Many sea terms are hundreds of years old, with some tracing their origin to dates well before the twelfth century, heralding a time when wind was king in the golden age of sail.While there are thousands of terms in the nautical lexicon—breathe easy, we won't delve into all of them here—it behooves the sailor and the sailor-to-be alike to acknowledge some of the seafaring origins. For a more complete list of terms and their definitions see our Nautical Dictionary.
We'll start with the most basic of sea terms, boat, a small vessel for travel on water, a word derived from the Middle English boot, the Old English bA, and of course the Old Norse beit. What the frosty vikings and other seafarers using this term probably didn't anticipate was that we'd be using it 800 years later in our language to mean not only the same things, but in other contexts such as "a boatful," and "in the same boat," meaning in the same situation or predicament. And despite the advances in sail handling and navigation technology, sailors remain in their boats much in the same way their viking ancestors did—frail, vulnerable, and largely in awe of the natural elements.
Bow, or the front of the boat, comes from the Old English bOg, or bough, which conjures up the time when shipwrights sized up the limbs of old-growth trees and the way they grew to fit the parts of the ship under construction. An overlap of meanings is also apparent with the second definition of reverence, or bending the head, body, and knee to larger powers in a tempest-tossed sea.
Stern, or the rear of the ship, has fourteenth-century Scandindavian origins and the Old Norse stjOrn, or a steering oar in the back of the ship that controlled steering. Then too, there is the strict, grim, and authoritative context of the word, which conjures up unhappy captains barking orders at the crew from the back of the boat—something which can still be found on the buoy racecourses of today.
Port, the place where ships are secure from storms and also the left-hand side of the boat, is a combination of porte from twelfth-century Middle French, meaning gate or door, and the Latin porta, meaning passage. Aside from these two definitions, we would be in error to overlook another meaning of the word, that is the sweet, fortified red wine from Portugal whose seafaring power once ruled the oceans. Drunken sailors, cargo, hiding from storms, the left-hand side of the ship—um, we may not get to the bottom of this one.
On to starboard, again predating the twelfth century and its Middle English roots. A combination of steering oar and board, the ship's side, became starboard, or the right-hand side of the boat looking forward.
Aside from the parts of sailing ships that we still use in the modern-day versions of these craft, there are a number of nautically derived phrases that are still in use. Consider loose cannon. Describing people as loose cannons means they are out of control, unpredictable, and capable of doing damage to themselves and others. On sailing ships with cannons, securing these heavy guns was no small task. A loose cannon in heavy seas could be thrown around, damaging ship and crew.
If you're taking the wrong tack, you're obviously going in the wrong direction, just as ships have for centuries. But if you stay the course, you'll certainly get to your destination.
Were you ever in a space that didn't have room to swing a cat? The cat is an abbreviation for cat-o-nine-tails, or a studded whip that was used to mete out onboard punishment.
Clean bill of health also comes from days of yore when documents were issued to a ship attesting that there were no epidemics or infectious illnesses on board at its time of departure.
Down the hatch, a drinking expression, has its origins in loading cargo onto ships as you might expect. As the cargo is put into the hold, it travels down the hatch, and appears to be consumed by the ship.
Searching from stem to stern, means searching in a thorough manner throughout the entire ship. The stem is the structural member at the very front of a ship to which planks are fixed, while the stern refers to the back of the ship.
Feeling down in the doldrums has its origins from the area near the equator where light winds made for tough going for sun-baked crews looking for the relief of wind.
Feeling under the weather, or ill, refers to passengers that typically became seasick during rough weather and heavy seas. Ill passengers tended to stay below on the ship in such conditions not only to escape the inclement elements, but also to find less swaying motion below-deck. The most stable point of a vessel is its keel, and ill passengers tended to get as close to it as possible.
Round robin, or taking turns in the same order, has a much different connotation than the one associated with sporting events today. Originating in the British nautical tradition, sailors contemplating mutiny against the captain would sign their names in a circle so that the leader could not be identified. The robin part of the phrase has more mysterious origins and may have risen from the auditory orientation of seamen of the time. Accustomed to chanties and rhymes, they probably added the word to the phrase because it sounded better.
Showing your true colors, or revealing your true intentions, comes from the time when warships often carried flags from many nations on board to deceive enemy ships. The ship would fly one flag, and once the enemy was close enough, raise its true colors. Civilized warfare called for all ships to hoist their true ensigns before firing.
Square meal originated on British warships in the 1700s. Food on board was usually meager and living conditions were harsh. Breakfast and lunch typically were little more than bread and beverage, though the third meal of the day included meat, served on a square tray.
Son of a gun refers to the cramped quarters found onboard and the children that sometimes resulted. Sailors slept between the cannons because it was the only space available. Some ships carried female company on board, sometimes the sailor's wife, and sometimes prostitutes. Many children were conceived between the cannons, or guns, which was also where many children were born. Thus came into language the son of the gun.
Three sheets to the wind was originally three sheets in the wind and referred to the erratic behavior of a ship that had lost control of its sails. When the sheet, or controlling line to the sail is let go, the sail ceases to function and instead flops about. Large ships of the eighteenth century would have been a handful to regain control of once they had lost steerage, thus ships and their movements were thought of in terms many sailors would be familiar with, namely that of the stumbling drunk.