Language owes much to the sea

Published 7:04 pm Tuesday, May 16, 2017

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Our language owes much to the sea and to the men who have sailed it. It might well be said that we are a salty bunch.

And that, in fact, is a good place to begin, for the word salty refers to more than table salt. It refers to the oceans of the world, the “salty brine,” and the men who have sailed it are even known as “old salts.”

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The connections run far deeper than that, however. When we “break ground” for a new building, we are starting a new venture, and the phrase has precisely that connotation. When a sailing ship’s anchor was raised — a brutally physical task, by the way — it would finally “break ground.” When it did, a new voyage began.

When we have really messed up, we may have “the devil to pay” for our misdeeds. The phrase comes, again, from aboard ship. To “pay” a seam was to caulk it with oakum and tar to prevent it from leaking. It was a laborious task, but the final outboard deck seam was next to impossible to ever fully caulk because of its location. It was “the devil to pay,” a phrase now permanently ashore.

Did you “deep six” that old refrigerator at the dump? If you did, you were expressing your nautical roots. A heaving line measured the depth of water in coastal areas and did so in six-foot increments (six feet being a fathom). Knots tied in the line marked the fathoms and a “deep six” was pretty deep water. Something jettisoned there would surely sink and not be recovered.

Occasionally in life, we find that we are expected to “bow and scrape” to someone, though we may not be willing to do so. An early 19th century naval officer wouldn’t have considered bowing and scraping to be subservient, but rather polite. They wore large pointed hats known as scrapers and to great someone of equal or higher status, they would remove the hat and sweep it downward, where it might “scrape” the deck. As they did so, they bowed slightly.

If we have a tendency to stand “aloof” from the affairs of the world, we are once again expressing a very specific maritime condition. To “luff” a sailboat today is to allow the sails to spill air and “shiver” in the wind. Aboard a sailing ship, though, the order to “luff” meant to sail as close to the wind as possible without spilling the wind from the sails. The ship was thus stand off — aloof — from the wind.

Sailing close to the wind was potentially hazardous because a sudden shift in the wind or a mistake at the helm could push sails back against yards and mast. Thus taken “aback,” the ship was in danger of losing its masts. Likewise, to be taken aback is to have an unexpected set of circumstances upset one’s routine.

One sea term that is thankfully milder in its presence use is “to let the cat out of the bag.” In modern jargon, it simply means to disclose information, usually unintentionally. In the age of sail, the “cat” referred to the “Cat of Nine Tails,” a whip made up especially to flog a crewman deemed to have violated shipboard policy. Lashed to a ship’s grating, the hapless seaman was stripped to the waste and a boatswain’s mate would pull the “cat” from its blood red bag and render punishment. Lashing was outlawed by Congress in 1850.

This is but a sample of the hundreds of nautical terms that have made their way ashore and thus enriched our language.