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Talk like a sailor

Sunday, March 05, 2017


There is a treasure chest of nautical terms and phrases hidden in common English, including ‘gaff’, ‘to cut and run’, ‘groggy’, and ‘aloof’. Here are a few:

Bullseye

Conventional usage means you’re right on target. You hit dead centre, you nailed it. It also refers to the centre of a target. It does have a nautical meaning, though. “An oval or circular wooden block having a groove around it and a hole in the centre, through which to reeve a rope.” And no, that’s not a typo. Reeve is a thing. Would we lie to you?

Gaff

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A homophone here, folks. Two words with the same sound but different meanings/spellings. On the boat, a gaff is “a spar rising aft from a mast to support the head of a quadrilateral fore-and-aft sail”. On land, if you commit a gaffe, that is a “social faux pas, a blunder” similar to what happened at the Oscar’s with Faye Dunawaye announcing La La Land as Best Picture instead of Moonlight.

Cut and run

If you cut and run, it means that you make a swift exit from a tricky situation rather than remaining to deal with it. Nowadays, it’s all about taking the easy way out, rather than manning up and seeing things through.

In the age of sail, however, a captain’s options were limited if a more powerful enemy ship was spotted while his own vessel lay at anchor. If the situation was urgent and staying put would lead to loss of life and his ship, a captain might decide that it was more prudent to cut the anchor cable (leaving the anchor in the seabed rather than taking the time to haul it back on board), and run, living to fight another day. Clearly, the verb to run in this case has nothing to do with moving your legs very fast, but relates to a boat sailing fast and directly before the wind (that is, with the wind blowing from the stern).

High And Dry

Used on land, if you leave someone high and dry, you’re basically leaving them with no way out; they’re stuck. “In a deprived or distressing situation; deserted; stranded: ‘We missed the last bus and were left high and dry.’” In nautical parlance, this term basically refers to a beached boat. It’s run aground and is not going anywhere anytime soon. Think “Minnow” from Gilligan’s Island.

Groggy

Are you feeling groggy? We’d usually associate that term with someone who’s not fully awake. Our definition is “sluggish and lethargic”. You just need some coffee to get going. “He just woke up and still feels groggy” would be acceptable usage. The term is derived from the sea. Well, kinda sorta. Here’s the story, as reported by The Phrase Finder. “Groggy” is derived from the word grog, which is an alcoholic drink. Arrrrr. Feel free to start talkin’ like a pirate at this point, matey. So why is it called “grog”? It seems that a fellow named Admiral Edward Vernon was an officer in the British Royal Navy way back when. He fancied wearing grogram jackets to keep warm — we define that as a coarse fabric, and we also feel compelled to report that it came from the word grosgrain, or “course-grained”. He also liked to water down his crew’s rum ration, so it wouldn’t be quite as potent. The crew didn’t much care for that, so they called him “Old Grog” and that’s what they also called his weak beverage. The crew knew what they were talking about—at one point their daily drink ration was a gallon of beer.

Loose Cannon

If you’re a loose cannon, you’re rather reckless and unpredictable, and you fit the definition perfectly. Back in the day, though, the term literally referred to loose cannons on the deck of sailing ships. These massive guns had rollers on the bottom and were anchored by ropes, and if they came loose in the course of battle, well, there you go.

Jib

If you admire the cut of one’s jib, you’re basically saying you admire their appearance, their demeanour, their overall presence. It feels very Brooks Brothers, very masculine. You just wouldn’t use this to describe a female in present day.

Dictionary.com says the nautical term means “any of various triangular sails set forward of a forestaysail or foretopmast staysail.”

Three Sheets To The Wind

The contemporary meaning is that you’re drunk. This kind of relates to grog.

Phrase Finder says “sailors at that time (1870s) had a sliding scale of drunkenness; three sheets was the falling over stage; tipsy was just ‘one sheet in the wind,’ or ‘a sheet in the wind’s eye’”. The term is also derived from the the current nautical word sheet.

Dictionary.com says a sheet is a “rope or chain for extending the clews of a square sail along a yard, a rope for trimming a fore and aft sail, or a rope or chain for extending the lee clew of a course.”

Hard And Fast

As in a hard and fast rule. There’s no getting around it. We note that this term was originally applied to a vessel that has come out of water, either by running aground or being put in dry dock, and is therefore unable to move. This term is similiar to high and dry.

Aloof

To describe someone as aloof is to say that their manner towards other people isn’t warm, approachable, or friendly — they prefer to keep others at a distance:

She was cold and aloof, barely acknowledging that he was in the room. Aloof can also mean that someone chooses to remain clearly uninvolved in a particular sphere of activity: “I have kept aloof from politics and haven’t even voted since I joined the police.”

This adjective’s origins stem from an Old French word, lof, which gave us the English nautical term ‘luff’. Today, luff has two main meanings: as a verb, it means ‘‘to steer a boat in a windward direction’’ and as a noun, it refers to the edge of a fore and aft sail next to the mast or stay.

A sailor being ordered to keep aloff or aloofe would therefore steer the ship’s bows as close as possible towards the wind, so as to keep clear of a lee shore, towards which the ship might be blown and even run aground.

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