On the Job

Belay That! The Origins of Nautical Words and Expressions

18 May 2021By James Evans
Credit: Jairph/Unsplash

Numerous words and phrases that we use day-to-day can be traced back to sailing, although few know their origin. Here are some of the most peculiar sayings that have wormed their way into our daily vernacular over time...

Belay that (or belay that order)

Sci-fi fans may recall Star Trek's Captain Jean-Luc Picard commanding his fellow crewmember to "belay that order" on board the Starship Enterprise, but its genesis can be traced back to earth, or, more specifically, the sea. In the unlikely event that a captain changes his mind and decides to rescind his last order by saying, “Belay that,” he is harkening back to the days when a “belaying” pin was used to hold a line fast (in its last position) on deck. In short, it means stop.

Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey

This actually has nothing to do with an ape’s anatomy, metal or otherwise. Various sources disagree about the origins of this phrase, but a likely explanation is that cannonballs stacked on an ordnance rack called a “brass monkey” would contract in cold temperatures and roll off.

Loose cannon

A person who is unpredictable but who has the capacity to inflict damage. The phrase referred originally to a cannon on a ship that had broken free of its mooring and therefore slid dangerously around on a moving deck.

Learning the ropes

In a figurative sense, to know the ropes is to be thoroughly familiar with the way in which something operates. The phrase derives from the importance for a new recruit on a sailing vessel of knowing the manner in which the ship was rigged, and the means of handling the various lines (ropes).

Down the hatch

This toast has its origins at sea, with cargo that was literally pitched or lowered into the open hatch that led to the ship’s cargo hold. We’re not sure how the connection was made between the cargo hatch and cocktails. Maybe it’s because one of the most common cargoes was rum….

Toe the line

According to the U.S. Naval Historical Center, when sailors were ordered to “fall to quarters,” they literally had to line up with their toes touching one of the oakum caulking seams between the wooden planks that made up the deck. Captains, don’t get any ideas!

Keelhauled

Yes, this actually used to be a form of punishment used prior to the more enlightened 19th century, particularly by the Dutch navy and possibly by pirates. The offending party was tied to two ropes or a large loop and weighted down so he would sink beneath the keel. If the boat was large, he would be thrown off one side and hauled beneath the keel to the other; if it was small, he might be thrown off the bow and pulled along the length of the keel to the stern. Along the way, barnacles would scrape his skin and he’d bang his head on the hull. Drowning was a real possibility.

Room to swing a cat

It is presumed that the cat alluded to is the cat o’ nine tails, or whip, which was regularly used as a form of punishment, on and off ship. Room to swing it implied that the cabin was quite large. It had nine tails because a larger rope’s three-strand coil could be unwound into smaller tails, inflicting multiple wounds if the rope was used as a whip.

Three sheets to the wind 

Also, less commonly, three sheets in the wind, this is a term for being very drunk. Some swear it means the sheets (the rope trimming a sail) have come loose and the ship is therefore out of control and wallowing. Other sources insist it refers to back-winding a jib in a storm by tying the sheets to the windward side in order to heave-to. The lurching and rolling that results is an appropriate metaphor for someone who’s enjoyed a skinful.

Batten down the hatches

This means to prepare for trouble and comes from the order to secure hatchways ahead of a storm in order to prevent rain and waves from getting inside a ship. Waterproof covers would be secured by hammering in wooden battens.

Hunky-dory

An expression suggesting that all is perfect, thought to have been coined by American sailors who used it to describe a particular street in Japan called Honcho-dori (known – and here one can use one’s imagination – for the services there available for lonely sailors who were on shore leave).

Nail one's colors to the mast

From a nautical expression meaning to refuse to accept defeat by fixing – nailing – a flag to the mast such that it would be impossible to lower it as a means of surrendering.

Pipe down

This means of telling someone to be quiet has its origins in the nautical practice of the bosun blowing a pipe to signal lights-out – and an end to general disturbance – at the end of a day.

Scrape the barrel

Naval rations consisted of salted meat (often of poor quality) stored in barrels. The barrel was lined and sealed with fat that would cling to the inside. In the event of a food shortage, this fat could be scraped out by the cook. Today the phrase refers to anything of low quality that might provide some use in an emergency.

Davy Jones's locker

Etymologies abound, but in general Davy Jones was a name used for a malign sea spirit breathing smoke and fire. His locker was the bottom of the sea, and this phrase was used to refer to the deep as a grave for drowned sailors and wrecked ships.

A great source for the origins of nautical terminology is A Sea of Words by Dean King with John B. Hattendorf and J. Worth Estes, the companion lexicon to the late Patrick O’Brian’s popular Aubrey-Maturin British Royal Navy novels.

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