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 nterms@sloopit.co.uk.

Clean bill of health - This widely used term has its origins in the "Bill of Health", a document issued to a ship showing that the port it sailed from suffered from no epidemic or infection at the time of departure.

Cut of his/her jib - This saying has taken its place in the English language as the recognition of a person by, originally, the shape of his or her nose, but now probably extended to embrace other recognizable characteristics. The term originated in the sailing natives of the 18th century, when the nationality of a warship sighted at sea could be accurately determined by the shape of their jib long before the national flag could be seen, Spanish ships for instance, had only a very small jib or none at all; French ships very often had two jibs when other ships had only one; moreover, the French jib was cut much shorter on the luff than English jibs, giving a distantly more acute angle in the clew.

Cut and run - To cut and run an expression often thought to imply the cutting of a hemp cable with an axe, thus abandoning an anchor, when a ship needed to get quickly under way in an emergency. The more accurate origin of the saying was at anchor in an open roadstead, of furling their sails with them stoppered to the yards with ropeyarns, so that the yarn's could be cut and the sails let fall when the need to get under way quickly was urgent.

Chewing the Fat - "God made the vittles but the devil made the cook," was a popular saying used by seafaring men in the 19th century when salted beef was staple diet aboard ship. This tough cured beef, suitable only for long voyages when nothing else was cheap or would keep as well (remember, there was no refrigeration), required prolonged chewing to make it edible. Men often chewed one chunk for hours, just as it were chewing gum and referred to this practice as "chewing the fat."

Crow's Nest - The raven, or crow, was an essential part of the Vikings' navigation equipment. These land-lubbing birds were carried on aboard to help the ship's navigator determine where the closest land lay when weather prevented sighting the shore. In cases of poor visibility, a crow was released and the navigator plotted a course corresponding to the bird's flight path because the crow invariably headed towards land. The Norsemen carried the birds in a cage secured to the top of the mast. Later on, as ships grew and the lookout stood his watch in a tub located high on the main mast, the name "crow's nest" was given to this tub. While today's Navy still uses lookouts in addition to radars, etc., the crow's nest is a thing of the past.

Cup of Joe - Josephus Daniels (18 May 1862-15 January 1948) was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Among his reforms of the Navy were inaugurating the practice of making 100 Sailors from the Fleet eligible for entrance into the Naval Academy, the introduction of women into the service, and the abolishment of the officers' wine mess. From that time on, the strongest drink aboard Navy ships could only be coffee and over the years, a cup of coffee became known as "a cup of Joe".

Coxswain - A coxswain (pronounced cocks'n) or cockswain was at first the swain (boy servant) in charge of the small cock or cockboat that was kept aboard for the ship's captain and which was used to row him to and from the ship. The term has been in use in England dating back to at least 1463. With the passing of time the coxswain became the helmsman of any boat, regardless of size

Chock-a-block - A 'chock' is simply a 'wedge' or 'block' used for making sure items in storage do not roll about. If two blocks of rigging tackle in store on an old sailing ship, were so hard together they couldn't be tightened further, it was said they were "Chock-a-Block". Recovered from the wreck of the Invincible were items called "chocking blocks".

Captain - Latin in origin. "Caput" meaning "head" or "leader". The commanding officer of a military unit. It now refers to the commanding officer of a ship, regardless of his actual rank. As a courtesy, even the Lieutenant commanding a patrol boat is addressed as 'Captain'

Chart - From the Latin word 'charta', or the Greek, 'charte', which was a kind of papyrus. In middle English, the chart or maps were known as 'sea cards'.

Chit - One tradition carried on in the Navy is the use of the word "chit." It is a carry over from the days when Hindu traders used slips of paper called "citthi" for money, so they wouldn't have to carry heavy bags of gold and silver. British sailors shortened the word to chit and applied it to their mess vouchers. Its most outstanding use in the Navy today is for drawing pay and a form used for requesting leave and liberty, and special requests. But the term is currently applied to almost any piece of paper from a pass to an official letter requesting some privilege.

Close Quarters - Sometimes also referred to as 'closed quarters' as well. The quarters aboard ship, especially those for officers and passengers, had wooden partitions or bulkheads dividing them. Also, many ships had pre-assembled partitions which could further sub-divide the interior, according to the cargo or passenger requirements. In case of enemy action, these could be quickly assembled, pierced by loopholes, and then be used by firearms, pikes and cutlasses to fight through. The defenders would thus be well-protected and dangerous opponents to anyone who went below decks. It was a very effective means of fighting off boarders

Carry On - In the days of sail, the officer of the deck kept a weather eye constantly on the slightest change in the wind so sail could be reefed or added as necessary to ensure the fastest headway. Whenever a good breeze came along, the order to "carry on" would be given. It meant to hoist every bit of canvas the yards could carry. Pity the poor Sailor whose weather eye failed him and the ship was caught partially reefed when a good breeze arrived. Through the centuries the term's connotation has changed somewhat. Today, the Bluejackets Manual defines "carry on" as an order to resume work; work presumably not so grueling as two centuries ago.

crew cut - Crew cut refers to the monthly (at least) haircuts that would be offered. [USS Constitution docent, per Scott Rosenthal (scott79@ix.netcom.com)] The hair, beard, and mustache must be worn neatly trimmed. The face must be kept clean shaved, except a mustache or beard and mustache may be worn at discretion. No eccentricities in the manner of wearing the hair, beard or mustache are allowed. [The Bluejackets' Manual, The United States Naval Institute, 1943]

Careen - From the Latin carina (keel) or French carener. When hulls on the old wooden ships needed to be cleaned, patched, caulked, etc., careening was the deliberate heeling to one side in order to accomplish these tasks. Usually this was done on a careenage, a steep, sandy shoreline when the tide had gone out.

Close Quarters (2) - A small wooden fortress or barricade erected on the deck of a merchant ship when attacks by privateers were expected. Small openings, called loopholes, allowed the sailors to fire small weapons to protect the ship (and themselves, one would assume). Land-side, close quarters has come to mean in close contact or a small area. Loophole, from the French louvre (window), has come to mean a gap in the law. Alternatively: Sometimes also referred to as 'closed quarters' as well. The quarters aboard ship, especially those for officers and passengers, had wooden partitions or bulkheads dividing them. Also, many ships had pre-assembled partitions which could further sub-divide the interior, according to the cargo or passenger requirements. In case of enemy action, these could be quickly assembled, pierced by loopholes, and then be used by firearms, pikes and cutlasses to fight through. The defenders would thus be well-protected and dangerous opponents to anyone who went below decks. It was a very effective means of fighting off boarders.

Couple of shakes - Shakes refers to the shaking (luffing) of the head sails if the vessel points up to close to the wind. As the helmsman came to the end of his watch his attention might wander and the vessel would point up. Sailors would measure short periods of time before watch changes with a "couple of shakes." Similarly used today to mean in a really short time or in a couple of "secs."

Cranky - Possibly from the Dutch krengd, a crank was an unstable sailing vessel. Due to a faulty design, the imbalance of her cargo, or a lack of ballast, a crank would heel too far to the wind. Has come to mean irritable.

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