We English-speakers use a language that developed on an island nation. People who live on islands develop special relationships with the sea. Many of our expressions and metaphors came from the sea, though many of us no longer know from where they arose.
We should start with the letter “a” because a surprising number of words beginning with that letter trace their origins to the sea.
Some people are described as aloof. It means haughty or standing above others socially or emotionally. In the year 1530, it meant “to windward” and indicated that a ship should keep its bow facing the wind, which is particularly important when dealing with the possibility of being blown ashore. Thus, it came to mean standing off at a distance, and from that, distant personalities.
William F. Buckley once defined a conservative as “someone who stands athwart history and cries ‘stop.’” To be athwart is to be sideways. In nautical terms, it meant crossing the line of another ship’s progress.
To go aboard an airplane, train or ship is to cross over inside. “Board” has several senses, but the nautical one is akin to “border.” We still use words like “inboard” and “outboard” to describe boat engines. “Starboard” was originally the side of the earliest ships steered by an oar or rudder. Since most people are right handed, it means the right side of the ship facing forward.
“Larboard” was the left side of the ship, where in port it was loaded. The two words could be hard to distinguish over the din of storm or battle, so the word “port” was substituted. Someone who’s had too much rum might be said to be listing (leaning) to port.
In the age of sail, ships were more often captured than sunk. A boarding party was necessary to accomplish this. If a ship was attacked by superior forces while at anchor, the crew would use axes to cut the anchor cable so they could escape. This was to cut and run.
Sometimes we hear of people keeling over. In nautical terms, that meant the ship had overturned. The keel is the vertical structure on the hull that allows a sailing ship to tack into the wind. If it is showing, that’s a disaster.
Another disaster could occur if a ship were waterlogged. This means that it has taken on so much water in the holds that the setting sail would shift the center of gravity, capsizing it. The only recourse was to pump out the water or to abandon ship.
“The full nine yards” seems to have originated with the structure of full-sized sailing vessels, which had three masts, each with three yardarms horizontally. To set sails for maximum speed is to employ the full nine yards.
“To learn the ropes” is literally to know the names and functions of the ship’s rigging. In the wonderful nautical novels by Patrick O’Brian, each rope is named by its function.
“To let the cat out of the bag” is to get out the cat-of-nine-tails, a whip, to enforce corporal punishment on a crew.
Scuttlebutt is gossip. It originated in the butt, or barrel, of drinking water on deck with a hole (scuttle) for inserting a dipper. To scuttle a ship is to sink it deliberately. In 1919, some 74 ships of the German High Seas Fleet were scuttled to prevent their being seized by the Royal Navy.
One of the first columns I wrote for this newspaper was about words with a nautical source. I thought it might be time for another cruise.