Language owes much to the sea

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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.”

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.

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