Toe the Line and Blow Me Down

Song of the Day: Blow Me Away by Breaking Benjamin

Continuing the fun of the Mutiny of the Heart release, here are some phrases and idioms that you might be surprised to learn are nautical in origin. To stave off wordsmith referees calling foul, my disclaimer is not all etymologists agree with the derivation of each term. However, some are backed by centuries of documentation, while others seem plausible in their own right. Either way, it’s fun and interesting.

  • Bitter End – to the end no matter what. A bitt is a wood or iron post on the deck used for fastening ropes (and cables). The bitter end is the free end of a rope. Often the working end of the rope is for anchors. So, say you drop anchor and pay out the rope, using all the rope until the bitter end. Yeah, um, does this boat have brakes?
  • Devil and the Deep Blue Sea – in a precarious situation. The devil is a long seam that runs the length of a ship between the deck and the topmost plank of the hull. From time to time this seam would need to be caulked (with pitch). It was one of the most dangerous duties on board as the crewman were often hung over the ship of the moving vessel to do the task, leaving him hanging between the devil and the deep blue sea.dreamstimefree_120703
  • Flotsam and Jetsam – odds and ends. Flotsam (floatsome) are goods likely from a wreckage floating in the sea. Jetsam are items deliberately thrown overboard (jettisoned) to make a vessel more stable out of circumstance.
  • Footloose – carefree, acting without commitment. The bottom of a sail is called the foot. If the foot becomes free, it flaps (or dances 😀 ) wildly about in the wind. Are you picturing a rebellious Kevin Bacon swinging across a yardarm and dancing across the deck? Yeah, me too.
  • Jury Rig – an improvised repair. It was a temporary fix to keep a disabled ship sailing.
  • No Room to Swing a Cat – crowded. Back in the day, when someone was getting punished for gross misconduct or deed, they were flogged. A lot of the time, the whipping was carried out using a cat o’ nine (a leather whip with nine knotted lashes). It was required by the entire crew to witness the punishment, but with everyone standing around, it was hard to swing the cat.
  • Over a barrel – helpless. Oops. Someone screwed up and got themselves on the receiving end of a flogging. Punishment could be carried out while the unlucky jack was tied to a mast or barrel of a gun (cannon). This is also where the term kissing the gunner’s (or captain’s) daughter comes from. *cue song What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor*
  • Pooped – to be tired. The highest deck on the aft of the ship is known as the poop deck. When high following seas swamped or washed over the ship it was pooped. Makes staying afloat and sailing tough. Getting washed overboard during a storm might make you poop in your breeches, too. Just sayin’.
  • Scuttlebutt – gossiper/rumor. A butt is a barrel. To scuttle is to hack a hole into something. So a scuttlebutt was a water barrel with the top chopped off. Crewmen dipped their cups and ladles into the barrel for a drink. And just like the office water cooler, the ship’s low down was discussed on the down low.
  • Shanghai – tricking someone. It wasn’t uncommon to get someone drunk or deceive them in some other unsavory manner into boarding a ship lacking a crew for some very long journey, oh say, like to the Orient.
  • Son of a gun – an expression of surprise; reference to a rascal. My favorite idiom. Being at sea for long periods of time makes a man, well, horny. While in port, women were often brought on board for a release, er, fling. Space on ships were limited and without much privacy, and, well, between the guns (cannons) provided just enough room for a rollicking good time. It also provided a good space for bearing a child.  So, a kiddo conceived and/or born on the gun decks of a ship and/or with questionable paternity were noted in the ship’s log as a son of a gun.

 There are many more I intentionally left off. I bet you can name a few. Let’s hear them.

MutinyoftheHeartDraft1 (1)Don’t forget to order your copy of Mutiny of the Heart!

Buy links:

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Navigating the high seas as the female captain of a pirate ship means always being on your guard—especially when one takes a temptingly handsome slave on board.







9 Responses to Toe the Line and Blow Me Down

  1. Yo Ho Ho and all that whatnot!!
    I’m so in awe of all the research that has to go into writing historical books. Hours and hours must be spent pouring over web sites reading about life back in the day.


  2. jbrayweber says:

    I spent several hours yesterday doing research for the next book, Stacey. I love it!


  3. Great post. Love learning about stuff like this!


  4. jbrayweber says:

    Thanks, Susanne. I have a part two of this post coming on the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood blog coming July 2nd with more fun terms.


  5. jeff7salter says:

    great stuff


  6. jbrayweber says:

    Thanks, salty dog, er, I mean, Jeff.


  7. Whew! For a minute when I saw the title I was a bit…unsure…but yes this is great and I love learning things like this too!


  8. jbrayweber says:

    And THAT is why I chose the title. Your curiosity won out. HA!


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