Having just spent three weeks on a ship sailing in the South Atlantic I’ve become very interested in the abundance of nautical terms that have entered the English language. On my trip there was only one really overbearing person. Overbearing is to sail downwind directly at another ship therefore “stealing” the wind from its sails, pretty obnoxious. The conversation would drone on and on at dinner and only a few polite people would stay to the bitter end. The Bitter end is the very end of the anchor chain that is wrapped around the bitts that hold it to the ships bow. Nearly every night this same person would get Three Sheets to the Wind. On a two-sail sloop there are three sheets, one for the mainsail and two for the jib. If these three sheets are loose and slack in the wind, the vessel wanders aimlessly, like a drunk. But most of us toed the line. When called for inspection sailors would line up with their toes touching a seam in the deck planking.
The path of our voyage was not exactly As the Crow Flies. When a ship was unsure of their position in coastal waters, they would release a caged crow that would fly directly towards the land. The tallest lookout platform on a ship is therefore the crow’s nest. We didn’t have a crow’s nest on our ship but that was No Great Shakes. When casks became empty they were taken apart into shakes which could be stored in a small space. Now empty of water or food shakes had very little value. Most of us did pretty well in the seas but a few people were Under the Weather. If a crewman is standing watch on the side of the ship where the weather is coming from, he will take a beating from the sea and spray. He will be definitely be under the weather. Though we did get into some rough seas our ship was never Overwhelmed. Thank goodness because this Old English word means to capsize.
So that’s the scuttlebutt on my recent trip. Scuttlebutt refers to the area where the fresh, drinking water was kept. Sailors would linger there, drink and of course, gossip. And this is only the beginning now you look up – caboose, slush fund, rummage sale, above board and bumpkin.
This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.