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The Sea's Living Lore

By way of 30 years spent in the Coast Guard, the author has enountered a number of colorful and useful terms, so he's not just whistlin' Dixie.
In July, 1963, while I was a young recruit at the Coast Guard’s Training Center at Cape May, NJ, I learned a valuable lesson regarding the superstitions of the sea. As a lowly recruit, it was my intention to keep a low profile, stay out of trouble, and simply get that 13-week basic training session behind me. As luck would have it, on my second day there, I was assigned guard duty in one of the barracks near the main entrance. There was no one there but me and several other new recruits. So I paced back and forth, as instructed, but being somewhat bored I began whistling. All of a sudden a Chief Bosun’s Mate walked in and started yelling. He read me the riot act for whistling, and then curtly informed me that it was not permitted because whistling would bring on a storm. As a result of this serious infraction, I was required to perform as many pushups as I could and then made to stand at attention shouting "Attention in the barracks," at the top of my lungs, over and over. This would not be the first maritime superstition that I would encounter. I later discovered that despite the warning I received, sailors will often whistle for a wind or stick their knives into the aft side of the mast to ensure a fair wind. Over the years I’ve discovered that these beliefs are all part of the lore of going to sea. And though none of what I’ve written here qualifies as definitive research on these topics, much of it is universally accepted as a way of explaining the origin of these colorful terms and practices.

Shortly after I enlisted in the USCG, I began hearing the phrase "getting the fid." But it was not until I got into a Marlinspike Seamanship class that I found out what a fid actually was, and what the term meant. If you ‘got the fid’ you were considered to be, eh, well, screwed, for lack of a better word. Let’s say you were found to be out of line by the senior Petty Officer. If so, he might schedule you for the graveyard watch, or some other unseemly duty. And if so, you had gotten the fid. You get the idea.

Most sailors know that a fid is actually a nail-like tool that is used in rope work. The tip is typically not very sharp, but rather blunt. You might have also heard this tool referred to as an awl or Marlinspike. A fid is designed to separate the strands of a rope or line in order to enable a strand to be pushed through in making a tuck or a splice, and because of that, the back end of a fid is usually hollow so that the line being pushed through can be inserted. There may be some claims to the contrary regarding nomenclature, but it has always been my understanding that fids are usually made of hardwood. Marlinspikes are usually made from steel. So fids and marlinspikes really aren’t the same animal.

Toe the line—sailors at attention during a flag ceremony stand in uniform lines though there's no deck seam to help them line up. 
During my boot-camp experience, and a subsequent stint of 30-plus years of Coast Guard duty, I’ve run across several other interesting phrases that stem from time spent at sea. On several occasions I was told to "toe the line," while on duty. It seems that back in the old days of wooden warships, the space between each pair of deck planks on the ship was filled with a packing material called oakum and then sealed with a mixture of pitch and tar. The result, from a distance, was a series of parallel lines a half-foot or so apart, running the entire length of the deck. (You occasionally see this recreated on some modern boats, often for purely cosmetic reasons.) Once a week, as a rule, usually on a Sunday, a warship's crew was ordered to fall in at quarters. Each group of men that made up the crew would line up in formation in a predetermined spot on the deck. The sailors were directed to stand with their toes just touching a particular seam, which would ensure a neat alignment of each row of men. At my final duty station on shore, there were small yellow lines painted on the tarmac for exactly the same purpose.

But this simple act of marshalling the crew doesn't account for the phrase "toe the line" making it into the general lexicon. There was another more sinister use for these seams on deck, and that was to discipline the crew. The newest members aboard a ship, such as the ship's boys or young student officers, might be required to stand with their toes just touching a designated seam for a length of time if they'd committed some minor infraction such as talking or fidgeting at the wrong time. And a particularly tough captain might require the troublemaker(s) to stand there, not talking to anyone, in fair weather or foul for hours. So now you can understand where "toe the line" comes from.

Anyone reading this who has been in the Navy or Coast Guard will be familiar with the term Bravo Zulu. This is the naval signal for ‘well done,' and it’s customarily given by hoisting two flags (Bravo and Zulu) or by way of a radio broadcast. It has also passed into the spoken and written vocabulary. And Bravo Zulu can be combined with the negative signal, spoken or written as NEGAT, to indicate that something was "not well done." Throughout my Coast Guard career, I attended many awards and retirement ceremonies, and it was rare if the term Bravo Zulu was not used on these occasions. Like any term derived from maritime lore, there are myths and legends attached to Bravo Zulu. The biggest myth, it appears, is that the phrase was supposedly sent by Admiral Halsey to the ships of Task Force 38 during World War II. Unfortunately, Halsey could not have done this since the signal did not exist at that time.

Cut and run—it's likely that this ship's captain gave that order to make a speedy departure from the anchorage.
Now most sailors have probably heard of the term "cut and run." Around the Navy and the Coast Guard, it’s another one of those widely used terms that often gets a little misunderstood elsewhere. To cut and run in maritime lore is an expression indicating the act of cutting the hemp anchor line with an axe, thus abandoning the anchor. Obviously the cost and availability of anchors means that this would only be done in emergency situations when a ship needed to get under way quickly. The more accurate origin of this term comes from ships at anchor in an open roadstead whose sails were furled and stoppered to the yards with rope yarns. To get underway quickly, the captain could order the crew to cut the yarns and the let the sails fall and fill.

Of course we've all known sailors who were classified as "three sheets to the wind," including Yours Truly on occasion. This phrase, with its obvious nautical origin, essentially means unsteadiness due to a surfeit of drink. (It's true, some sailors do drink.) The words imply that if a sailor has had too much to drink, even if he had three sheets with which to trim his sails, he would still be too incapacitated to steer a steady course.

Have you ever been told to "Mind your Ps and Qs?" If not, it’s simply a reproach meant to remind you to stay alert or be on your best behavior. According to maritime lore, this phrase originated from tavern owners who allowed sailors to drink on credit until they were employed by a ship. Ps refers to pints and Qs refers to quarts. Some unprincipled tavern owners would try to put extra check marks under the P or Q columns if they saw that a particular sailor wasn't paying attention (or was several sheets to the wind).

Chewing the fat—while up in the rigging isn't the time to linger and gab or you're apt to be told to toe the line for longer than you'd care to.
Now, who hasn’t hear the term ‘chewing the fat?’ Literally, this meant eating the seaman's daily ration of tough, salt-cured pork or beef. Long before we had refrigeration, cured meats were tough but durable and it took a lot of chewing in order to get them down. Chewing the fat has come to mean a friendly conversation or talking too much depending who is doing the talking.

Depending upon your preferences, you might be found chewing the fat over a cup of Joe. Maritime lore tells us that the latter phrase also stems from those who worked at sea. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Josephus Daniels (May 18, 1862-January 15, 1948) as Secretary of the Navy. Daniels was a progressive thinker, and he was intent on making the Navy more effective as a branch of the service. Among the changes he brought about during his tenure was the practice of making 100 sailors from the fleet eligible for entrance into the Naval Academy. He also introduced women into the service, and abolished the officers’ wine mess on board ships. Because of this last change, the strongest drink aboard Navy ships from that time on could only be coffee. So over the years, among sailors, a cup of coffee became known as a cup of Joe. If you don't buy that, don’t take my word for it; go ask a sailor.

Suggested Reading:

Sea Terms and Phrases by Mark Matthews

Dog Watch Defined by Tom Wood

Is the Red Sea Red? by Michael Zezima

SailNet Store Section: Books

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