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

From stem to stern - The very front of a ship is called the stem, the rear is called the stern. From stem to stern includes the entire ship.

Fathom - Fathom was originally a land measuring term derived from the Ango-Saxon word "faetm" meaning to embrace. In those days, most measurements were based on average size of parts of the body, such as the hand (horses are still measured this way) or the foot (that's why 12 inches are so named). A fathom is the average distance from fingertip to fingertip of the outstretched arms of a man about six feet. Since a man stretches out his arms to embrace his sweetheart, Britain's Parliament declared that distance be called a "fathom" and it be a unit of measure. A fathom remains six feet. The word was also used to describe taking the measure or "to fathom" something. Today, of course, when one is trying to figure something out, they are trying to "fathom" it.

Feeling Blue - If you are sad and describe yourself as "feeling blue," you are using a phrase coined from a custom among many old deepwater sailing ships. If the ship lost the captain or any of the officers during its voyage, she would fly blue flags and have a blue band painted along her entire hull when returning to home port.

Forecastle - The appropriate pronunciation for this word is fo'ksul. The forecastle is the forward part of the main deck. It derives its name from the days of Viking galleys when wooden castles were built on the forward and after parts the main deck from which archers and other fighting men could shoot arrows and throw spears, rocks, etc

Footloose - The bottom portion of a sail is called the foot. If it is not secured, it is footloose and it dances randomly in the wind.

Freeze a Brass Monkey - Between a ship's guns were lip-edged brass trays called monkeys which held pyramid stacks of cannon balls. In cold weather, the brass tray would contract faster than the iron cannon balls and the balls would go tumbling on the deck. In this case it was said to be "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey". This is one of the stories going around regarding the meaning of this term. A good many people disagree with it.

Flotsam and Jetsam - In the technical sense, flotsam and jetsam have different meanings. Flotsam the part of the wreckage of a ship or its cargo found floating on the water. Jetsam is cargo or parts of a ship that are deliberately thrown overboard, as to lighten the ship in an emergency, and that subsequently either sinks or is washed ashore. (While on the subject, we might as well mention lagan, which is goods thrown into the sea but attached to a buoy so they can be recovered.) The common phrase "flotsam and jetsam" is used to refer to the entire residue of a shipwreck, and is not redundant. Flotsam comes from the Anglo-French floteson, derived from Old French floter 'to float', which is related to the English word float. It is first attested in the early seventeenth century. Jetsam is an altered and abbreviated version of jettison, and is first found in the late sixteenth century

First Rate - Implies excellence. From the 16th century on until steam powered ships took over, british naval ships were rated as to the number of heavy cannon they carried. A ship of 100 or more guns was a First Rate line-of-battle ship. Second rates carried 90 to 98 guns; Third Rates, 64 to 89 guns; Fourth Rates, 50 to 60 guns. Frigates carrying 20 to 48 guns were fifth and sixth rated.

Fag end - To `fag' is to separate or tease out the strands of a rope; thus the fag end is the extreme end. This expression has no original connection with cigarettes. One might say that other modern-day expressions are a 'perversion' if you catch my drift. (Hey, that's a nautical expression).

Fanny Adams - Miss Fanny (or Frances) Adams was a child aged 9 who was murdered at Alton, Hants on 24th April 1867. The murderer (Frederick Baker, a solicitor's clerk aged 24) cut up the body into pieces some of which were said to have been found in Deptford Victualling yard. Baker was tried at Winchester and hanged in December 1867. At about this time tinned mutton was introduced into the Navy and somewhat naturally it soon acquired the name of Fanny Adams. The tins themselves were found very useful by the sailors as mess gear (there was no official issue of mess gear in those days) and to this day the name FANNY remains attached to the small round "mess kettle" (similar in appearance to a painter's pot - also called a kettle). One might also hear the expression "sweet Fanny Adams."

Feeling Blue - If you are sad and describe yourself as "feeling blue," you are using a phrase coined from a custom among many old deepwater sailing ships. If the ship lost the captain or any of the officers during its voyage, she would fly blue flags and have a blue band painted along her entire hull when returning to home port.

Filibuster - Buccaneers (see above) were known in England as filibusters. From the Dutch for vrybuiter (freebooter) translated into French as flibustier. It is now used as a political term meaning to delay or obstruct the passage of legislation (as opposed to sailing vessels) by non-stop speech making.

Fits the bill - A Bill of Lading was signed by the ship's master acknowledging receipt of specified goods and the promise to deliver them to their destination in the same condition. Upon delivery, the goods were checked against the bill to see if all was in order. If so, they fit the bill.

Flake out - In order to keep the anchor chain of a ship in good condition, the chain would be laid out up and down the deck (flaked) in order to locate and replace any worn or weak links. The term is still in use, as the captain will often instruct the crew to flake out the anchor line in preparation for anchoring. The anchor line is looped on deck in such a way that it does not become fouled (tangled) when the anchor is dropped. We think of flaking out when, for example, we relax in the sun.

Fudge - The word 'fudge' in such expressions as "fudging the books" is said to come from a Captain Fudge, nicknamed "Lying Fudge" was a notorious liar in the 17th Century. Fudge was captain of the Black Eagle into which ship some 55 quakers, offenders against the Conventicle Act, were forcibly transferred from Newgate prison in August, 1665. The ship was delayed at Gravesend and by the end of October, 1665, 19 of the prisoners and 8 of the crew had died of the plague, Fudge had been arrested for debt and the crew had mutinied. The ship eventually left Plymouth for the West Indies towards the end of February 1666, but she was captured by a Dutch privateer the following day and the remaining prisoners liberated in Holland.

Flogging a dead horse - A ceremony held by British crews when they had been at sea four weeks and had worked off their initial advance, usually one month's wages (and usually long gone).- (see dead horse) - The term 'flogging a dead horse' alludes to the difficulty of getting any extra work from a crew during this period, since, to them, it felt as though they were working for nothing.

Fall Foul Of, Foul Up - Foul is an often used nautical term generally meaning entangled or impeded. An anchor tangled in line or cable is said to be a foul anchor. A foul berth is caused by another vessel anchoring too close wherein the risk of collision exists. A foul bottom offers poor holding for anchors. A screw up!

Fairway - "the path or channel of a narrow river, bay, or haven in which ships usually advance in their way up or down." Our modern golfers have modified the meaning to be "the narrow channel of neatly mowed grass lying between trees, sand traps, and other objects of temptation for their capricious golf ball in flight."

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