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.

Down the hatch - Here's a drinking expression that seems to have its origins in sea freight, where cargoes are lowered into the hatch for transport below deck. The freight appears to be consumed by the ship.

Devil to Pay - Today the expression "devil to pay" is used primarily to describe having an unpleasant result from some action that has been taken, as in someone has done something they shouldn't have and, as a result, "there will be the devil to pay." Originally, this expression described one of the unpleasant tasks aboard a wooden ship. The "devil" was the wooden ship's longest seam in the hull. Caulking was done with "pay" or pitch (a kind of tar). The task of "paying the devil" (caulking the longest seam) by squatting in the bilges was despised by every seaman

Ditty Box or Ditty Bag - A small box or bag carried by sailors in which is kept letters, small souvenirs, and sewing supplies. Probably from the Saxon word "dite," meaning tidy

Dogwatch - A dogwatch at sea is the period between 4 and 6 p.m, the first dogwatch, or the period between 6 and 8 p.m., the second dog watch. The dogwatches are only two hours each so the same sailors aren't always on duty at the same time each afternoon. Some experts say dogwatch is a corruption of dodge watch and others associate dogwatch with the fitful sleep of sailors called dog sleep, because it is a stressful watch. But no one really knows the origin of this term, which was in use at least back to 1700.

Dungarees - The modern sailor's work clothes. The term is not modern, however, but dates to the 18th century and comes from the Hindi word dungri, for a type of Indian cotton cloth.

Davy Jones (and His Locker ) - American Sailors would rather not talk about Davy Jones and his infamous locker. They are ready enough to refer to him and his dwelling place, but just leave him an indefinite, unbodied charachter who keeps to his place at the bottom of the sea. Pressed, they will profess that they do not know what he looks like, his locker is to them something like an ordinary sea chest or coffin, always open to catch any sailor unfortunate enough to find himself in the sea. Some English sailors incline to the belief that his name is a corruption of Duffer Jones, a clumsy fellow who frequently found himself overboard. The only time Davy comes to life is in the ceremony of crossing the line. Then his is usually impersonalted by the smallest sailor on board, given a hump, horns and a tail, and his features made as ugly as possible. He is swinish, dressed in rags and seaweed, and shambles along in the wake of the sea king, neptune, playing evil tricks upon his fellow sailors. Old sailors, rather than speak of the devil, called him Deva, Davy or Taffy, the thief of the evil spirit; and Jones is from Jonah, whose locker was the whale's belly. Jonah was often called Jonas, and as Davy Jones, the enemy of all living sailors, he has become the mariners' evil angel. To be cast into the sea and sink is to fall into his locker and have the lid popped down on one. It is generally agreed that the Christian sailor's body goes to Davy Jones's locker, but his soul, if he is a proper sailorman, goes to Fiddlers' Green. From the book A Sailor's Treasury by Frank Shay, Copyright 1951.

Dead Horse - When a Sailor pays off a debt to the command (advance pay, overpayments, etc...) they say they've paid off a Dead Horse. The saying comes from a tradition of British sailors. British seamen, apt to be ashore and unemployed for considerable periods of time between voyages, generally preferred to live in boarding houses near the piers while waiting for sailing ships to take on crews. During these periods of unrestricted liberty, many ran out of money, so innkeepers carried them on credit until hired out for another voyage. When a seaman was booked on a ship, he was customarily advanced a month's wages, if needed, to pay off his boarding house debt. Then, while paying back the ship's master, he worked for nothing but "salt horse" the first several weeks aboard. Salt horse was the staple diet of early sailors and it wasn't exactly tasty cuisine. Consisting of a low quality beef that had been heavily salted, the salt horse was tough to chew and even harder to digest. When the debt had been repaid, the salt horse was said to be dead and it was a time for great celebration among the crew. Usually, an effigy of a horse was constructed from odds and ends, set afire and then cast afloat to the cheers and hilarity of the ex-debtors.

Down a Peg or Two - During the days of sail, flags had their heights regulated by a series of pegs at the base of the mast where their hoisting ropes were secured. An admiral had the right to fly his own personal flag, which was placed at the highest point of the mast to signify his rank and prestige to all within view. However, if an admiral of higher rank appeared on the scene, then his flag had to be taken down by a peg or two, according to his lower seniority. It became a very popular means to describe how someone's pride or ego could be dealt with.

Dressing Down - Thin and worn sails were often treated with oil or wax to renew their effectiveness. This was called "dressing down". An officer or sailor who was reprimanded or scolded received a dressing down.

Duffle - A name given to a Sailor's personal effects. Also spelled duffel, it referred to his principal clothing as well as to the seabag in which he carried and stowed it. The term comes from the Flemish town of Duffel near Antwerp, and denotes a rough woolen cloth made there.

Dead Reckoning - For many years, the practice of keeping a log based on estimated speed was called 'deduced' reckoning. This got abbreviated to "d'ed," pronounced 'dead.'

Deliver a Broadside - A broadside was the simultaneous firing of the guns and/or canons on one side of a war ship. Quite a blow, as can be imagined. Today it means much the same type of all-out attack, though done (usually) with words.

Dutch Courage - Dates to the 1600s Anglo-Dutch wars and was likely British propaganda claiming that the Dutch troops were so cowardly they wouldn't fight unless fortified with copious amounts of schnapps. The term has come to mean false courage induced by drink, or the drink itself.

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