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Cut of the jib: 15 common phrases introduced by the nautical world

10th April 2016

No other industry has played such a huge part in shaping the history of the modern world than that of the maritime one. From enabling the likes of explorers like Columbus and Drake to go in search of new worlds to expanding the economics of countries into fishing, transporting populations of communities to new continents and determining the victors of war the nautical world has had a huge influence on the way the world looks today but also of our language.

There are many terms, idioms and phrases that are in common circulation today that are derived from sailors and the worlds on board the ships they crewed.

Whilst some may be obvious from the terminology used others may be a surprise. Here’s our favourite fifteen along with their etymologies:

1) “I like the cut of his jib”

The jib refers to the triangular sail set at the foretopmast head and jib boom on a sailing ship. Each country had their own style and cut of jib with some favouring multiple sails over singular varieties. To admire the cut of the jib of another ship was to the individual preference of each sailor but was likely influenced by territorial respect. The phrase has come to mean that you admire someone from their general demeanor or appearance. It’s usually based on a first visual impression of a person much the same as a ship was judged by the shape of its jib.

2) “Push the boat out”

Come to mean an extravagant act of generousity this phrase simply comes from the act of kindness extended to sailors who needed help to push their boats back to water.

3) “Hand over fist”

Descriptive of hauling on a rope this term was originally used to describe making steady progress but has evolved to refer to financial profusion at a rapid rate.

4) “Shake a leg”

Though there is some debate about the exact origins of the phrase it was certainly used in the Royal Navy in the 19th century to rouse sailors from their hammocks with the order to ‘shake a leg’…literally meaning to get up.

5) “Loose cannon”

Warships in the 17th to 19th century were equipped with heavy cannons as their primary offensive weapons. With the potential for serious damage following the massive recoil after firing, they were secured with ropes and rollers. A cannon that had become loose was therefore a real liability onboard and considered a grave danger. To refer to someone now as a loose cannon means the same thing.

6) “Above board”

Quite simply if something was stowed above board it was clear to be seen and this simple phrase has come to mean the same thing in phraseology; if something is above board then there is no chicanery or concealment.

7) “Three sheets to the wind”

In sailing terms, having three (or several) sheets loose (to the wind) could cause the vessel to lurch about in a drunken manner and this phrase is now applied to someone who has drunk too much.

8) “Give a wide berth”

Originally referring to sailing ships passing each other at a reasonable distance (either because of a perceived threat or simply to allow each other room) this phrase is now in common use when referring to avoiding something unpleasant.

9) “Between the Devil and the deep blue sea”

Used to describe a situation when both outcomes seem as undesirable as each other (such as between a rock and a hard place) this particular phrase has roots in the nautical world but could either be alluding to the fact that the pressganged crew were housed in the lower decks, beneath the officers (referred to as devils) and were therefore unwittingly on board a ship; between the devil and the deep blue sea. It could also refer to the nickname given for the longest seam on a ship running from bow to stern; the devil. If the seam required caulking then a sailor would be suspended on a bosun’s chair to undertake the repair thus being between the devil and the deep blue sea; both a precarious and potentially fatal position to be in.

10) “Batten down the hatches”

A well known phrase, meaning to prepare for trouble, the origin of which is linked to mariners preparing for a storm by securing the ship in readiness; part of doing so would have been to secure the hatches with battens to prevent storm water from getting into stores or below deck.

11) “Touch and go”

Although the history of this phrase can be traced back to other uses it is almost certain that it originated at sea. Meaning to avoid a precarious situation it is thought that sailors used the term when the keel of the ship scraped the bottom of the sea floor yet the ship remained undamaged and moved on. It was, therefore, ‘touch and go’, There is a second reference to nautical use referring to the practice of nearing shore to offload men and/or cargo but (to save time) without stopping. This too would have been a risky practice.

12) “Slush fund”

A slang expression used by sailors to refer to the collective money raised from the sale of watery foods (usually on the black market) with which to buy luxuries, slush fund has come to mean a pool of funds with which to bribe officials.

13) “The bitter end”

Though there is some controversy surrounding the original use of this phrase it is thought that the tarred end of a rope was referred to the ‘bitter’ end thus once a sailor had got to the end of his line, he was at the bitter end. The term now means playing something through until there are no further options.

14) “Panic stations”

The phrase has a simple meaning derived from Royal Navy orders issued to sailors; stations being a post assigned to a seaman. Similar to ‘action stations’, ‘panic stations’ would be issued shortly before a call to ‘abandon ship’…so quite literally meaning ‘panic’!

15) “Shipshape and Bristol fashion”

Meaning tidy and in good order it is likely that this phrase came into common usage as a result of Bristol’s port being so high. An up and coming harbour in the early 19th century, Bristol’s tidal range can be as much as 43ft (the second highest in the world) and, as a result, moored ships could fall to one side during low tide. If everything on board was not stowed correctly and securely then cargo and equipment would spill and be spoiled. Keeping your ship Bristol fashion therefore meant tying everything down and stowing it safely.

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