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

The smoking lamp is out - The smoking lamp probably came into use during the 16th Century when seamen began smoking on board vessels. The lamp was used to light the smoke before matches were invented. The smoking lamp was also a safety measure. It was devised mainly to keep the fire hazard away from highly combustible woodwork and gunpowder. Most navies established regulations restricting smoking to certain areas on board. Usually, the lamp was located in the forecastle or the area directly surrounding the galley indicting that smoking was permitted in this area. Even after the invention of matches in the 1830s, the lamp was an item of convenience to the smoker. When particularly hazardous operations or work required that smoking be curtailed, the unlighted lamp relayed the message. "The smoking lamp is lighted" or "the smoking lamp is out" were expressions indicating that smoking was permitted or forbidden. The smoking lamp has survived only as a figure of speech. When the officer of the deck says "the smoking lamp is out" before drills, refueling or taking ammunition, that is the Navy's way of saying "cease smoking."

Three sheets to the wind - The phrase comes from 18th-19th century English Naval terminology. The original phrase was "three Sheets in the wind" and referred to the erratic behavior of a ship that has lost control of all of its sails. In nautical terminology sheets are the ropes that adjust the position of the sails relative to the wind. The speed and direction of a sailing ship is controlled by the number of sails raised on each mast, the angle of the sails to the wind (trim of the sails), and the position of the rudder. If the sheets used to control the sails are to break or are have been released, the sheet is said to be "in the wind". One can imagine a sail thrashing wildly in a strong wind with its sheet (the control ropes) blowing about. It would be very difficult to regain control of such a sail. Prior to the 1810's it was common for ships to have three masts, (fore, main, and mizzen). If the sheets on all three masts are "in the wind", the ship loses all steering control. The ship's lack of control is likened to that of a stumbling drunk.

Toe the line Toe the line - Many mistakenly think the phrase is "tow the line", thus obscuring the meaning. This term comes from military line-ups for inspection. Soldiers are expected to line up, that is put their toes on a line, and submit to the inspection. Alternatively but similar, The space between each pair of deck planks in a wooden ship was filled with a packing material called "oakum" and then sealed with a mixture of pitch and tar. The result, from afar, is a series of parallel lines a half foot or so apart, running the length of the deck. Once a week, as a rule, usually on Sunday, a warship's crew was ordered to fall in at quarters -- that is, each group of men into which the crew was divided would line up in formation in a given area of the deck. To insure a neat alignment of each row, the sailors were directed to stand with their toes just touching a particular seam. Another use for these seams was punitive. The youngsters in a ship, be they ship's boys or student officers, might be required to stand with their toes just touching a designated seam for a length of time as punishment for some minor infraction of discipline, such as talking or fidgeting at the wrong time. A tough captain might require the miscreant to stand there, not talking to anyone, in fair weather or foul, for hours at a time. Hopefully, he would learn it was easier and more pleasant to conduct himself in the required manner rather than suffer the punishment. From these two uses of deck seams comes our cautionary word to obstreperous youngsters to "toe the line."

Taken Aback - One of the hazards faced in days of sailing ships has been incorporated into English to describe someone who has been jolted by unpleasant news. We say that person has been "taken aback." The person is at a momentary loss; unable to act or even to speak. A danger faced by sailing ships was for a sudden shift in wind to come up (from a sudden squall), blowing the sails back against the masts, putting the ship in grave danger of having the masts break off and rendering the ship totally helpless. The ship was taken aback.

Three Mile Limit - The original three-mile limit was the recognized distance from a nation's shore over which that nation had jurisdiction. This border of international waters or the "high seas" was established because, at the time this international law was established, three miles was the longest range of any nation's most powerful guns, and therefore, the limit from shore batteries at which they could enforce their laws. (International law and the 1988 Territorial Sea Proclamation established the "high seas" border at the 12-mile limit.)

Took the wind out of his sails - Often we use "took the wind out of his sails" to describe getting the best of an opponent in an argument. Originally it described a battle maneuver of sailing ships. One ship would pass close to its adversary and on its windward side. The ship and sails would block the wind from the second vessel, causing it to lose headway. Losing motion meant losing maneuverability and the ability to carry on a fight.

Touch and Go - This referred to a ship's keel touching the bottom and getting right off again.

Tar or Jack Tar - 1) Tar, a slang term for a Sailor, has been in use since at least 1676. The term "Jack tar" was used by the 1780s. Early Sailors wore overalls and broad-brimmed hats made of tar-impregnated fabric called tarpaulin cloth. The hats, and the Sailors who wore them, were called tarpaulins, which may have been shortened to tars. 2) Pitch or tar was often used by British sailors to keep their hair from blowing into their eyes during heavy weather (The modern kerchief of a bluejacket's uniform was originally tied around his forehead to keep the tar from dripping into his eyes. The back flap of his jumper was originally meant to protect his uniform from tar dripping off of the back of his head). It also refers to 'tarpaulin', which was an early form of water-proof cloth made by soaking it in a mixture of pine-pitch distillate and resin. It became a nick-name for sailors in general.

To turn a blind eye to - Admiral Nelson, at the battle of Copenhagen, ignored signals from his own fleet commander, not to attack the Danish fleet at anchor by putting his telescope up to his blind eye and saying “I see no signals.” Hence the saying today “to turn a blind eye” to something; to deliberately ignore a situation. By the way, what Nelson said is often erroneously reported a "I see no ships." Then there's the joke: "I see no ships only hardships."

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