Naval origins of some English expressions

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.”


  1. Holms says

    When ailing seamen were shielded belowdecks from the adverse elements outside, they were said to be “under the weather.” (p. 51)

    Further context for this one: the deck that is exposed to the elements is the ‘weather deck’.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    … 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.

    A large number of whom were, in fact, deserters from British service (army and navy), a fact carefully omitted from most US propaganda/history.

  3. moarscienceplz says

    There is a wealth of human emotion and experience in sea lore. Sea shanties in particular, since they were often composed by sailors themselves, cover the gamut from absurd humor, practical warnings to newbies, lust, loneliness, the terror of storms, and the beauty of the sea. There is a group that call themselves variously the Sea Dogs or the Paddy West School of Seamanship who perform a wide range of nautical songs at many renaissance faires and other festivals around northern California whom I can heartily recommend.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    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.

    I’ve also seen it claimed that, in the good ol’ days when boxing matches took place on sand, the referee would scrape a line in the sand (also a modern phrase), with the boxers required to each stay on their side of same until they heard the starting whistle.

  5. moarscienceplz says

    “A large number of whom were, in fact, deserters from British service (army and navy), a fact carefully omitted from most US propaganda/history.”
    I can’t speak for all USA history teachers and textbooks, but this fact was absolutely not omitted when I was taught about this history. In fact, unlike a lot of USA history, I don’t see anything shameful about it. You Limeys pressed your own people into work they didn’t want to do and treated them badly, we Yankees needed experienced seamen so we granted them citizenship when they applied as was our right to do as winners of the Revolutionary War. You then kidnapped our fellow citizens off our ships. I say that makes you the bad guys in this instance.

  6. says

    I was expecting this to be about regular terminology entering the language. Funny anecdote:

    Earlier this year, I went to talk to a co-worker, and found she was on the phone. Unintentionally, I audibly said to myself, “She’s on the blower,” to which a foreigner co-worker looked at me and said, “What. Did. You. Just. Say?” I had to explain the origin of “blower” and “horn” as slang terms for the telephone. The words originated on 19th century steel ships, speaking tubes or “blowers” used to communicate by yelling from one room to the other. In the days before electricity and telephone or radio, it would have been an effective way to talk over distance amongst all the ship’s noise.

    The term ‘press gang’ was used to describe those who captured these men and forced them into service.

    See also Shanghai, as a verb, originating from UK imperialism in China and Hong Kong. The imperative verb “chop chop” (“hurry up”) also has racist origins in the UK shipping and occupation of Hong Kong.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    moarscienceplz @ # 6: You Limeys … that makes you the bad guys in this instance.

    FWLIW, I’m a US citizen with pre-Revolutionary ancestors here -- mostly from Ireland, which makes your mischaracterization an ethnic insult to boot (now where did that expression come from?).

    From Kevin Phillips, The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America, pg 336:

    Part of the reason why [the 1812] war with England was so unpopular in the coastal North was the degree of commercial intermingling that still continued. Sorting out American ships and seamen from their transatlantic cousins was not easy. If British naval officers provided the arrogance, maritime America, in turn, provided no small part of the confusion “with a great subterranean network of smuggling, collusion, clandestine partnerships and other practices.” In the decades after the peace treaty of 1783, where money was to be made, American vessels and crews were all too anxious to sail under British colors, with false registers and a suitable sprinkling of Cornish or East Anglian accents. This is the reverse side of the valid American complaint about Royal Navy officers impressing seamen whose speech patterns actually evidenced a home in Gloucester, Massachusetts, not King’s Lynn, Norfolk. Huge numbers of American seamen were indeed British-born or recent runaways from British service.

    [endnote] Too often, the British seizure and impressment of U.S. seamen in the years leading up to the War of 1812 is treated without sufficient reference to the backdrop of maritime commerce after 1783. American ships had large numbers of British-born seamen for three major reasons: (1) large numbers of American citizens were themselves British born; (2) service in U.S. vessels was so much easier and better paid than service in the wartime Royal Navy of 1793-1814 that many British sailors and merchant seamen ran to American ships, draining the all-important navy; and (3) U.S. maritime interests had also found it profitable in the 1780s and 1790s to have U.S. ships pass for British to take advantage of opportunities in the West Indies and elsewhere. The arrogance of British naval officers has been widely chronicled, but much less attention has been given to what Charles Ritcheson, in his Aftermath of Revolution, op.cit., described as a great “network of smuggling, collusion, clandestine partnership and other illicit practices” (see pp. 212-214). American ships of the 1780s and early 1790s would use old or forged British Registers, as well as seamen born in Sussex or Devon, to pass in British or British colonial ports, especially the West Indies. With this kind of interaction, impressment from U.S. ships was inevitable; the Royal Navy was not much more abusive in taking seamen than the Yankee ships were in sailing into Kingstown or Bridgetown with false registration, the Union Jack flying and Londoners conversing on deck.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    Intransitive @ # 7 -- Your anecdote reminds me of one I heard from a British teenager in the US, who had made a classroom mistake with a pencil and, lacking an eraser, asked the girl next to him if she had “a rubber” he could borrow. It took him an embarrassing while to figure out she took that to mean a condom, but I doubt he ever forgot that terminology…

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    I wonder if the other European seafaring nations have expressions of naval origin. I know there are Dutch and Spanish readers. Any thoughts?

  10. Silentbob says

    “Pitch black” or “pitch dark” refers to the colour of the carbon based goo used to seal and waterproof wooden sailing ships.

  11. birgerjohansson says

    And the British in turn borrowed nautical terms from the dutch. The Swedish naval term fock comes from a dutch naval item that also made an imprint on English (but it suffered considerable drift in meaning over the years).

  12. rockwhisperer says

    Husband, two friends, and myself took sailing lessons on the San Francisco Bay in the late 1980s. Our instructors were fierce about us using the correct terms for the parts of the boat/rigging/sails/etc. I gave up sailing pretty quickly, because even with OTC anti-nausea drugs, I couldn’t tolerate the boat motion well. (Pro tip: always puke over the leeward rail, away from the wind.)

    Saturday, I was supporting my husband’s effort to put up a snow fence on our mountain house roof, a mostly-horizontal array of aluminum parts that will create a non-sliding base for snow to sit on, so that it doesn’t slide down in great heaps onto the parking pad in front of the garage. He dropped some screws, and I can’t climb a ladder, so he had to come down for them. I said, “You should carry up a LINE, and I can tie a grocery bag to it, so you can then haul up lost screws, tools that you forgot, and whatever else.” Some three and a half decades later, cords and ropes are still “lines” in my vocabulary.

  13. says

    A “fag end” (from “fagged” — worn, tired) was originally the frayed end of a rope, which would be trimmed off in the process of making the ship look ship-shape (there’s another nauticalism …..) and later came to refer, by resemblance, to the unsmoked portion of a (maybe Senior Service?) cigarette. Hence “fag” became British slang for a cigarette.

  14. Mano Singham says

    rockwhisperer @#15,

    There was a series of humorous books published in the UK way back that were all titled The Art of Coarse … that took a lighthearted look at attempts by bumbling amateurs and dilettantes to try various things. One of those books was The Art of Coarse Sailing, where the author defined a coarse sailor as one, who in a crisis, forgot all proper nautical language and shouted “For God’s sake, turn left!”

  15. lorn says

    The term “cat” was, most frequently a reference to a ‘cat-o-nine-tails’, a nine-tailed whip used for punishment by flogging. ‘More than one way to skin a cat’ referenced that the cat-o-nine-tails was most frequently kept on a bag and removing it for use was metaphorically ‘skinning’ it. The phrase was a stern warning that there were many rules and breaking any of them could end up getting you flogged.
    It comes up again in the phase ‘not enough room to swing a cat’. The cat-o-nine-tails tended to be short, 24″ to 30″ OA seems to have been an average. Even being relatively short it takes a significant amount of deck space to swing properly. And because flogging were typically a public event you would need room for the rest of the crew to watch. Ideally the weather deck would be available. In a pinch a cleared gun deck or empty hold might serve.

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