Pearls of Wisdom
Icons/LFlorish.gif Random Reflections About Living Aboard Re Metau Icons/RFlorish.gif
PearlsOfWisdom/NauticalTerms.JPGPearls of WisdomNautical Terms and Superstitions in Use Today
Sailing is defined as the fine art of getting wet and becoming ill while slowly going nowhere at great expense. The word 'Boat' is often referred to as an acronym for Break Out Another Thousand.

It seems most all of us have heard the call of the sea because whether we're lubbers or seafarers, many salty phrases have seeped into our language and the meaning they convey is clear.

I'm not an etymologist and people seem to expend a great deal of useless energy arguing over the origins of the most mundane expressions.

These are the explanations I've heard over the years, and true or not - it makes me smile to know that I am surrounded by the influence of those brave souls and old salts who’ve let their spirit and the wind pull them toward every corner of their earthly bounds.

Keys Fishery Tiki View of the Gulf
Elbows Off the Table!
Turns out your mom was trying to protect you from being shanghaied into service.

The story goes that shipboard life in the early days was hard, such that sailors would often disappear while in port. Ships left stranded for want of crew would scour the local taverns with the intent of commandeering men while in a drunken stupor. Once sober, the ship would be out to sea and escape for the kidnapped workforce would be impossible.

Now the savvy subjugator could detect an experienced seaman by looking for a particular habit. Eating with elbows on the table restricted a sailor's plate from sliding away when the ship pitched and rolled. A man with this custom was a pretty good sign of a man with shipboard experience. So through the guise of bad behavior, mothers instructed their children to keep those elbows off the table, and hoped this would keep their boys on dry land.

Castaways Restaurant in the Keys
I was Shanghaied!
The expression "shanghaied" originated in the Chinese port of Shanghai. Clipper ships looking to obtain crew members would pay Chinese tavern owners to slip drugs into the grog of a viable candidate. Once comatose, the new sailors were carried off to the waiting ships, with no escape in sight once revived.

The whole of Asia has such a long, documented chronicle of experience with drugs - some good history, some bad history. The funny thing is, our US history has us believe that our English ancestors were scouring the earth for a direct route to India, in order to get SPICES! Now - knowing how wonderfully spicy English food is - I've got to wonder if these explorers were really early drug runners, addicted to the very substance that got them on a ship in the first place. The same old adage given to the Queen Mum in her day is still repeated to other mums today - "Yeah - it's just oregano."

Our Warm Water Spiney Lobster
A Square Meal
So much terminology comes from the eating habits of seamen! Well - in any event, this phrase most likely originates from the square wooden platters used on the early square riggers. When the weather was fair, it was safe to serve your crew a warm meal - keep them happy so you could work them harder.

I myself have square plates onboard. My thought was that round plates created useless space when stored. When I was told this bit of trivia, I began to wonder if it was really fragments of a previous life that drove me toward this unusually shaped dinnerware.

Don Reynolds and his Sailor Buds
I had to throw this one in because it is a favorite phrase of my father's, when he wishes to express how tired he is.

The definition of being pooped on a boat is being swamped by waves coming over the stern. Basically - the sea is gaining on you and it's not a good thing. Getting pooped typically means you are in very bad weather.

Fighting mother nature for your very survival, with waves crashing down on you, cold, wet and exhausted - it's easier to say pooped.


First Mate NeptuneLet the cat out of the bag
So, you have been Shanghaied and pressed into service against your will, all for having poor table manners. You're lucky to get 3 square meals a day, your pooped, a little groggy (watered down rum rations) - and what is management's method of discipline? FLOGGING!

The Cat o' Nine Tails was a nasty little whip used by the Royal Navy for the most serious crimes. This whip was kept in a bag, and brought out for the flogging that all crew members were required to witness. Thus letting the cat out of the bag was considered a bad thing.

Now - if you happened to be well respected by the crew, they may have crowded around the flogging area, making it very difficult for the Bosun's Mate to get a good swing while administering the punishment. So this was a two-fer. Now you know where "No Room to Swing a Cat" came from.

No Name Pub in the Keys
The Bitter End
Rope - or line as it is called on a ship - is abundant on a sailing vessel. So we've managed to even give special names to the parts of a rope - if you can imagine that. The bitter end is the end that should be well tied to the bitt - a fitting attached permanently to the boat.

For example, you might have a very expensive anchor tied to a line on one end (the working end) and you better have the other end of that line tied to the bitt on the boat.

Therefore, as you gently lower your anchor to the ground, paying out the line as your boat drifts back to hold, you won't be bitter when you see the bitter end slip through your hands and float gently down to rest with your expensive anchor on the ocean floor.


Re Metau Flying Her Colors
Showing your True Colors
Strategies of war while battling at sea brought this term into being. If you remember your history - or have caught the movie "Master and Commander", you may recall that ships of all make and origin were often pressed into service.

So who was to know what side your ship was on? Flying a brightly colored flag representing your nation was the method of the time.

A good way to coax an enemy into firing range was to hoist colors of your adversary. However the rules of civilized warfare mandated that all ships fly their country's flag, or show their true colors before firing the first shot.

Now - it seems to me that if everyone was deviously falsifying their alliance just before firing, then a lot of ships were probably shooting at their comrades. He with the best eyes and slowest trigger finger wins.

Diana Reynolds Dinking through a Cold Boot Key Harbor
Under the Weather
Feeling bad? A little Under the Weather? Then you got the crappy side of the boat to keep watch on. Because a sailboat can never navigate directly into the wind, one side will always be to the wind, and the other side away from it.

The windward side was also called the weather side, and crew was typically stationed on that side to keep a watch out for changes and other boats. This crew member was said to be 'Under the Weather'.

So if you're feeling drippy, chilly and wind-burnt, you are truly under the weather. Otherwise, you're just not feeling well.

Puffer Fish Puffed Up
Knocked Down a Peg
Tradition dictates that pennants are flown for each officer onboard a ship. These flags are attached from pegs, arranged from top to bottom according to rank. When a higher ranking officer boards the vessel, every pennant is knocked down a peg. Or worse, should an officer be demoted, his pennant may be knocked down a peg or two.

So the tradition holds on land so to speak, that when someone alleges their importance by waving their own flag, they eventually will be knocked down a peg by someone more important.

Don Reynolds with a Big Knife
Ship High In Transit
You've never said this? Put the first letter of each word together and answer that question.

Just as any other profitable commodity, manure was often cargo on the early merchant ships. And just as anything else on a boat, these bundles would often get wet in the ship's hold. An interesting lesson in chemistry: manure and water = fermentation and methane gas.

Yes, you can picture that hold, oil lamp for light, a sailor with his pipe, the cook at his hearth and all that combustible wood, hay and coal.

So - after several fiery experiences, these bundles were no longer carried in the hold, but rather kept high on the ship where the gas could disperse harmlessly. Stamped with the warning 'Ship High In Transit', the acronym came to mean the contents, the bad smell, the explosion - everything but the warning.


Copyright © 2013 Diana E Reynolds - SV Re Metau.  All rights reserved.

"Mackerel skies and mares tails, soon will be time to shorten sails." ~ Old sailors proverb