using the short version that is used today comes from the transcription of a journal that was written by John Marshall Deane, a private in the Foot Guards. His journal was written in 1708 and was transcribed and printed in 1846, under the title of A Journal of the Campaign in Flanders. The preface, which was the work of the transcriber rather than Deane and so must be dated as 1846 rather than 1708, includes this:
[The commanding officer] if a soldier complained to him of hardships which he could not comprehend, would be very likely to recommend him to “tell it to the marines”!
8. “To the bitter end“, meaning to the very last:
“Bitter” has been an adjective meaning acrid or sour tasting for at least 1200 years. The word was in common use in the Middle Ages and Shakespeare uses it numerous times in his plays and poems, as do many other dramatists. The phrase ‘the bitter end’ would seem, fairly obviously, to come directly from that meaning.
But not so fast. Captain Smith, in his publication Seaman’s Grammar, 1627, owns the earliest citation of the phrase in print:
“A Bitter is but the turne of a Cable about the Bits, and veare it out by little and little. And the Bitters end is that part of the Cable doth stay within boord.”
You see, a bitt is a post fastened in the deck of a ship, for fastening cables and ropes. When a rope is played out to the bitter end, it means there is no more rope to be used.
9. “Loose cannon“, meaning a wild or unpredictable person:
From the 17th century to the 19th century, wooden warships carried cannon as their primary offensive weapons. In order to avoid damage from their enormous recoil when fired they were mounted on rollers and secured with rope. A loose cannon was just what it sounds like, that is, a cannon that had become free of its restraints and was rolling dangerously about the deck.
As with many nautical phrases, the sailors of the day didn’t actually use them. In this case, that honor belonged to Victor Hugo wrote the novel Ninety Three in 1874. A translation of the French original describes cannon being tossed about following a violent incident on board ship:
“The carronade, hurled forward by the pitching, dashed into this knot of men, and crushed four at the first blow; then, flung back and shot out anew by the rolling, it cut in two a fifth poor fellow… The enormous cannon was left alone. She was given up to herself. She was her own mistress, and mistress of the vessel. She could do what she willed with both.”
Henry Kingsley picked up this reference in his novel Number Seventeen, 1875, in which he made the first use of the term ‘loose cannon’ in English:
“At once, of course, the ship was in the trough of the sea, a more fearfully dangerous engine of destruction than Mr. Victor Hugo’s celebrated loose cannon.”
The earliest figurative use of ‘loose cannon’ in print is from The Galveston Daily News, December 1889:
The negro vote in the south is a unit now mainly because it is opposed by the combined white vote. It would in no event become, as Mr. Grady once said, “a loose cannon in a storm-tossed ship.”
The phrase might have dwindled into obscurity in the 20th century but for the intervention of the US president Theodore Roosevelt. William White was a noted US journalist and politician around the turn of the 20th century and was a close friend of Roosevelt. White’s Autobiography, published soon after his death in 1944 contained the following reminiscence:
He [Roosevelt] said: “I don’t want to be the old cannon loose on the deck in the storm”.
There are, of course, many, many more. However, my personal favorite is:
10. “SHIT“, meaning…well…you get it:
Certain types of manure used to be transported (as everything was back then) by ship. In dry form it weighs a lot less, but once water it, it not only became heavier, but the process of fermentation began again, of which a by-product is methane gas.
As the stuff was stored below decks in bundles you can see what could (and did) happen; methane began to build up below decks and the first time someone came below at night with a lantern. BOOOOM!
Several ships were destroyed in this manner before it was discovered what was happening.
After that, the bundles of manure where always stamped with the term “S.H.I.T” on them which meant to the sailors to “Ship High In Transit.” In other words, high enough off the lower decks so that any water that came into the hold would not touch this volatile cargo and start the production of methane.
All sails HOOOOOOOOOO!!