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

Log Book - In the early days of sailing ships, the ship's records were written on shingles cut from logs. These shingles were hinged and opened like a book. The record was called the "log book." Later on, when paper was readily available and bound into books, the record maintained it name. 2) In the old days of sail, literally the only way of determining a ship's speed was to cast a small log secured to a line from the bow of the ship. By paying out the marked length of the line and timing how long it took for the log to reach the stern, the ship's speed could then be calculated. During each watch, the log had to be cast every hour, and the ship's speed and compass course noted in a book so the captain could use it for his navigation. It soon became customary and then required to note other observations such as weather conditions, time of sunrise and sunset, moonrise, sea state, and any happenings on board the ship.

Let the Cat Out of the Bag - In the Royal Navy the punishment prescribed for most serious crimes was flogging. This was administered by the Bosun's Mate using a whip called a cat o' nine tails. The "cat" was kept in a leather or baize bag. It was considered bad news indeed when the cat was let out of the bag. Other sources attribute the expression to the old English market scam of selling someone a pig in a poke (bag) when the pig turned out to be a cat instead.

Loose cannon - On sailing ships that had cannons, it was important that they be secured. Cannons are very heavy, and a loose cannon on a ship's deck in a rough sea could be thrown about in an unpredictable fashion, causing a lot of damage. More than just needing to be lashed down during normal travel, cannons needed to be secured during use, or else the recoil would send the cannon on its way causing injury or damage.

Landlubber - The word landlubber, first recorded in the late 1690s, is formed from land and the earlier lubber. This lubber dates from the fourteenth century and originally meant 'a clumsy, stupid fellow; lout; oaf'. By the sixteenth century it had developed the specialized sense 'an unseamanlike person; inexperienced seaman', which is the same sense as landlubber and was eventually combined with land to emphasize the unfamiliarity-with-the-sea aspect..

Leading light - It was customary to mark the entry to a port with a line of leading lights to show the way. We call someone who is a leader in there field of endevour a "leading light." Someone who shows the way.

Limeys - In 1795 the issue of lime juice aboard British naval ships was regularised to prevent scurvy amongst sailors. British naval ships are still required to carry lime juice and American sailors persist in calling British sailors limeys.

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