We often use these words and phrases without knowing that their origins are traceable to seamen. Here are some of them.
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 known as the crow’s nest.
Leeway -The weather side of a ship is the side from which the wind is blowing. The Lee side is the side of the ship sheltered from the wind. A lee shore is a shore that is downwind of a ship. If a ship does not have enough “leeway” it is in danger of being driven onto the shore.
Windfall –A sudden unexpected rush of wind from a mountainous shore which allowed a ship more leeway.
Over the Barrel -The most common method of punishment aboard ship was flogging. The unfortunate sailor was tied to a grating, a mast or over the barrel of a deck cannon.
To Know the Ropes –There were miles and miles of cordage in the rigging of a square rigged ship. The only way of keeping track of and knowing the function of all of these lines was to know where they were located. It took an experienced seaman to know the ropes.
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 48 to 20 guns were fifth and sixth rated.
Pipe Down -Means stop talking and be quiet. The Pipe Down was the last signal from the Bosun’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”.
Groggy -In 1740, British Admiral Vernon (whose nickname was “Old Grogram” for the cloak of grogram which he wore) ordered that the sailors’ daily ration of rum be diluted with water. The men called the mixture “grog”. A sailor who drank too much grog was “groggy”.
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.
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.”