Garbled or Grasped?
Ever try to communicate on a boat? There are many challenges to speaking and hearing clearly while underway. But one of the greatest obstacles is knowing sea language.
Many words have originated from the sea. One such example occurred centuries ago when sailors eventually realized that their trash and treasures should be separated on board their ships. Some higher-up officers finally deduced something must be done so they eventually prohibited the previous practice of mixing rubbish with cargo. As sailors tend to do,
they coined a word during this practice... maybe garbage morphed into "garble", "garbled" and "garbling" or "gargling". Whatever the etymology, "garble" then eventually came to mean any distorted, mixed-up message.
The sea certainly has certainly sifted out language and sent its share of messages. But it is been humans who have frequently misread and misinterpreted what her messages, Some historians have estimated from recorded annals that most
(groundings, collisions, shipwrecks, sinkings, etc.) whether during peace or war have been caused by human error. Our misjudgments and miscommunications are more often the culprits than extreme weather, wind, waves or tides. If human history is any indication, our survival as a species depends on our common sense and our ability to understand each other.
Of course, for understanding to be successful, speaking and listening have to be clear.
The many factors involved such as word choice, tone, voice inflection, intent, timing, attitude, mood, familiarity, slang, facial expression, body language and more are in any one language. There are over human 6500 languages in the world in 2015 and there are a million more with nature and the animal kingdom we have yet to decipher. And before we achieve any true understanding, we have to bridge language barriers with understanding.
Commonly Confused Nautical Terms:
We all understand that these terms can be confusing at first, so here are some decoded to get your crew ready for the high seas.
Nautical Term Usage / Cruiser Usage
Aft - At or near the stern. - ”Do I ‘aft’ to do the dishes?”
Jib - triangular headsail set on a stay forward of the foremast. - ”What’s my ‘jib’ today, capt’n'?”
Winch - mechanical device, consisting usually of a metal drum turned by a handle, around which a line is wound to give the crew more “help” when tightening a line. ”What does that ole’ ‘winch’ want with my wallet?!”
Headway - Moving forward. -”What’s a ‘headway’?” - ”Oh, about 8 lbs.”
In Irons - To head into the wind and refuse to fall off. ”I got too much salt water ‘in-me-irons!’”
Tack - The lower forward corner of the sail, where the luff and the foot meet; also the diagonal made with the wind by a sailboat when ”We’ve got everything we need, I thinking we’re right on ‘tack’ to set sail.”
Beat - Sailing against the wind by tacking (sailing a zigzag course towards the wind). ”Who do I have to ‘beat’ around here for a drink?!”
AshoreOn land, opposite of on boat. ”Make ‘ashore’ all the hatches are close!”
HankFitting used to attach the luff of a sail to a stay. ”‘Hank’ you for helping me tie up to the dock!”
Dinghy - A small boat used to ferry people to a yacht; also used for sailing or rowing; also called a tender. ”Don’t be such a ‘dingy’, is the best sailing magazine around!” (Wink wink)
Falling off - Turn away from the direction of the wind. ”Make sure to tighten that bikini to keep if from ‘falling off’!”
Guy - Adjustable steadying rope of a boat’s rig. ”Well, would you look at that ‘guy’ and his fancy powerboat?”
CourseThe direction in which a vessel is steered, usually given in degrees. ”Of ‘course’ we should stay here another night!”
Beating to WindwardTo sail to windward close-hauled, tacking as you go, to reach an objective to windward. ”‘Windward’ there, will you let me know?!”
Cutter - Single-masted fore-and-aft boat having an inner staysail and outer jib. ”Make sure we dont ‘cutter’ loose too soon!”
Moor - To hold the ship in place with lines at a berth. ”What ‘moor’ can you ask for, then sunshine and wind in your face?!”
Port - The left-hand side of a boat, looking forward towards the bow (opposite of starboard). -”Let’s make ‘port’ here, when we’re done, I’ll have a glass of our best ‘port’!”-”Capt’n', we only have Boone’s Farm..”-”That’ll do.”
Telltales - Small lengths of wood sewn through a sail near the luff and leech to allow the air flow over the sail to be checked. ”You know they ‘tell-tales’ in these parts of Davey Jones and his locker… “
Step - A recess into which the fell of the mast is placed. ”Watch your ‘step’, the winds have picked up!”
Old Sailing Expression Origins
Dressing Down - Thin and worn sails were often treated with oil or wax to renew their
effectiveness. This was called "dressing down". An officer or sailor who was reprimanded or scolded received a dressing down.
Footloose - The bottom portion of a sail is called the foot. If it is not secured, it is footloose and it dances randomly in the wind.
Booby Hatch - Aboard ship, a booby hatch is a sliding cover or hatch that must be pushed away to allow access or passage.
First Rate - Implies excellence. From the 16th century on until steam powered ships took over, British naval ships were rated as to the number of heavy cannon they carried. A ship of 100 or more guns was a First Rate line-of-battle ship. Second rates carried 90 to 98 guns; Third Rates, 64 to 89 guns; Fourth Rates, 50 to 60 guns. Frigates carrying 20 to 48 guns were fifth and sixth rated.
Pipe Down - Means stop talking and be quiet. The Pipe Down was the last signal from the Boson's pipe each day which meant "lights out" and "silence".
Chock-a-block - Meaning something is filled to capacity or over loaded. If two blocks of rigging tackle were so hard together they couldn't be tightened further, it was said they were "Chock-a-Block".
Three Sheets to the Wind - A sheet is a rope line which controls the tension on the downwind side of a square sail. If, on a three masted fully rigged ship, the sheets of the three lower course sails are loose, the sails will flap and flutter and are said to be "in the wind". A ship in this condition would stagger and wander aimlessly downwind.
Pooped - The poop is the stern section of a ship. To be pooped is to be swamped by a high, following sea.
As the Crow Flies - When lost or unsure of their position in coastal waters, ships would release a caged crow. The crow would fly straight towards the nearest land thus giving the vessel some sort of a navigational fix. The tallest lookout platform on a ship came to be know as the crow's nest.
Buoyed Up - Using a buoy to raise the bight of an anchor cable to prevent it from chafing on a rough bottom.
By and Large - Currently means in all cases or in any case. From the nautical: by meaning into the wind and large meaning with the wind: as in, "By and Large the ship handled very well."
Cut and Run - If a captain of a smaller ship encountered a larger enemy vessel, he might decide that discretion is the better part of valor, and so he would order the crew to cut the lashings on all the sails and run away before the wind. Other sources indicate "Cut and Run" meant to cut the anchor cable and sail off in a hurry.
In the Offing - Currently means something is about to happen, as in - "There is a reorganization in the offing." From the 16th century usage meaning a good distance from shore, barely visible from land, as in - "We sighted a ship in the offing."
Skyscraper - A small triangular sail set above the skysail in order to maximize effect in a light wind.
The Bitter End - The end of an anchor cable is fastened to the bits at the ship's bow. If all of the anchor cable has been paid out you have come to the bitter end.
Toe the Line - When called to line up at attention, the ship's crew would form up with their toes touching a seam in the deck planking.
Back and Fill - A technique of tacking when the tide is with the ship but the wind is against it.
Overhaul - To prevent the buntline ropes from chaffing the sails, crew were sent aloft to haul them over the sails. This was called overhauling.
Slush Fund - A slushy slurry of fat was obtained by boiling or scraping the empty salted meat storage barrels. This stuff called "slush" was often sold ashore by the ship's cook for the benefit of himself or the crew. The money so derived became known as a slush fund.
Bear Down - To sail downwind rapidly towards another ship or landmark.
Under the Weather - If a crewman is standing watch on the weather side of the bow, he will be subject to the constant beating of the sea and the ocean spray. He will be under the weather.
Overreach - If a ship holds a tack course too long, it has overreached its turning point and the distance it must travel to reach it's next tack point is increased.
Gone By the Board - Anything seen to have gone overboard or spotted floating past the ship(by the board) was considered lost at sea.
Above Board - Anything on or above the open deck. If something is open and in plain view, it is above board.
Overwhelm - Old English for capsize or founder.
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea - The devil seam was the curved seam in the deck planking closest to the side of the ship and next to the scupper gutters. If a sailor slipped on the deck, he could find himself between the devil and the deep blue sea.
The Devil to Pay - To pay the deck seams meant to seal them with tar. The devil seam was the most difficult to pay because it was curved and intersected with the straight deck planking. Some sources define the "devil" as the below-the-waterline-seam between the keel and the the adjoining planking. Paying the Devil was considered to be a most difficult and unpleasant task.
Rummage Sale - From the French "arrimage" meaning ship's cargo. Damaged cargo was sold at a rummage sale.
A Square Meal - In good weather, crews' mess was a warm meal served on square wooden platters. The navy plebes eat their square meals by squaring their spoonfuls.
Overbearing - To sail downwind directly at another ship thus "stealing" or diverting the wind from his sails.
Taking the wind out of his sails - Sailing in a manner so as to steal or divert wind from another ship's sails.
Let the Cat Out of the Bag - In the Royal Navy the punishment prescribed for most serious crimes was flogging. This was administered by the Boson's Mate using a whip called a cat o' nine tails. The "cat" was kept in a leather or baize bag. It was considered bad news indeed when the cat was let out of the bag. Other sources attribute the expression to the old English market scam of selling someone a pig in a poke (bag) when the pig turned out to be a cat instead.
No Room to Swing a Cat - The entire ship's company was required to witness flogging at close hand. The crew might crowd around so that the Boson's Mate might not have enough room to swing his cat o' nine tails.
Start Over with a Clean Slate - A slate tablet was kept near the helm on which the watch keeper would record the speeds, distances, headings and tacks during the watch. If there were no problems during the watch, the slate would be wiped clean so that the new watch could start over with a clean slate.
Taken Aback - A dangerous situation where the wind is on the wrong side of the sails pressing them back against the mast and forcing the ship astern. Most often this was caused by an inattentive helmsman who had allowed the ship to head up into the wind.
At Loggerheads - An iron ball attached to a long handle was a loggerhead. When heated, it was used to seal the pitch in deck seams. It was sometimes a handy weapon for quarreling crewmen.
Fly-by-Night - A large sail used only for sailing downwind and requiring rather little attention.
No Great Shakes – Cooking on Safari When casks became empty they were "shaken" (taken apart) so the pieces, called shakes, could be stored in a small space. Shakes had very little value.
Give (someone) a Wide Berth - To anchor a ship far enough away from another ship so that they did not hit each other when they swung with the wind or tide.
Cut of His Jib - Warships many times had their foresails or jib sails cut thinly so that they could maintain point and not be blown off course. Upon sighting thin foresails on a distant ship a captain might not like the cut of his jib and would then have an opportunity to escape.
Press Into Service - The British navy filled their ships' crew quotas by kidnapping men off the streets and forcing them into service. This was called "impressments" because it was done by Press Gangs. Most assuredly, most impressed men did not feel impressed emotionally by this brutal tactic.
Touch and Go - This referred to a ship's keel touching the bottom and getting right off again.
filthy, smelly galley slaves
dirty galley slaving
clean and fresh galley
Sea Talk Nautical Dictionary~ A comprehensive nautical dictionary, complete with usage, examples suggesting good seamanship, images of ships and gear and a nautical blog.
Glossary of Nautical Terms ~ This is a partial glossary of nautical terms; some remain current, while many date from the 17th-19th century. Wiktionary's nautical terms ~ English terms relating to nautical topics.