You Don’t Say – Vol 24
Trying to figure out the origins and influence of the English language is far from smooth sailing, but damn the torpedoes, we’ll go full steam ahead with an exploration of the nautical (not naughty) phrases we still use today.
Shot across the bows: This was a perilous naval practice of firing a cannon shot across the bow of an opponent’s ship to indicate readiness to fight, enforce a blockade or signal another ship to heave to (stop). Not surprisingly, the term has endured, but in modern use (other than while chasing pirates around the Gulf of Aden) it may mean a warning of nasty consequences for certain business practices or threats.
Speaking of perils, A loose cannon in today’s terms is a very apt description of someone who is an unpredictable, possibly dangerous or treacherous person, someone who can do the group no good. It’s just like in the era of cannons aboard ship. These very heavy weapons were mounted on cradles with wheels and rope systems to allow for recoil when fired, reloading and so on. But if a cannon got loose in rough seas it could wreak horrendous damage to the ship by rolling about unrestrained.
To cut and run generally refers to someone who will run away at the first sign of trouble, and carries connotations of cowardice. Historically it meant to get away from a dangerous situation instantly without waiting to weigh anchor, by cutting the anchor cable. Perhaps it was cowardly at times, but definitely a rational thing to do.
Batten down the hatches today means to prepare for trouble, whereas aboard ship, it meant to protect against sea or rain water getting into the cargo holds in bad weather and rough seas. Hatches were usually made with wooden grating to allow for ventilation below decks, while protecting sailors from falling into the holds. Battens are sticks or long lathes used to fix tarpaulins over the hatches until the bad weather passed. And certainly water getting into the cargo holds was certainly trouble in those days.
But my two favourite enduring terms are, three sheets to the wind and going Posh.
Three sheets to the wind is still used to describe someone who is very drunk. In the age of sail, ropes were fixed to the lower corners of sails (sometimes called sheets) to hold them in place. If three sheets got loose and were blowing about in the wind, the sails wouldn’t function properly causing the vessel to lurch about like a drunken sailor.
Finally going Posh came to be used to indicate something of high quality, a home, a vehicle, a resort or event shipboard accommodations of the stateroom variety. The word is actually an acronym that arose during early trans-Atlantic steamship travel to refer to the staterooms on the sunny side of the ship. They were naturally the best appointed and most sought after by the wealthy passengers. When departing England or Europe to North America and returning, POSH meant Port (left side) Out (to America) Starboard (right side) Home.
And shiver my (me) timbers? A sailor’s oath in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island in 1883 and in a book written in 1834, that if I’m untruthful, may my (wooden) ship shiver (shatter) or break into pieces!
Arrrrh! That be true me hearties!