Sea Sayings

Some common phrases have their roots in the the world of sailing. Here are several you’ve probably heard:

POSH – “classy and elegant”

This was used in the days when british officials and their families traveled to and from India on steam ships. Their tickets were stamped with “POSH” which meant “Port Out, Starboard Home”. This ensured accommodations on the cooler side of the ship both ways.

KNOW THE ROPES – “Skill and experience”

The riggings in a square-rigged ship was a complex network of cordage. The ropes were used to hoist, lower, and trim sails. In this complicated system, each of the hundreds of pieces had a name and function. Running aloft as well as fore and aft, each rope was secured to a belaying pin and identified by its position of the rails running the length of the ship. The mastery of this complex system separated old salts from “Johnny Raws”. It was considered so important that discharge papers were once marked “KNOW THE ROPES”, thus known as an honorable discharge.

RIG (style of dress)

From the Middle English word rig (to bind or wrap) the rig of a ship denotes the masts, spars, stays, or rigging and the sails that drive the ship. The particular arrangement of the masts and sails differentiates types of vessels such as ship, bark, brig, schooner, sloop, etc., regardless of hull design.

SHIP (an object that can be navigated)

From the Middle English word “schip” (boat), the word is applied in a metaphorical sense to various objects that can be navigated through an obstacle course to a place of safety, strength, or accomplishment.

SHIVER ME TIMBERS (expression denoting surprise or disbelief)

Presumably, this expression alludes to a ship’s striking a rock or shoal so hard that her timbers shiver.

SKIPPER (Leader, boss)

The captain or master of a ship is called SKIPPER. The word is from Britain during the fourteenth century and is thought to come from the Dutch “schipper” (captain). The term SKIPPER is frequently applied to a person of leadership or authority.

THREE SHEETS TO THE WIND (an intoxicated state)

On a square-rigged sailing ship, a SHEET is a line attached to the lower corners of a squaresail, used for trimming it to the wind. When sheets are allowed to run free, the sails lose their wind and flap and flutter. The ship’s forward motion stops and as she loses steerageway, she becomes impossible to control, thus “THREE SHEETS TO THE WIND”!!

CHEWING THE FAT (idle gabbing)

In the old days of wooden ships and iron men, crews talked and grumbled while CHEWING THE FAT, or eating their daily ration of brine-toughened pork. CHEWING THE FAT is a nautical expression that lost its negativity when it washed ashore. It has come to mean an idle, friendly talk.

BY THE BOARDS (missed opportunity)

When a ship’s mast falls over the side and is carried away, it is said to have gone by the boards – literally by the wooden deck and hull planking. Figuratively, the expression means something that has passed by, particularly a missed opportunity.

SUN IS OVER THE YARDARM (time for happy hour to begin)

This expression is thought to have originated by officers sailing in the North Atlantic. In those latitudes, the sun would rise above the yardarms (the horizontal Spars mounted on the masts, where squaresails were hung) around 11 a.m. Since this coincided with the forenoon “stand easy”, officers would take a break to below for their first lot of spirits for the day. The expression washed ashore, where the sun appears over the yardarm a bit later in the day – around 5 p.m., or the end of the workday, whichever comes first.

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