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

Watches - Traditionally, a 24-hour day is divided into seven watches. These are: midnight to 4 a.m. [0000-0400], the mid-watch; 4 to 8 a.m. [0400-0800], morning watch; 8 a.m. to noon [0800-1200], forenoon watch; noon to 4 p.m. [1200-1600], afternoon watch; 4 to 6 p.m. [1600-1800] first dog watch; 6 to 8 p.m. [1800-2000], second dog watch; and, 8 p.m. to midnight [2000-2400], evening watch. The half hours of the watch are marked by the striking the bell an appropriate number of times

Whole Nine Yards - Yards are the spars attached at right angles across a mast to support square sails. (Yardarms are either side of a yard.) On a fully-rigged three-masted ship there were three major square sails on each mast. So if the nine major sails were all employed at the same time, the whole nine yards were working.

Windfall - In the days of King George III, a common decree was that any tree greater than 24" in diameter 'belonged to the king'. In other words, reserved exclusively for building materials for ships of the Royal Navy. It was forbidden to cut them down by commoners. However, if a big tree was felled by natural causes, such as a windstorm, then it was free and available for use by anyone. Thus a 'windfall' became applied to any unexpected stroke of fortune.

When my boat comes in - A promise to pay off an outstanding debt. When I make my fortune. Origin = a colloquial adoption of the old legal phrase dating from 1536 in "Select Pleas in the Court of the Admiralty" whereby a person/merchant promised to pay within so many days of the safe arrival of his ship. Joke: "When my boat comes in - knowing my luck - it'll probably be the Titanic!".

Whipping boy - Aboard a ship there were, and still are, many menial tasks. On a large sailing vessel these tasks included making certain that all the ropes remained in good repair. This was no mean feat since all rope was made from hemp and was twisted in what is commonly referred to as three-strand line. The ends of the ropes would separate and the line would unravel if the ends were not "whipped" with a light line that had been wrapped several times around the ends. Should a line come unraveled - most especially during a critical maneuver - the "whipping boy" would later be the target of a severe punishment. Today, this phrase is used to describe someone who takes the blame for others, even though he may not always be the one at fault.

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