Word of the Month: Nautical

Two weeks ago the movie Master and Commander, starring Russell Crowe, opened in theaters across the United States. The movie, based on the popular series of novels by Patrick O’Brian, is about the fictional adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend physician and spy Dr. Stephen Maturin. They sail together aboard the HMS Surprise, taking on Napoleon’s Navy and engaging in all sorts of adventures on the high seas.

O’Brian’s books and the movie they inspired are very faithful to details about life, including language, aboard ship in the age of sail. It is swashbuckling adventure to be sure, but pretty good history as well. Because the movie, which took in over $25 million at the US box office during its first weekend, will engender questions and enthusiasm for the language of the sea, our word of the month is:

nautical, adj., relating to sailing, ships, sailors, or the sea, 1552. The English word is adopted from the Middle French nautique, which is from the Latin nauticus, which in turn is from the Greek word for sailor.

On the Wordorigins.org discussion forum, we frequently debunk words and phrases that have false nautical origins attributed to them. We do this so often that one participant, Dr. Techie, invented the facetious acronym CANOE, meaning Conspiracy to Attribute Nautical Origins to Everything. In the face of all this one can easily forget that there are a great number of English words and phrases that do in fact have their origins in the sea.

What follows is a list of words and phrases that all have their origins in nautical language. The nautical origins of these terms will not be readily apparent to many. Where several dates are given, the first is for the general or figurative use and the second (earlier) is the date of appearance in nautical jargon.

A1, adj., prime, first class. A1 was first used by Lloyd’s Register, a listing of ships in commission by the famed insurance company, to denote vessels in prime condition. 1837 for nautical use. In general use from 1851.

albatross, n., a mark of misfortune, a burden. Not really a nautical term, but rather from literature about the sea. The sense is a reference to Coleridge’s 1798 poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in which the mariner kills an albatross and it brings misfortune upon him and his ship:

Instead of the cross, the albatross
About my neck was hung.

The metaphorical sense dates to 1936. The name of the bird is an alteration of the Spanish alcatraz, pelican, inaccurately applied in English to the petrel, especially Diomedea exulans, the giant albatross.

aloof, adj., distant, either physically or emotionally. Originally, a nautical command meaning to sail closer to the wind. Probably from the Dutch loef, windward. 1549.

broadside, n., an assault or attack in force, to fire a broadside. The term originally referred to the side of a ship, 1591, or somewhat later to a coordinated volley of cannon fire from all the guns on one side of a ship.

by and large, adv., across a range or gamut, 1669. Originally, a reference to a ship that sails well both close hauled to the wind, or by, and away from it, or large.

caboose, n., a railroad car, usually at the end of a train, used as a work and break area for the crew, 1861. The word is from the Dutch kabuis and is nautical in origin. It was originally a galley built on the deck of a ship or the hut that covered this kitchen, 1769.

careen, v., to lean, to tilt, to speed unsteadily, 1600. Originally, to turn a ship on its side so maintenance can be performed. From the French carène, keel.

close quarters, n., in immediate contact, especially with a foe, 1753. (The obsolete variant close-fight is older, dating to 1662.) Originally a term for barriers erected on deck behind which a crew could retreat during attempts tot repel boarders.

copper-bottomed, adj., genuine, authentic, trustworthy, 1795. A metaphorical extension of the nautical practice of sheathing ship’s bottoms in copper plating, to prevent the accumulation of shells and weeds that slow a ship.

dido, n., a caper or prank, 1807. Also, cut a dido, to commit a prank. All right, this one is probably not nautical in origin, but I did the research to debunk it and want to slip it in. It is often said that this term is from the HMS Dido, a ship so fast and maneuverable that it could literally run circles around the other ships in the Mediterranean fleet. Unfortunately for this great story, the ship in question was not launched until 1896, nearly a century after the term first appears.

cut and run, v.phr., to leave hurriedly, 1704. Originally, a nautical term meaning to make sail by cutting the cable instead of weighing anchor. The metaphorical usage dates to at least 1861.

cut of one’s jib, n., one’s appearance, 1823. The phrase started life as a sailor’s catchphrase. A jib is a triangular staysail stretched from the jib-boom or bowsprit to the fore-topmast. The word is of unknown origin, but dates to 1661.

deep six, n. & v., death, the grave, or to dispose of, 1929. The origin of this term is uncertain, but is widely thought to be a reference to burial at sea at a depth of six fathoms.

fathom, v., to penetrate, to comprehend. The immediate predecessor of this verb is the nautical verb meaning to take a sounding, to measure the depth of water under the keel. The word is ancient, coming from the Old English fæðm, meaning literally embracing arms, or figuratively grasp or power. Also quite early, c.1000, the word came to mean a measurement the length of a man’s outstretched arms. This was later fixed at six feet. This was a general unit of linear measure, but survives today chiefly in nautical use for depth of water.

figurehead, n., the titular head of an organization or community, one with the trappings of power but no real authority. A reference to the ornamental carving, often a bust or full-figure of a woman, on the bow of a ship. 1765 for the literal, nautical use; 1883 for the metaphorical sense.

first rate, adj., excellent, unsurpassed, 1666. Originally a term referring to the largest class of naval vessels, esp. those in the Age of Sail that carried 74-120 guns.

flotsam and jetsam, n., detritus, debris, esp. that which is floating, odds and ends. Flotsam is from the Anglo-Norman floteson (cf. modern French flottaison), the wreckage of a ship found floating, 1607. Jetsam is a syncopated form of jettison and refers to cargo and goods thrown overboard from a ship in distress, 1570. The terms are distinct because in maritime law different liabilities apply. Owners of surviving cargo on a ship are liable for the loss of the owners of the jetsam (their cargo was saved because the others’ were thrown overboard), but not for flotsam, which was lost due to accident.

gangway, intj., a demand to clear the way, either for a person carrying a burden or for one of higher social rank (e.g., an officer), 1925. The general sense of the noun gangway is not nautical in origin. It refers to any passageway. It dates to c.1000 and is a combination of the Old English gang, a road or passage (cf. German gehen) + way. Nautical use of the noun gangway dates to 1688, when it referred to a platform between the forecastle and the quarterdeck. Use to mean the opening in the bulwarks for entering or leaving a vessel dates to 1780.

groggy, adj., befuddled, tired, weak, as if from a fight or drink, 1832. Older use, from 1770, means intoxicated. Grog is a mixture of rum and water once served to sailors in the Royal Navy. The name comes from the nickname of Admiral Edward “Old Grog” Vernon who in 1740 first ordered the mixture to be served to sailors in the place of neat spirit. Vernon’s nickname is from the grogram coat he often wore. Grogram is a mixture of silk, mohair, and wool which has waterproof qualities. Grogram is from the French gros grain, large or coarse grain, 1562. The Royal Navy abolished the rum ration in 1970.

hand over fist, adj., with ease, quickly, esp. used in reference to financial gain, 1825. The phrase originated at sea in reference to the ease and speed with which experienced sailors climbed rigging. By the late 19th century the phrase was being used metaphorically.

hard and fast, adj., rigidly adhered to, 1867. The phrase originally was used to describe a ship firmly attached to a wharf or shore, unmoving.

hard up, adj., in difficulty, esp. financial, 1821. The term originated in 1612 as a nautical command to turn the ship away from the wind as fast as possible, a turn usually made in desperation to avoid a collision.

high and dry, adj., stranded, 1822. The phrase is from the metaphor of a ship that has been beached above the surf line.

hulk, n., a large person, a large object, 1597. The word hulk originally meant a ship, c.1000. It is an Old English word, hulc, that is related to the Medieval Latin hulcus. Cognates are found in many European languages and the ultimate origin is obscure. Shakespeare was the first to apply the term metaphorically to a person in Henry IV, Part 2.

laid-up, adj., disabled. This one is from 1769 and originally referred to a ship that was moored for repairs or because it was retired from service.

leeway, n., freedom to act as one sees fit, 1827. The metaphorical sense, which dates to the early 19th century is from a literal nautical sense from 1669. This literal sense refers to lateral drift of a ship in the direction of the wind or the downwind (leeward) distance a ship requires to maneuver. A ship with a lot of leeway has no other ships or objects leeward and is free to maneuver without fear of collision.

log, n. & v., a journal or record, to record in a journal or record, 1825 for the noun, 1823 for the verb. No, this word is not originally nautical, but this particular sense derives from nautical usage. The word meaning a block of wood dates to Middle English, the late 14th century. The origin is unknown, but it is related to clog, another word that originally meant a block of wood. The nautical sense dates to 1574 and originally referred to a block of wood tied to a line that would be thrown astern of a vessel underway. By measuring the line paid out over a fixed period, the crew could determine the ship’s speed. The sense of a journal is transferred from entering these measurements into the ship’s journal or, as it came to be known, the log. The computer terms logon, login, logoff, and logout also come from this sense.

loose cannon, n., an unpredictable person or thing, something uncontrollable that is liable to cause damage, 1900. This one is not actually from nautical jargon, but it comes from a nautical metaphor. The term was popularized by Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote: “I don’t want to be the old cannon loose on the deck in the storm.”

lopsided, adj., leaning to one side, 1711. This term was first used to refer to ships that listed to one side. Lop, a verb meaning to droop, dates to 1578. It is perhaps echoic in origin, related to lob and also the source for loppy.

lower the boom, v., to stop, to defeat, 1950. This US slang phrase is nautical in origin. A boom is a spar that holds a sail in place, from the Dutch, 1662, and akin to the word beam. To lower the boom on someone is to metaphorically bring a beam down upon their head.

mainstay, n., the chief support, something or someone on whom something relies, 1604. In nautical jargon, a stay is a rope that supports and holds in place a mast. The mainstay is the rope that holds the mainmast in place, usually running from the top of the mainmast (maintop) to the foot of the foremast. The nautical term mainstay dates to 1485 and the generic stay to sometime after 1100.

headway, n., progress, 1775. In nautical jargon the head is front, or bow, of the ship. So to make headway is to make forward progress. Nautical usage of headway dates to 1748 and head to 1485. The sense of a latrine or toilet is also nautical, dating to 1748, and comes from the fact that latrines were usually placed in the bows—so the wind from astern would carry the excretions away from the ship.

in the offing, adj., soon, close at hand, 1779.  In nautical terms an offing is a position at sea, but within sight of shore, 1627.

pipe down, v., to stop talking, to become quiet, 1900. On board ship, the boatswain would use a pipe to signal various commands. To pipe down was to dismiss the watch and send them to bed, 1833.

scuttle, v., to ruin, destroy, or otherwise make useless, 1888. In nautical jargon, a scuttle is a hole drilled through part of the ship, 1497. The verb means to drill or create a hole in the bottom of a ship in order to sink her, 1642. The word is related to the French écoutille and the Spanish escotilla, but the exact relationship is uncertain.

scuttlebutt, n., gossip, rumor, 1901. On board ship, a scuttlebutt is a cask with a hole cut in it (a butt that had been scuttled) containing drinking water for the crew, 1805. The figurative use of the term comes from the idea that sailors would gather around the scuttlebutt and gossip, much like modern office workers talk around the water cooler.

shove off, v., to depart, to leave, 1844. Nautical use of shove meaning to launch a boat is ancient. The term appears in Beowulf:

guman ut scufon
weras on wil-sið    wudu bundenne.
(then shoved out
away with a will    in their wood-sheathed ship.)

The use of off, instead of out, dates to 1600.

skipper, n., leader, 1830. This is one of the commonly recognizable nautical terms dealt with here. Nautical use meaning the captain or master of a ship dates to 1390. It is from the Middle Dutch or Middle Low German schipper.

skylark, v., to engage in horseplay, to frolic, 1809. This term is not nautical in origin, but rather comes from the name of the bird which is known for singing as it flies. Early uses, however, are nautical and refer to antics in the rigging of a ship.

slush fund, n., money that is not officially accounted for, esp. money used for bribes, 1874. In nautical jargon, slush is the fat and grease from boiling meat, 1756. It is the same word as that for partially melted snow. It is of unknown origin, but is probably related to sludge and slosh. Slush would be sold when in port and the money would be distributed among the crew. Nautical use of slush fund dates to 1839.

stem to stern, adj., complete, whole, 1697. The stem is another name for the bow of a ship, or more specifically to the piece of timber to which the planks are fastened, 1538. By extension, the phrase is used figuratively to denote the entirety of something.

taken aback, adj., surprised, discomfited, 1842. In nautical jargon, to be taken aback is to suddenly have the wind shift, either through bad steerage or sudden weather change, so that it is coming over the bow and giving the ship sternway, 1754. To be taken aback can dismast a ship.

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