From ship to shore

Sep 29, 2011 by

As mentioned in the previous posting, many words and expressions in English come from the naval slang.

Some such expression have etymology that is fairly transparent as they refer to parts of the ship (e.g. steer clear of something and galley kitchen) or the rigging. For instance, when you get a new job and have to learn the ropes, remember that if sailors aboard a sailing ship didn’t know all the functions of the hundreds of ropes that made up the ship’s rigging, and were not experts at dozens of knots, their ship could neither catch another vessel nor escape from the enemy. And keep in mind that a ship’s rigging could comprise more than 10 miles (16 km) of ropes, which had hundreds of different names and functions, and to make things even more complicated, were usually of the same thickness and color so they could be told apart only from the precise position in which they were secured.

The origin of other words and expressions is somewhat more obscure. Take, for example, the expression cut to the chase. It comes from the naval use of the word chase to refer to both the ship being pursued and the process of chasing it. If a ship was anchored and saw another ship “in the offing”, it could take up to an hour to raise its anchor, so to speed things up the anchor cable would be cut. Moreover, on anchored sailing vessels, the sails would be furled and secured by ties and rigging, which too might be slashed to allow the sails to drop and fill out so that the chase could begin immediately — hence, cut to the chase.

Another expression whose etymology involves anchors is brought up short: in the days of fighting ships a vessel underway could be brought to an emergency standstill (e.g., when a warning shot was fired across a vessel’s bow) by dropping the anchors. As the anchor bit into the seabed, the ship shuddered to a standstill, accompanied by tremendous noise and clattering of masts and rigging. Today, we say a person is brought up short, if he is forced to a standstill by a sudden reversal of fortune.

And speaking of masts and other spars (any of the above deck timbers to which sails are bent, including booms, gaffs etc.), do you know the origin of the expression the whole nine yards? Yards for a sailor are the timber spars running at right angles to the masts, supporting square sails. A fully-rigged three-masted ship generally had three major sails upon each mast. If all nine sails were being used, the whole nine yards were working, and the ship was at maximum capacity.

Or take the expression loose cannon: it comes from an unsecured cannon aboard a ship, which in a storm could do untold damage to both men and the ship as it rolled about; since the middle of the twentieth century it means ‘an unorthodox person who can cause potential damage’.

Another English expression with a naval origin is to show your true colours. The original sense of colours in this expression is ‘the ship’s national flag’. It was common practice among all navies to approach enemy ships without disclosing the true colours (national flags) until the very last moment, just before running out the cannon and firing. Even English warships carried flags from other nations to deceive the enemy, but the rules of war required a ship to show its national ensigns, its true colors, before firing a shot. Expressions to go down with colours flying and pass with flying colors are from the same source.

Finally, here’s another naval term, whose etymology is not completely obvious: the radio distress call for help Mayday! — it has nothing to do with the month of May but rather derives from the French m’aidez ‘help me’.

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