From ancient times till today, boats, ships, etc. have served for transportation, military uses, and hauling cargo. Quite a few common phrases have nautical origins.
Boatload, for example, means how many passengers or how much cargo it takes to fill a boat or ship. Ships varied in size, of course, so boatload can’t have a precise meaning. Even a small ferry boat can hold more people than most of us would be interested in counting. At the very least, then, boatload means a lot.
But who needs a boat? We can talk about someone having a boatload of money or a boatload of homework. We can complain about a boatload of criticism or a boatload of needless rules. I hope you’ll enjoy this boatload of nautical phrase origins
Running out of steam and similar phrases
Robert Fulton invented the steamship. Soon enough, trains ran on steam engines. There was even an early automobile called the Stanley Steamer. All these engines required pressure from steam to move the machine. Running out of steam meant that the boiler had gone dry. The machine literally couldn’t move.
Unlike running out of steam, an engine with full steam could run very quickly and/or pull a heavy load. So full steam ahead has come to mean “with full enthusiasm.”
But if a steamship or train had to stop, too much steam building up in the boiler would cause it to explode. So it had to blow off steam as a safety valve. Metaphorically, people can blow off steam by complaining to friends rather than blowing up at whomever they’re really mad at. Children cooped up in a car for a long trip might like to get out and run around to blow off steam, too.
Most nautical phrases, however, appeared first in regard to sailing ships.
Samuel Johnson compared going to sea with prison, but the sea had the additional danger of drowning. The Royal Navy used to send press gangs to compel unwilling men to serve on a ship.
A large number of sailors pressed into service could present discipline problems. A ship’s officers had to make sure that the entire crew behaved in such a way to make the voyage as safe as possible.
Some unruly seamen could be at loggerheads and endanger others. “Loggerhead” has had several meanings over the centuries. One meaning in the 17thcentury was an iron ball with a long handle. On a ship, seamen heated the iron in order to seal pitch in deck seams. Sailors fighting each other might use the loggerheads as weapons instead.
The ship’s officers could order sailors to be flogged for serious offenses. The bosun’s mate would administer flogging with a whip called “cat o’ nine tails” kept in a bag when not in use. A thick rope was plaited from nine strands of yarn. In a cat o’ nine tails, a length of a rope was unraveled, with knots tied in each strand.
When an officer let the cat out of the bag, someone was in big trouble. (Another suggested source of this phrase: swindlers would put a cat in a poke bag and sell it as a piglet to someone who didn’t bother to investigate. The mark would inevitably let the cat out of the bag when he got home.)
Before a flogging, someone would tie the unfortunate sailor down, perhaps to a mast or over the barrel of one of the cannons on deck. The entire crew would witness a flogging. If they gathered very closely around the bosun’s mate, he would have no room to swing a cat.
Phrases about sails
Some terms originated as descriptions of sails or parts of sails. We think of a skyscraper as a tall building, but originally it meant a triangular sail atop a tall mast.
The jib sail, on the other hand, was set forward of all other sails. Its shape often signaled the ship’s nationality. The captain of another ship, seeing it, might not like the cut of his jib and try to stay away from it.
The bottom part of the mainsail, or foot, was usually lashed to a boom. That practice kept it properly shaped. Some ships, however, had no boom, meaning the foot was loose. The crew had trouble controlling a footloose sail. It had a mind of its own.
Some ships had sails they used only for sailing downwind. They required little attention and so came in handy in favorable weather when the crew was asleep below deck. No surprise, it was called fly by night.
If a careless helmsman allowed the ship to head into the wind, it put the wind on the wrong side of the sails and pushed the ship astern. The ship was taken aback.
Other nautical phrases
Who knows what people could do undetected down in the hold? But anything that happened on or above the open deck was plainly visible, or above board.
Foul weather made it hard to prepare and eat food. In good weather, the crew could enjoy a square meal, that is, a warm meal served on the standard naval square plate.
When lost or unsure of their position in coastal waters, ships would release a caged crow. The crow would fly straight towards the nearest land thus giving the vessel some sort of a navigational fix. The shortest distance to land, therefore, is as the crow flies. The tallest lookout platform on a ship came to be known as the crow’s nest.
Under certain conditions, women were allowed on ship. They might be either sailors’ wives or prostitutes. Infrequently, but often enough to be noticed, a woman would give birth on board. The space between the guns on deck provided a convenient place. If the woman was a sailor’s wife, her child was presumably his. In the case of a prostitute, no one could determine paternity. The ship’s log noted her baby as son of a gun.