Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The one where I talk like an ol' sea dog

Tall ship So, yesterday I had a doctor's appointment  and when he asked me how I was feeling I told him I was trying to 'get back on an even keel'.

He really pounced on that phrase. He loved its imagery: the idea of a ship that was sailing unevenly and off course - and wondered why I'd chosen a nautical phrase to describe how I was feeling.

No secret really, I come from a long line of sea dogs (my brother, Dad, and grandfathers on both sides were all in the Royal or merchant navy) and as Britain has a long history as a seafaring nation it's no wonder we use these nautical expressions, sometimes without even knowing.

These ones are pretty obvious, and haven't we all sailed close to the wind at some point? (And been three sheets to the wind too?) :

All hands on deck   /  All above board   /  Let the cat out of the bag  /  batten down the hatches  / the calm before the storm  /  a clean bill of health  /  three sheets to the wind   /  sailing close to the wind

Anyway, going back to my doctor's appointment I also mentioned that I was feeling guilty about taking time off work, and was worried people would think I was 'swinging the lead'.  Turns out that's also a nautical phrase, although I didn't know it at the time.

There are too many to choose from but here's a couple of other, less obvious, commonly used nautical expressions.

No room to swing a cat - We've all been somewhere that's crowded, or too small for its purpose. But in the old sea-faring days all hands were called on deck to bear witness when punishments were given out. In the case of a ship with a big crew this could make for a very crowded deck, making it difficult to use the cat o' nine tails without hitting the observers so that there was 'no room to swing a cat'. 

In the doldrums - These days if we say we're in the doldrums it means we're a bit fed up, but the Doldrums is actually a region of calm winds, just north of the equator where two trade winds meet and neutralise each other. Sailing ships tend to get stuck there and make little progress. Sounds familiar.

I like the cut of his jib - Okay, okay, not a commonly used phrase but c'mon it should be! It's fantastic, and yes I've used it in the past to describe an attractive man, as in "ooh, I like the cut of his jib." It means to like the outward appearance, as the 'jib' was the front-facing sail on a ship and the first thing other ships could see. Crews had to make quick decisions about the unknown, oncoming ships based on the look and 'cut of the jib'.

I'm bringing it back - who's with me?