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

Mayday - "Mayday" is the internationally recognized voice radio signal for ships and people in serious trouble at sea. Made official in 1948, it is an anglicizing of the French m'aidez, "help me".

Mind your P's and Q's - Nowadays a term meaning "Be on your best behavior." In the Old Days, sailors serving aboard government ships could always get credit at the waterfront taverns until pay-day. As they would only pay for those drinks which were marked up on the score-board, the tavern-keeper had to be careful that no Pints or Quarts had been omitted from the customers list.

Mess - Meal; a place or group of officers and crew who eat together as in "crew is at mess," "meeting was held in CPO mess," or "she was the guest of wardroom mess." Mess comes from Latin mensa, or table.

Marooned - This old punishment for mutineers consisted of placing them on an island with musket, cutlass, and a breaker of water; and leaving them to their fate. It got its name from a certain Ci-maroon Indians who had been transplanted in the West Indies as cheap labor and, deserted by their Spanish masters, had been left to starve to death. The famous Captain Drake discovered them in a pitiable condition and gained the Indian's lasting gratitude by returning them to their far-off home.

Master - at- Arms - A senior petty officer charged with keeping order aboard ship. Naval records show these "sheriffs of the sea" were keeping order aboard ship since the time of King Charles I of England. At the time, they were charged with keeping the swords, pistols, carbines and muskets in good working order as well as ensuring that the bandoleers were filled with fresh powder before combat. Besides being the 'chief of police' at sea, the sea corporals, as they were called in the British Navy, had to be experienced with swords, pikes, and small arms, and able to train seamen in hand-to-hand combat. In the days of sail, the MAAs were truly "master at arms." The Master-at-Arms in the US Navy today can trace the beginnings of his official rating to the Union Navy of the Civil War.

Mate - A companion. Mate appears as early as the 13th century, as a corruption of the Dutch word "mattenoot." Loosely translated it means companion, or the person with whom you shared your hammock (one being on duty while the other slept in it. Hot bunking is not new!). In some trades, like that of stevedores, the French word "matelot" is used in the same sense as the English word mate. That being the person with whom you lift sacks which are too heavy to be lifted by one man alone.

Moor - From the Dutch word 'marren', meaning to tie or fasten

Miss the mark - Many people associate this one with firearms and target practice. In reality, however, the "mark" in this case is a rounding mark - or rounding buoy - that sailboats competing in a regatta must pass before they can turn on to the next leg of the race course. A foul is committed when the mark is passed on the wrong side or when a vessel came in contact with it. In either case, it is said that the sailboat has missed the mark and, as a penalty, must lose precious time by turning a 360 degree circle before continuing the race.

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