Much language has come ashore

Published 4:41 pm Tuesday, July 2, 2019

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Old sailors often use what seem to be strange and often unintelligible terms when they’re one the water, telling tall tales about when they were on the water or just talking with each other.

The funny thing is, we all use “sea terms” every day and don’t know it. The reason’s simply that much of our modern world was explored, settled and dependent on the sea and thus, sailors. Here are a few examples.

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We are all prone to be taken aback by a sudden change in circumstances — an illness, loss of a job, or simply an unkind and unexpected comment from a friend. The term, however, has a far more specific origin. Sails could be taken “aback” by a sudden change in the wind. It could be a disastrous circumstance, as the sails were then pushed in a direction that could damage entire rigging systems.

We’ve all found ourselves “over a barrel” at some point in our lives, and we know it means we are out of control of a situation. That’s generally not as bad as its origin, which meant a sailor was being literally tied over a large barrel (or, more formally, in the Navy, to a hatch grating) where he was lashed for some violation of the rules.

Some people in society, it seems, “have it made.” That is, everything seems to go their way, no matter what. Well, it was true of young officers in both the British and American navies. Midshipmen were “made” lieutenants, assuring them of a path upward. And lieutenants who were fortunate enough to receive a ship (usually a very small one initially) were “made commanders, a key step forward.

Most of us have had to “moonlight” at some point in our lives, working a second or even third job to make ends meet. “Moonlight” work had a somewhat nefarious origin, however. It was smuggling, bringing contraband ashore without paying taxes on it.

We’ve all been hard-pressed at some point as well. No matter what we did, we couldn’t seem to keep up with debts, obligations or whatever. But we don’t have even an inkling of what it was like to be “pressed” two centuries ago. When the Navy needed manpower, young men were routinely “pressed” into serving. It was a bit like the military draft, but was administered with a group of rowdies carrying clubs.

An old country phrase, not often heard today, was that something could be done in “two shakes,” meaning very quickly. It only took one “shake” of a ship’s sails for a helmsman to know he had steered too close to the wind and was causing sails to luff. The slightest shift in the wind would cause a telltale “shake” or luff and it happened very quickly.

When times a tough, we are often told we should pull together to accomplish something. Sailors didn’t “row” boats. They “pulled” oars, and they had to pull in unison to accomplish anything.