Monday, January 30, 2012

Beach Tale: Idioms with Nautical Origins

          Have you ever heard the phrase, “Not enough room to swing a cat?”  Don’t ask me why, but my mom used to say it a lot.  And since it’s a universal truth that as we sound more like our mothers as we age, I muttered it the other day when complaining about how cluttered the basement had become. 
My son asked, “What does that mean?”
I explained my childhood interpretation of the phrase, where you grab a cat (I envisioned our seal point Siamese, Punchy) by the tail and swing it around the room, knocking over lamps and pictures and whatever other knickknacks are within the cat’s circumference.    
“That’s crazy,” my son said.
So in my effort to prove myself right, I did a Google search.  Guess what?  (And I’m admitting this publicly here…) I was wrong.  And to further my surprise, I learned the phrase had a nautical origin.  Additional research showed a lot of common terms have ties to Navy traditions.  Here are a few, gleaned from Traditions of the Navy by Cedric W. Windas, copyright 1942:

Not room to swing a cat:  This phrase, descriptive of any very cramped quarters, was coined in an era when it was often customary to flog men in the ship’s brig.  If the brig was too small to allow the sergeant-at-arms full play for his cat-o’-nine-tails, the culprit would be taken on deck and there punished for his misdeeds. 

When my ship comes in:  This phrase meaning “if and when I make my fortune” was coined in the days when seafaring adventurers would send their fleets along the Mediterranean and African coasts in search of rich cargoes.  First they would have to go to the money-lenders, in order to finance the venture.  As it was impossible to set an exact date for the fleet’s return, they would sign documents promising to replay the loans “When my ship comes in.”
Took the wind out of his sails:  Here’s an expression by which we describe besting an opponent in some argument.  Originally it was a maneuver by which one vessel would pass close to windward of another, thereby blanketing the breeze from the other’s canvas and making him lose way.  The term itself is picturesque and its meaning essentially practical. 
Blue Monday:  The term came into being as early as the 18th century.  It originated because of an old custom aboard ships, whereby a man’s misdeeds were logged daily, and the culprit flogged weekly on the following Monday.
Dutch Courage:  Sland term for bolstered heroism.  It was coined to describe a custom of the old Netherlands Navy, when it was common practice to sere schnapps or gin to the gun crews of fighting ships prior to engaging in battle.
Shanghaied:  Just in case you didn’t know it, the term originated in the Chinese port of Shanghai.  Here, masters of American tea-clippers delayed for want of crews, would pay the Chinese owners of dives where drunken sailors were carousing, to slip drugs into the seamen’s drinking glasses and hustle the unconscious sailors aboard the waiting ships. 

     As Jimmy Durante used to say, "I've got a million of 'em."  So stay tuned to future blogposts where we'll discuss more prhases that have Navy origins.   


Patricia said...

I love words and finding their origins. I found this interesting and, of course, never knew any of these expressions had nautical origins.
Thank you.

Julie Glover said...

Oh, you gotta know that I LOVE this kind of stuff, Jayne. Fascinating! I knew the etymology of only a couple of these terms. The rest were new to me. Thanks for sharing them.

The Blue Monday one was know, ouch.

Tara said...

This is a very neat list: fun to read and great to learn from. I had not realized most of these true origins. Thanks for compiling the list for your readers!