I recently read the book The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder by David Grann (2022) about an ill-fated secret expedition by the British navy that left England in 1740. It was part of their imperial war against Spain and it required the ships to reach the Pacific Ocean by going around Cape Horn at the tip of South America in search of a treasure-filled Spanish galleon. The expedition was a disaster, with the fleet experiencing the most atrocious weather with one ship The Wager being shipwrecked on a remote island off the coast of Patagonia.
Facing tremendous deprivation, what remained of the crew experienced a disintegration of command, followed by mutiny, deaths and cannibalism. Incredibly though, a small group managed to put together one small flimsy boat containing remnants of the original crew that had mutinied against the captain and managed to get to Brazil in 1742, while six months later an even smaller remnant led by the captain who had been left behind on the island reached the coast of Chile. The two separate returns to England by crew members that had long been presumed to be dead created a sensation and led to a court martial inquiry to try and determine what had happened.
Life on these ships was very hard. The book describes in great detail what it must have been like for sailors to live on such boats, especially battling freezing weather and massive storms. Getting sufficient crew members was not easy and so there was forcible recruitment known as impressment.
impressment, also called crimping, enforcement of military or naval service on able-bodied but unwilling men through crude and violent methods. Until the early 19th century this practice flourished in port towns throughout the world. Generally impressment could provide effective crews only when patriotism was not an essential of military success. Impressed men were held to their duty by uncompromising and brutal discipline, although in war they seem to have fought with no less spirit and courage than those who served voluntarily.
The “recruiters” preyed to a great extent upon men from the lower classes who were, more often than not, vagabonds or even prisoners. Sources of supply were waterfront boardinghouses, brothels, and taverns whose owners victimized their own clientele. In the early 19th century the Royal Navy would halt U.S. vessels to search for British deserters and in the process would not infrequently impress naturalized American citizens who were on board. This practice was among the grievances that helped bring about the War of 1812.
The term ‘press gang’ was used to describe those who captured these men and forced them into service.
What I want to briefly give here is the explanation Grann gives for the naval origins of many phrases that have become part of the English language.
During the age of sail, when wind-powered vessels were the only bridge across the vast oceans, nautical language was so pervasive that it was adopted by those on terra firma. To “toe the line” derives from when boys on a ship were forced to stand still for inspection with their toes on a deck seam. To “pipe down” was the boatswain’s whistle for everyone to be quiet at night, and “piping hot” was his call for meals. A “scuttlebutt” was a water cask around which the seamen gossiped while waiting for their rations. A ship was “three sheets to the wind” when the lines to the sails broke and the vessel pitched drunkenly out of control. To “turn a blind eye” became a popular expression after Vice-Admiral Nelson deliberately placed his telescope against his blind eye to ignore his superior’s signal flag to retreat. (p. 35)
People who are unaware of the origins of the phrase ‘toe the line’ will sometimes write ‘tow the line’ because, in the absence of any context, it seems to make more sense, suggesting the use of a rope to tow something.
I came across this explanation of another phrase that is commonly used.
When ailing seamen were shielded belowdecks from the adverse elements outside, they were said to be “under the weather.” (p. 51)
One of the big problems was scurvy. At that time they had no idea what caused that deadly disease that afflicted so many sailors on long voyages.
Yet the solution was so simple. Scurvy is brought on by a deficiency of vitamin C, owing to a lack of raw vegetables and fruits in one’s diet. Such a deprived person stops producing the fibrous protein known as collagen, which holds bones and tissues together, and which is used to synthesize dopamine and other hormones that can affect moods. (Anson’s men also appear to have been suffering from other vitamin deficiencies, such as insufficient levels of niacin, which can lead to psychosis, and of vitamin A, which causes night blindness.) Lieutenant Saumarez later sensed the power of certain nutrients. “I could plainly observe,” he wrote, “that there is a je ne sais quoi in the frame of the human system that cannot be renewed, cannot be preserved, without the assistance of certain earthly particles, or in plain English, the land is man’s proper element, and vegetables and fruit his only physic.” All Byron and his companions needed to combat scurvy was some citrus, and when they had stopped at St. Catherine to gather supplies, there had been an abundance of limes. The cure—that unforbidden fruit which decades later would be furnished to all British seamen, giving them the nickname Limeys— had been right within their grasp. (p. 77)
(The Byron in the above passage was a 16-year old, the future grandfather of the famous poet.)
As Wikipedia says “In time, the term lost its naval connotation and was used to refer to British people in general and, in the 1880s, British immigrants in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.”