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

Passed with flying colors - Color(s) has numerous meanings. An early use of the word is flag, pennant, or badge. "Passed with flying colors" comes from sailing ships that, when passing other ships at sea, would fly their colors (flags) if they wanted to be identified.

Pea Coat - Sailors who have to endure pea-soup weather often don their pea coats but the coat's name isn't derived from the weather. The heavy topcoat worn in cold, miserable weather by seafaring men was once tailored from pilot cloth — a heavy, course, stout kind of twilled blue cloth with the nap on one side. The cloth was sometimes called P-cloth for the initial letter of "pilot" and the garment made from it was called a p-jacket — later, a pea coat. The term has been used since 1723 to denote coats made from that cloth

Port holes - The word "port hole" originated during the reign of Henry VI of England (1485). King Henry insisted on mounting guns too large for his ship and the traditional methods of securing these weapons on the forecastle and aftcastle could not be used. A French shipbuilder named James Baker was commissioned to solve the problem. He put small doors in the side of the ship and mounted the cannon inside the ship. These doors protected the cannon from weather and were opened when the cannon were to be used. The French word for "door" is "porte" which was later Anglicized to "port" and later went on to mean any opening in the ship's side, whether for cannon or not.

Port - The word port means the opening in the "left" side of the ship from which cargo was unloaded. Sailors eventually started using the term to refer to that side of the ship. Use of the term "port" was officially adopted by the U.S. Navy by General Order, 18 February 1846.

Press Into Service - The British navy filled their ships' crew quotas by kidnapping men off the streets and forcing them into service. This was called Impressment and was done by Press Gangs.

Pipe Down - The Pipe Down was the last signal from the Bosun's pipe each day which meant "lights out" and "silence". The Pipe Down was the last signal from the Bosun's pipe each day which meant "lights out" and "silence".

Pig in a Poke - Scrubs would sell a suckling pig to someone, presenting them with a squirming sack, or "poke". The unfortunate would then have bought a pig in a poke. When the poke was opened, he would find not a nice edible pig, but a cat; thus, letting the cat out of the bag reveals the deception. This seems to jibe with usage a little better.

P.O.S.H - Port Outward, Starboard Home - when traveling to India from Britain and back - keeps your cabin on the shady side of the ship.

Petty Officers - The Petty Officer can trace his title back to the old French word petit meaning something small. Over the years the word also came to mean minor, secondary and subordinate. In medieval and later England just about every village had several "petite", "pety" or "petty" officials/officers who were subordinate to such major officials as the steward of sheriff. The petty officers were the assistants to the senior officials. The senior officers of the early British warships, such as the Boatswain, Gunner and Carpenter, also had assistants or "mates." Since the early seamen knew petty officers in their home villages they used the term to describe the minor officials aboard their ships. A ship's Captain or Master chose his own Petty Officers who served at his pleasure. At the end of a voyage or whenever the ship's crew was paid off and released the Petty Officers lost their positions and titles. There were Petty Officers in the British navy in the Seventeenth Century and perhaps earlier but the rank did not become official until 1808. Petty Officers were important members of our Navy right from its beginnings and were also appointed by their ship's Captain. They did not have uniforms or rank insignia, and they usually held their appointments only while serving on the ship whose Captain had selected them. Petty Officers in our Navy got their first rank insignia in 1841 when they began wearing a sleeve device showing an eagle perched on an anchor. Some Petty Officers wore the device on their left arms while others wore it on their right. All wore the same device. Specialty or rating marks did not appear officially until 1866 but they seem to have been in use for several years previously. Regulations sometimes serve to give formal status to practices already well established. In 1885 the Navy recognized it three classes of Petty Officers -- first, second and third -- and in the next year let them wear rank insignia of chevrons with the points down under a spread eagle and rating mark. The eagle faced left instead of right as it does today. The present Petty Officer insignia came about in 1894 when the Navy established the Chief Petty Officer rank and gave him the three chevrons with arc and eagle. The first, second and third class Petty Officers also began wearing the insignia they do today.

Piping Hot - Originally, meals were announced aboard ship by piping (blowing a call on the boatswain’s pipe). If a meal is piping hot, it has just been served and is therefore hot.

Put a new slant on things - All sailing vessels have an optimum angle of heel - the angle at which. if greater than, it is better to reduce sail rather than spill wind and power out of the sails. Sailors new when to "put a new slant on things" when conditions changed. We generally mean when we say to "put a new slant on things" that we are looking at a problem afresh or from a different angle or perspective.

Put through the hoop - In battle, hammocks were rolled tightly and lashed along the ship's rails to protect against musket fire and splinters. Boson's mates checked the tightness of each rolled hammock every morning with a regulation sized hoop. There was trouble for the sailor whose hammock could not be put through the hoop. From this we get the idea of rigorously testing someone.

Perks - Naval abbreviation of the word "Perquisites", referring to allowances, either in money or in kind, given with any particular office or appointment.

Pooped - This term derives from the latin term puppis, which refers to the stern or aftermost part of a vessel. "Poop" was the name given to the short, aftermost deck raised above the quarterdeck of a sailing ship, but is now commonly used to describe any aftermost deck. When waves break over her stern as she is running before a gale, a ship is said to be "pooped". This is extremely dangerous for a vessel, for obvious reasons, and could cause her to founder or be ripped to pieces. We now use the term in a figurative way to mean overwhelmed by exhaustion.

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