Nautical terms in everday use

We have spent many a happy hour during sailing holidays with friends coming up with terms, originally nautical, in everyday use. Some were obvious, some (to me anyway) not quite so obvious. I thought I’d research a few to see where they came from.

I did start putting some of them up on this blog, but they seem to have got lost somewhere in the Bay of Biscay so I will reconstruct and add to them over time.

Incidentally, I found a great website that has all kinds of expressions and their derivations, so I may borrow heavily from that, as well as from one of my favourite reference books, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

Here’s the list so far; any suggestions gratefully accepted:

All hands on deck
Bitter end
Even keel
Heeled over
Leading light
Taken aback
Three sheets to the wind

The bitter end: it sounds like it could be related to bitter irony or something like that. Apparently it comes from the anchor chain, or rope, which was attached to the anchor at one end and to bitts, or posts fastened to the deck. Once you had let out all the rope there was nowhere to go.

Taken aback: Which I was to discover that it was originally ships that were taken aback. ‘Aback’, which once meant ‘to the rear’. If the wind changed suddenly, the sails on a ship would be blown flat against the mast.

Three sheets to the wind: I did that one a while ago but that was part of the text that got lost in the Bay of Biscay. It means drunk, about as drunk as you can get.

The sheet is the rope attached to the lower end of a sail, and if it is loose it is in the wind and the sail flaps around; one sail and the boat will be unsteady, two, even more so, and three sheets to the wind would cause the boat to reel around like a drunken sailor.

According to Dickens in Dolby and Son, “Captain Cuttle looking, candle in hand, at Bunsby more attentively, perceived that he was three sheets in the wind, or, in plain words, drunk.”

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