sailing terms

Did you know how many phrases and words that we use in everyday English have their roots in nautical teminology? Here is a selection of them but if you know of any more, then email

Between the Devil and the Deep (blue sea) - In wooden ships, the "devil" was the longest seam of the ship. It ran from the bow to the stern. When at sea and the "devil" had to be caulked, the sailor sat in a bo'sun's chair to do so. He was suspended between the "devil" and the sea — the "deep" — a very precarious position, especially when the ship was underway.

Bitter End - The end of an anchor cable is fastened to the bitts at the ship's bow. If all of the anchor cable has been payed out you have come to the bitter end.

Boatswain - From the Saxon word "swein" which meant a boy or servant. The boat refers to the ship and not to her small boats

Boatswain's Pipe - One of the oldest and most distinctive pieces of nautical equipment, the pipe or flute was used in Greece and Rome to keep the stroke of galley slaves. The pipe was used in the Crusades to call English cross bowmen on deck for attack. In time, the pipe came to be used as a badge of office by commanders. The whistle was used for salutes to distinguished persons as well as to pass orders. A 1645 publication detailing honors for an admiral, orders; "The ship's barge to be sent to fetch the visitor having the cockson with his silver whistle in the stern... Upon the near approach of the barge the noise of the trumpets are to sound and so to hold on until the barge comes within less than musket shot, at that time the trumpets are to cease and all such as carry whistles are to whistle a welcome three several times." The parts of the pipe are the buoy, gun, keel and shackle

Boot Camp - During the Spanish-American War, sailors wore leggings called boots, which came to mean a Navy (or Marine) recruit. These recruits trained in "boot" camps.

Bravo Zulu - The term originates from the Allied Signals Book (ATP 1), which in the aggregate is for official use only. Signals are sent as letters and/or numbers, which have meanings by themselves sometimes or in certain combinations. A single table in ATP 1 is called "governing groups," that is, the entire signal that follows the governing group is to be performed according to the "governor." The letter "B" indicates this table, and the second letter (A through Z) gives more specific information. For example, "BA" might mean "You have permission to . . . (do whatever the rest of the flashing light, flag hoist or radio transmission says) "BZ" happens to be the last item in the governing groups table. It means "well done"

Buoyed Up - Using a buoy to raise the bight of an anchor cable to prevent it from chafing on a rough bottom.

Being in Clink - The term refers to the name of a prison which was on Clink Street in the Southwark area of London

By and large - "Captain Harris was already explaining by and large. With a piece of fresh Gibraltar bread and arrows drawn with wine he showed the ship lying as close as possible to the breeze: '. . . and this is sailing by the wind, or as sailors say in their jargon, on a bowline; whereas large is when it blows not indeed quite from behind but say over the quarter, like this.' "'Far enough abaft the beam that the studdingsails will set,' said Whiting." "'So as you see,' continued Harris, 'it is quite impossible to sail both by and large at the same time. It is a contradiction in terms . . .' "'We do say by and large,' said Jack. 'We say a ship sails well by and large when she will both lie close when the wind is scant and run fast when it is free.'"

Batten Down - Make fast, secure, or shut. Originally, deck hatches did not have hinged, attached covers. Hatch covers were separate pieces which were laid over the hatch opening, then made fast with battens (pieces of timber).

Bridge - As ships passed to steam and orders could be given by remote methods such as the engine-order telegraph, a small control deck with an enclosed pilot house was constructed above the main deck of the ship in front of the funnel, usually reaching from side to side and thus 'bridging' the main deck. It became the term used to describe the place where the Captain steered the ship from and gave his orders.

Brig - 1) Lord Nelson used a brig (type of ship) for removing prisoners from his ships, hence prisons at sea became known as brigs. 2) One of the smaller but more versatile warships of the sailing era was the two-masted 'brigantine' (French word for 'Bandit'), or 'brig' as it was abbreviated by the Royal Navy. Small, fast, and well-armed for its size, it served as a scout for the bigger ships, patrol vessel, convoy escort, and errand boy for the fleet. In the last case, it would often be used to run mail, fresh provisions, spare parts, and personnel back and forth to England. Admiral Nelson found them very handy to transport prisoners of war. So many were his victories and so great was his success that for a period of time nearly every brig arriving in England had prisoners aboard, and so many were modified as sea-going jails for this express purpose. With every ship having at least one or two troublesome crewmen as well as an occasional prisoner of war, it was customary to put him in the ships own "brig" for a spell.

Broach - Middle English - 'brocus', or 'projecting'. Originally used to describe the piercing of a cask to open it. The term was eventually used to describe the opening of a new subject in conversation. It was also used to describe when a ship is turned sideways to a wave, allowing it to break over for the length of the hull. This usually means the ship is in extremis and is probably sinking or about to break up. The possible origins of this particular term is from the action of the masts thrusting through the on-coming waves while the ship is full over on its side.

Bale out - Usually used in the sense of getting out of some situation - particularly a financial one. However, the verb to bale out, means to remove water, and comes from the old name 'boyle' for a bucket.

Barge in - The word barge has two nautical meanings. First as a term applied to a flag officer's boat or highly decorated vessel used for ceremonial occasions. The second usage refers to the more common, flat-bottomed work boat which is hard to maneuver and difficult to control. Hence the term . . . "barge in."

Bigwigs - The Senior officers in the English Navy, who once wore huge wigs, were referred to a "bigwigs."

Buccaneer - From the French boucan, or grill, for cooking dried meat. Originally referring to those who hunted and smoked meat, it expanded to include those who ate it (or stole it) as well. Predominantly in the Caribbean in the 1650's, buccaneers differed from pirates in that they did not attack their own nation's ships. Early groups were made up of adventurers of all kinds, excellent seamen all, many of whom made remarkable voyages around the world. Sir Henry Morgan organized them to capture Panama in 1671. The start of the European war in 1689 was the end of the buccaneers, though many went on to become "legit" privateers. Their romanticized legend lives on in the writings of Defoe, Masefield and Stevenson, and in Emily Dickinson's poem "Bees are Black . . ." in which she refers to bees as "Buccaneers of buzz."

Boat - A small vessel for travel on water, a word derived from the Middle English boot, the Old English bA, and of course the Old Norse beit. What the frosty vikings and other seafarers using this term probably didn’t anticipate was that we’d be using it 800 years later in our language to mean not only the same things, but in other contexts such as "a boatful," and "in the same boat," meaning in the same situation or predicament. And despite the advances in sail handling and navigation technology, sailors remain in their boats much in the same way their viking ancestors did—frail, vulnerable, and largely in awe of the natural elements.

Brought Up Short - A sailing ship underway could only be brought to an emergency standstill by dropping the anchors. Not a pleasant experience. Used today to mean a person brought to an unexpected standstill by a sudden change of fortune or circumstance.

Bootleg - From the practice of sailors smuggling goods ashore in the upper part of their sea boots.

Blue Peter - The signal to denote a ship will shortly sail, derives its name from the French "patir" meaning 'to depart.'

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