PRB Articles


Dang Those Words - Again

I was listening to the “Margaritaville” channel on XM radio the other day and a song came on entitled “Coasting” by a band whose name I can’t recall and I can’t even remember any words; anyway, the important thing here is that it got me wondering where that term, “coasting,” came from.

 Yes, I wonder these things as I drive sometimes and it can be dangerous, but this further got me thinking again about the origin of words and phrases that we all use regularly.

It amazes me how often I find myself, or other people, using terminology that has become common in our language but that actually had a start somewhere; sometime, somebody said it first.

I haven’t been able to pin down “coasting” yet, so if any Week-Enders have a clue, please let me know because it’s driving me crazy. I’ve seen several references to a term used when you are trying to save gas so you “coast” along. In some references, it stretches back to the birth of our nation, when it was used to describe the action of a sled going downhill.

Here’s another one. I’ll bet most people have used the term “above board” in reference to someone having nothing to hide. This actually has a nautical origin. Back in the days of wooden ships, if a ship’s captain wanted to deceive would-be attackers he would keep most of his crew below the top deck. Thus, if someone was scoping them out it would appear they were weakly-manned, giving them the surprise advantage if attacked.

Speaking of “scoping out,” I’d guess it has nautical derivation stemming from use of periscopes, which no doubt led to modern slang usage meaning to check out someone or something somewhat clandestinely.

Staying with the nautical theme, here’s one we all use: scuttlebutt. In modern terms, it means the type of “news” that gets passed word-of-mouth around the water fountain or coffee pot.  However, it has a very real meaning.

 In olden ships, a “butt” was a barrel. Scuttle meant to cut a hole in something. The “scuttlebutt” was a water barrel with a hole cut in the top so sailors had to reach in and dip out the water, thus helping to ration it; this also seemed to be the place where ship’s gossip was disseminated as sailors waited to get water.

I like this nautical theme; it makes me think maybe spring is near, so I’ll stay with it.

How about “skyscraper?” I’d guess most people would think it was a new term that came into play when man began building tall buildings. Indeed not, and any of you who sail probably know this one. The “skyscraper” is a triangular sail that is set above the “skysail” to properly catch a light, favorable wind. Anybody who has stood on top of a very tall building will attest to the fact that sometimes they also sway with the wind--are they supposed to do that?

“Slush fund” is one that those of you dealing with all the snow this year might think means the money you save to have somebody come and shovel all the slush from your drive; actually, that’s close. In old nautical terms, it was money that was collected by the ship’s cook for the “slush,” or watery food that was left over and he later sold.

Has anybody had a “square meal” lately? If so, you share something with sailors of old. Back in the day, in good weather, the crews’ mess was a warm meal served on square wooden platters.

Ah, the term “mess,” which to anyone who has been in the military will bring back fond memories of gastrological experiences--some good, some not. Early French and earlier Latin usage meant roughly several people sharing a meal. In warships, a dozen or so men would sit at one table and were served from the same dishes--this was one “mess” and those who shared the meal were “messmates.” Now, men and women in the armed services eat at “mess halls.”

Does anybody have a “loose cannon” at work? If so, it’s probably similar to what the sailors of yesteryear experienced if one of their thousand pound cannons broke loose from its tie-downs onto a pitching, rolling and yawing deck. This could cause severe injury or death and damage; much like the loose cannon in our lives.

Some of you may work in cubicles or office space so cramped that you have “no room to swing a cat.” Fear not, no animals were harmed in the writing of this missive. On ships-of-the-line when punishment was doled out, it was done on deck with all hands there to bear witness, which could make for a very crowded deck. So much so that the “cat o’ nine tails,” or whip, could not be swung around to execute the punishment without hitting innocent bystanders.

Punishment for ancient mariners was a way of life since discipline on a ship was paramount, so sailors often found themselves “over the barrel;” while we may find that a figurative term these day, for them, it was literal. Flogging with the “cat o’ nine tails” was the status quo punishment and to keep the recipient in one place, the unfortunates were often tied down “over a barrel”--barbaric, but true.

Now here’s one you’ll be amazed with; when something is imminently going to happen we say it is “in the offing.” This term was said of a ship that was visible at sea but just “off the land.” In the days of tall ships, the “offing” was the sea just off shore and it was where wives, girlfriends and families awaited their sailors as they came in sight.

Perhaps at the last office Christmas party someone had way too much spiked punch and got “three sheets to the wind.” In sailor parlay, that had to do with losing control of the “three sheets” that are used to control the sails. Lose control of the sheets and you lose control of the ship; sort of like that office party.

Well I could go on and on with this, but I don’t want to “swamp” you or “take the wind out of your sails.” I certainly don’t want to be accused of “skylarking” or “going overboard.” So I’ll cease with all this “flotsam and jetsam” and give you a chance.

Do any Week-Enders have some pithy nautical (or other) everyday terms that harken back to some surprising beginning?  Share them here, “fish or cut bait,” but don’t “cross the line” and spend too much work time at this, or you’ll likely be “keelhauled.”

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Beaufort, S.C.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.

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