More Nautical Sayings and Phrases
All at sea – in a state of confusion. In the days of sail before navigational aids, boats out of sight of land, or having lost their bearings, were in an unknown position and in danger.
By and large – on the whole, or generally speaking. In the days of sail “large” was a term describing the wind when it was blowing from a point behind the ship’s direction of travel. When this favourable “large” wind was blowing the “largest” sails could be set and the boat could travel downwind. “By” is a nautical term meaning “in the direction of”….eg “by the wind” means to face more or less into the wind. It could be that to sail “by and large” meant the ability to sail not only with the wind but also against it. However, another theory is that to steer a course “by and large” was to keep slightly off the wind, so there was less need for constant adjustment in steering direction.
Dead in the water – not going anywhere or brought to a halt. A ship that was “dead in the water” had no wind in its sails to make it come alive and was therefore not able to move forward.
Foot loose – free to do as one pleases (maybe romantically unattached). The lower edge of the mainsail is called the “foot”. If this is not attached it will hang or fly free and be much more difficult to control.
Go by the board – finished with (thrown or lost overboard). The “board” is the side or the decking of the ship. The phrase could refer to things that went over the side or that merely fell on the deck.
Grog or Groggy – a ration of alcohol or the state of drinking too much. In 1740 Vice Admiral Sir Edward Vernon issued a decree that the sailors’ daily ration of half a pint of rum should be diluted with an equal amount of water. The sailors referred to the Vice Admiral as “Old Groggy” because of the impressive Grogram cloak which he wore on deck. Hence the disdainful nickname of “grog” was given to their watered down drink. Sailors who drank too much were referred to as “groggy”.
Let the cat out of the bag – disclose a secret. This refers to the cat o’ nine tails, a whip made of rope with nine unbraided strands at the end, used to flog sailors. The “cat” refers to the scratches and wounds the sailors would incur from the flogging. The “cat” was kept in a bag and when it was brought out there was obviously going to be trouble ahead.
No room to swing a cat – a very confined space. When a sailor was punished by flogging with the “cat o’ nine tails”, the whole ship’s company was required to witness it. The deck became very crowded and there was sometimes “no room to swing a cat”.
William L. Gills aka Bos'n Bill, webmaster of this site, is the author of the book Lubber's log, published by Llumina Press; a boating journal and adventure story of the author's first time experiences in the preparation, maintenance and piloting of a new, unfamiliar boat. You can visit his website here. Lubber's Log