Since the start of The Hull Hub, I have written articles for every issue (bar one). These mainly centred upon superstitions – especially ones revolving around Hull’s Arctic Trawling days. It’s time for a change.
Another topic close to my heart is our rich English language. We are very fortunate having English as our Mother Tongue. We have such a vast vocabulary – many words to say the same thing in a variety of different ways. Words also reflect history. As an island race, so the swell of the sea and the waves of the world roll off the tip of our tongues. Our deep and rich maritime history saturates many of the words we utter.
There are hundreds of nautical expressions used by landlubbers. Most of us are unaware of their origin. Indeed, there are far too many to squeeze into this feature. I have split the sayings into five loose categories related to: Booze; Beatings; Bodies; Women; and a Kit Bag of Mixed Clichés.
I remember at school everyone singing the sea shanty “What shall we do with the drunken sailor?” It seemed to go on forever with various forms of punishment metered out to the poor chap. Sailors and alcohol have long been associated – so let’s start with Booze and then get into the Beatings!
‘Let’s push the boat out’ means to celebrate lavishly – especially when treating others. This happened when an officer paid for a round of drinks in the wardroom. I was told it was a naval saying during a visit to Hull’s Trinity House many years ago. The guide showed visitors a silver ship-shaped sailing vessel with tiny wheels. In its centre was an expensive bottle of alcohol (port or sherry). He then demonstrated how it was pushed around the magnificent dining table so each guest could replenish their glass when needed. He boldly claimed this was the source of the expression to ‘push the boat out’ – and have a good drink. The pity was, he did not offer anyone a tipple from the bottle!
‘Splice the mainbrace’ is, nowadays, a welcome command aboard any vessel. It means an extra issue or tot of rum for the ship’s company on the occasion of a job well done – a time to relax after performing a strenuous task. It originated in sailing ships when the mainbrace was a very difficult knot to splice. Sometimes, it had to be done during a naval battle when the ship was under attack. Only the most skilled sailors were able to complete this hazardous undertaking – it involved much teamwork. When the hands finished the job they received a tot of grog. Grog was watered down rum. It had to be watered down because it was 95.5% proof. Apparently, the Queen usually gave the order to ‘splice the mainbrace’ aboard her yacht HMY Britannia after a particularly good royal trip. She continued this practise until the Britannia was decommissioned in May 1997. Britannia no longer rules the waves, but is moored at Leith, Edinburgh and open to the public.
‘Down the hatch’ is a covert maritime cliché. It usually means to ‘swig a drink back fairly quickly – and let’s be on our way’. The idiom imaginatively compares the drinker’s mouth with the hatch of a cargo ship and the human stomach as the hold taking in copious amounts of alcohol.
‘Three sheets to the wind’ means a drunk who staggers along the street out of control. This is based upon a seafaring term. A ‘sheet’ is a rope attached to the clew (metal loop at the lower corner) of a sail – used when ‘trimming the sail’. If the sheet is free (loose and flapping around), it is said to be a ‘sheet in the wind’. Therefore, to have three sheets in the wind is to be really out of control.
Having drunk all that booze, it is now time to face the consequences. If any sailor got too blotto on board, then he ran the risk of being punished. This could take many forms and these beating expressions have ended up in our everyday lingo.
‘No Room to Swing a Cat’ is a popular if somewhat confusing phrase. Please do not worry – any cat-loving friends out there – no cats will be harmed in this article! The idiom itself means ‘lack of space in a room or house – a very cramped, small area’. It originated from the naval punishment when a ‘cat-o’-nine-tails’ or nine-thonged whip was used to punish a disobedient sailor. On the old sailing ships there was not enough room below decks to swing the whip. That is why beatings were administered on deck. From a commander’s point of view, this also acted as a stern warning to the rest of the crew who looked on and grimaced.
This kind of cruel whip was used in many different countries around the Mediterranean. Each of the nine strands of the whip was knotted at the end. Sometimes a small piece of birch twig was tied on each strand. This variation was nicknamed ‘claws’ – perhaps reinforcing the link with cat’s paws / claws.
During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), the ‘cat-o’-nine-tails’ was euphemistically referred to as ‘the captain’s daughter’ for some reason. The number of lashes ranged from a dozen for drunkenness to one thousand for mutiny.
This sort of flogging was meted out in both the British Army and Royal Navy. Even in civil prisons, it was not formally abolished as a punishment for crimes of violence until 1948. One belief was that the nine whip-strands was a ‘trinity of trinities’ – both a ‘blessing and beating’ at the same time. This ‘blessing in disguise’ was small comfort for anyone at the receiving end.
Rumour had it that one naval officer posted a notice on his ship which read: “The floggings will continue until morale improves”. Talking of superior officers, this definitely links to the next idiom – ‘Gangway!’
Commanding officers in the Royal Navy sometimes yelled “Gangway!” This was an order to the lower ranks to ‘get out of his way’. The gangway itself has long held an important place aboard even primitive vessels. And the expression may have even been used aboard slave galley ships. The gangway was the boarded gap between the rowers. It allowed movement from stem to stern. It was also where the ship’s mast was laid when the galley was unshipped. Equally, the whip-master-general could easily lash the rowers who were not rowing hard enough. His job was to beat a rhythm on a drum or large gong so the rowers could keep time together and all pull their oars in harmony. But the drum was not the only thing he beat.
You might have heard about one particular cruel and evil-minded slave driver. Once a year upon his birthday he picked on a poor slave, tied him to the gong and beat his chest with the heavy hammer. One slave, who had been aboard for many years, was a bit crafty. As he was being dragged forward for the annual birthday beating he grabbed a handful of grease (tallow) and lathered it all over his chest. Every time the slave driver hit him, his hammer just had no effect, and slid off into the air. Suddenly all the rowers started singing out aloud – albeit incongruously – “Oh! He’s sliding a gong off the chest of a slave!” This groan of a joke might sometimes be greeted by the next nautical expression or exclamation: ‘tell it to the marines’.
‘Tell it to the marines’ is not in general use these days. Traditionally, however, it was a remark that greeted any tall story – and engendered an air of disbelief. The Royal source, however, is interesting. King Charles II disbelieved that there were flying fish in the South Seas after he had been told of their existence by Samuel Pepys. However, a Royal Marine, who was standing close by, confirmed that it was true. And if an upstanding, trusted Royal Marine believed the yarn, then it must have some validity.
Apparently, some British prisoners of war were forced by the Japanese in WWII to broadcast a message to their fellow soldiers that everything was fine. They concluded their false account by declaring “…tell that to the soldiers, tell that to the navy, and tell it to the Marines!” This informed every British audience that it was a pack of lies. But let’s get back to even more harsh punishments.
‘Keel hauling’ was originally introduced into the Dutch navy, but soon adopted by our Royal Navy in the 1500s. Some sources even suggest that this form of torture dates back to the Greeks – an image having been depicted on a vase. In effect it means: ‘a severe punishment’. In practice, however, it was virtually a death sentence. It involved attaching the miscreant to a rope and dragging him under the hull of the sailing ship – which was usually covered in sharp barnacles. If he was lucky, he might drowned before being cut to pieces in a blood-soaked death. As a figure of speech, ‘to be keel hauled’ is based upon a gory reality from the dark ages at sea. Today, it means to be rebuked in a very severe manner. Perhaps it is worse than being ‘hauled or dragged over the coals’.
The expression ‘he’s a right Jonah’ usually refers to a jinxed person – someone who brings bad luck to others – a character who mournfully makes a situation worse. It originated from an Old Testament Hebrew prophet called Jonah. God instructed him to go to Nineveh and preach repentance. He disobeyed and tried to escape by sea, but during a violent storm he was blamed for the tempest and thrown overboard by the crew. A great fish (usually described as a whale) is said to have swallowed him whole. Three days later, Jonah was regurgitated and eventually completed his mission for God. I wondered if the expression ‘having a whale of a time’ is also linked to Jonah – I think not!
The opposite of being thrown off a ship is to be dragged on to one. The term ‘to shanghai’ somebody originated in the 19th century around dock areas. Gullible landlubbers were sometimes tricked into going on board merchant ships, usually heading to Shanghai – then put to work in appalling conditions. In 1842, after the First Opium War, the defeated Chinese were forced to let Shanghai become a treaty port for British, French, and US merchants.
Shanghaiing is the practice of kidnapping people to serve as seamen by coercive techniques such as trickery, intimidation or violence. The related term ‘press gang’ refers specifically to impressment practices in our Royal Navy.
As the British Empire expanded rapidly, so the need for more ships and sailors grew. Demand outstripped supply. That is why Shanghaiing and press-ganging was so frequent in British ports. Even young orphan lads were taken from workhouses and shipped off to sea – few knowing what fate had in store. Let’s now turn to more pleasant sayings which revolve around women aboard ship – albeit without permission when the authorities ‘turned a blind eye’ in Nelson’s day.
‘Show or shake a leg’ is a euphemism meaning ‘hurry up with what you are doing’ or ‘get out of bed and be sharp about it’. It was a call to the hands to get out of their hammocks. Its naval origin is unexpected. In Royal Navy sailing ships women unofficially slept on board. They were, however, allowed a ‘lie in’ and had to ‘show a leg’ to confirm they were female.
I like the phrase ‘He’s a son of a gun’. It evokes a powerful if somewhat perplexing image. It also has a colourful origin. For those who do not know, it means ‘a good fellow despite his coarse manners’. It is used in a jocular vein to describe someone who is a bit of a rogue. But what is its saucy origin? In Nelson’s day, much against the official rules, women did live aboard some RN warships. There was much heavy drinking and debauchery on the gun decks. If a male child was born on board – especially when the father was unknown – it was entered in the ship’s log as him being a ‘son of a gun’. I have no idea what was written if a baby girl was delivered. I used to joke that this phrase was a religious axiom meaning a boy born to a Canon in the Church of England. Talking about ‘loose cannons’ or guns leads us to the next cliché.
‘Gung Ho!’ is a phrase that is becoming very popular in the media nowadays days. Reporters seem, however, to be corrupting this nautical expression. They wrongly interpret it as ‘someone who goes into a situation with all guns blasting’. Even in Collins Dictionary, one definition is ‘extremely keen to participate in militarycombat’.
Actually, it did originate during World War Two. Initially, however, it meant ‘working in harmony together’ in an enthusiastic way. It was adopted up by the U.S. Marines from a Chinese team of workers who worked as a cooperative in a harmonious way. The phrase was even used as the title of a patriotic 1943 film – based on the real-life raid on Makin Island in the Pacific Ocean by the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion – starring Randolph Scott and Robert Mitchum.
Back to women, some amorous sailors boastfully claimed to have ‘a girl in every port’ – they had an eye for the ladies. After all, ‘all the nice girls love a sailor’ – according to the 1909 song entitled Ship Ahoy! Next, let’s move to the nautical phrases linked to different parts of the human body – starting with the hand.
‘Give me a hand’ simply means: can you help me for a moment? But the clue that it is a nautical expression is that the request is for ‘a hand’ (singular – not plural). One of the rules at sea is that a mariner must always keep ‘one hand free for himself’ – especially in stormy weather to hold on to the rigging for safety reasons. Therefore, a crewmember had only one hand free to help anyone else. Thus, the request for ‘a helping hand’.
I must say at this point that my dad was classed as a deckhand when he worked on the big cargo boats of Ellerman’s Wilson Line. He worked for many years on their ten-day Scandinavian runs aboard ships called Cicero, Teano, Rollo, Volo – all ending in ‘O’.
Another nautical saying goes ‘all hands on deck’ – meaning ‘everyone get to battle stations and be prepared for action’.
Back to ‘hand’ singular, where we started this section. At a performance, someone might call out “Let’s give the speaker a big hand” – no matter what size. But when you think about it, it is difficult for anyone to applaud with one hand! Our everyday expressions, as already seen, can be a bit odd at times. From the hand, let’s move to the arm.
To ‘chance one’s arm’ is when someone takes a risk in doing something that might be worthwhile even though it went against the rules and regulations of an organisation. A chance was taken in full awareness that, if caught in the act, would result in serious consequences. In the Royal Navy, during Victorian times, an officer might face a court martial and demotion if disobeying the rules. This meant a loss of rank whereby the badges on the arm of his jacket were removed.
A similar sounding (but different) expression goes: ‘It will cost you an arm and a leg’. This is not nautical, but worth highlighting. One claim is that it comes from the world of art. Painters in the Georgian period were in high demand to portray members of the emerging affluent classes. They were getting rich quick thanks to the expansion of the British Empire – no doubt on the backs of the exploited sailors of their day. They were keen to show off their wealth by having a painting of themselves and their family members. Artists charged different rates depending how much the sitter wanted including: face, head and shoulders, trunk, or a full length pose. Time is money; so different rates existed and it would cost more if it included arms and legs. Thus came about the expression ‘That’ll cost you an arm and a leg’.
Not everyone agrees with this view, however. Some authors are gorier and claim the expression only came into usage during the Second World War. For them it literally meant it will cost you a real arm and a leg. This seems especially true today with the abundance of landmines that abound in various war zones of the world. Talking of losing a limb, I’d ‘give my right arm to be ambidextrous’.
A KIT BAG OF MIXED CLICHES
‘Moonlighting’ refers to a person who holds two jobs. Originally, this term applied to a smuggler who landed contraband at night under the light of the moon. As more and more goods were taxed in the 18th century,smuggling activity increased to avoid paying customs duties and taxes on tobacco, salt, spirits, tea, leather and soap. H.M.Customs & Excise duties were very high, especially during wars with France during the 18th and 19thcenturies.
Talking of people in work, some are accused of ‘swinging the lead’ – referring to a lazy person who does not do the job properly. They are classed as malingerers who concocted an elaborate yarn to conceal their laziness. There are two opposite explanations as to where this idiom comes from. It was either a hard job at sea or an easy doddle to do. Heaving a heavy lead when a ship was approaching shallow waters was claimed to be hard work. It involved gradually lowering the lead down till it reached the seabed, recording the depth and then pulling the weight back up again. Sometimes, however, a lazy mariner, leaning over the bow, would cheat and, instead of lowering the lead line to get an accurate sounding, he simply swung it over the side of the ship.
Conversely, lowering the lead was also said to be a relatively easy maritime job. So the sailor had it easy if he was told to do this task – it was much easier than sorting the mainbrace.
I hesitated whether or not to include POSH as maritime. As a historian, I like to know the true source or origin of the words or phrases I cite. Readers deserve that.
When it comes to ‘posh’, I am not 100% certain about either the truth or origin of the word.
Nevertheless, posh conjures up such evocative images, I want to include it in my list of nautical words. There are two divergent sources. Each comes from opposite ends of the social ladder – lower and upper classes. Some plumb for the source of posh coming from a slang word meaning ‘a dandy’ (which could be associated with being posh). Others suggest that the criminal fraternity used the word ‘posh’ when applied to a specific amount of money. One might say (or not), they ‘coined’ a new word!
But I disagree and put my faith in the nautical roots of posh. It must be stated that neither of the guesses – as to the origins – have any written evidence to support their claims. Both are buried in the midst of time and guesswork.
Posh did not begin its life as a single word – according to the maritime account – but as an acronym P.O.S.H. This four-letter abbreviation is nautical in that it stands for: Portside Outward, Starboard Homeward.
In Victorian times (around the 1850s) P&O mail ships sailed to British Empire ports in India, Malaysia, and Australia. Besides Royal Mail and cargo, they carried a range of passengers, of course. When these vessels crossed the Equator steaming south, the heat could be pretty unbearable. The cooler parts of the ship, especially around midday and as the sun set, were on the portside when sailing out and the starboard when steaming home. The aristocratic passengers soon latched on to this and so tickets cost more for P.O.S.H. passengers. Although some report that tickets and baggage were stamped with these abbreviations, sadly, there is no documentary proof. This sounds odd and P&O officials today deny that this practice ever took place – but what do they know! So you pays your money and takes your choice. Therefore, did POSH arise from the criminal underworld or the upper crust? You can guess my preference.
Well, ‘Shiver My Timbers!’ or should that be ‘Shiver Me Timbers! I nearly forgot to explain the title of this article. It is more an exclamation – an expression of surprise – especially when a ship runs aground. Shiver is used in the sense of ‘shatter’ – splinter into pieces. The timbers are the wooden hull of the ships in the days of sail. At the colourful level, it has its origins more in theatrical sailors or characters in children’s books than at sea. It partly reminds me of Long John Silver and his, Argh! Jim Lad! Pieces of Eight, Pieces of Eight” expressions at Christmas Pantomimes.
Finally, it must be said that countless nautical phrases have been omitted. But let’s end with a contrived romp through some of them: Young rookie sailors ‘have to learn the ropes’ – especially from any ‘old salt’ on board who has not yet ‘swallowed the anchor’ and retired from the sea. Newcomers often struggle ‘to fathom something out’ because they are ‘out of their depth’. They have to ‘toe or tow the line’ and not create a fuss, otherwise they will be told to ‘pipe down’. Phew! I feel like ‘a drowning man clutching at clichés’.