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Old Sea Sayings

Prentice K. Stout

The men of the sailing ship era, whether or not they knew it (and they probably didn't) left us a rich heritage of sayings that give us an insight into the strict discipline of shipboard life.  They also tell us something about their way of life.  Here are some that we use frequently but very likely don't know where they came from.

Blue Monday Sailors who were guilty of wrongdoings had these charged against them in the Captain's daily log book.  Punishment was administered on Monday - a "Blue Monday" indeed.  Oftentimes the punishment did not fit the crime and seems overly harsh to us.
Let the Cat out of the Bag Today this expression usually means that you have said something to someone that you should have kept to yourself.  In the days when sails ruled the oceans such an expression brought fear to even the strongest sailor.   The sailor would have been guilty of a crime that would have brought out the whip, or "cat-o'-nine-tails," from its bag, and a brutal whipping would be administered.
Carried Away Today you might get so angry that you get "carried away," or become out of control.  In sailing days, this expression meant that some piece of rigging had broken and was "carried away."
The Bitter End Nowadays we hold on "to the bitter end."  In sailing language, the "bitts" were vertical wooden beams through which the anchor cables passed.  If all the ship's cables were run out, the small amount that remained on board was referred to as "the bitter end."
Long Shot "Not by a long shot" had its origins in naval warfare.  Cannons employed in those days had an effective range of less than 50 yards.  Thus anything in excess of this distance was considered "a long shot."
Windfall Blessed is the person who comes into a "windfall," or unexpected sum of money.  In sailing ship days, the Royal Navy reserved large tracts of land in Great Britain that had tall, straight trees for boat construction and for masts.  If one tree blew down, however, the manager of this land could claim it for his own.  A good bit of fortune or "a windfall" for him.
Posh This is a term used today to denote the best accommodations.  Aboard the British P&O vessels that sailed between India and Britain and through the stifling Red Sea it was advisable to have a cabin that was on the shaded side of the ship.  These were the highly prized cabins and the ones for which you paid extra.  Thus, for the additional fee, your ticket was stamped "POSH" and meant "Port-Out, Starboard Home."
High and Dry To be "high and dry" these days probably means that you feel out of your element.  In sailing terms it means pretty much the same thing.  A ship that was beached for repairs was said to be "high and dry" when the tide went out and allowed workers to repair the bottom.
Aboveboard A person who deals honestly is said to be "aboveboard."  When pirates sailed the seas, they had a rather sneaky practice of keeping many of their crew below decks.  Thus, when a merchant ship loaded with treasure caught sight of a pirate ship, only a few crew members would be visible.  The pirate vessel could then capture the luckless ship by employing their below-decks crew.  Honest captains kept their crew "above board."s
A-1 Nowadays this expression denotes the very best.  Lloyd's of London, the world-famous insurance firm, adopted this expression to show that its vessels were A - in superior condition in regard to the ship's hull - and 1 - in the best condition regarding the gear.
Hands Off An expression that comes to us from the earliest period of sailing vessels.  Sailors were considered a rough group of men, and were not permitted to have weapons except when in combat.  The one exception to this was a knife that was part of every sailor's kit bag.  But should that sailor draw his knife in anger against another man, British Admiralty law dealt harshly with him - the man would lose his hand.
At Loggerheads Today this term means a strained relationship between two individuals.  In sailing terms, "the loggerhead" was a tool used to spread hot pitch (tar) in the seams between the planks of a vessel.   It was a hot and dangerous job, and the sailor's tempers were short.  Fights would break out and - you guessed it - the tool that was used was the loggerhead.

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