Brainy, Cocktail Chatter, MISS University

WORD! Cranky? Groggy? The Origins of These and Other Nautical Words

June 13, 2012

Heading to the yacht club soon? Well neither are we, but in case you’re invited, it’s good to know the origin of some common words with nautical origins… Try these at your next cocktail party – Some are obvious like, man over board, but a few -like cranky and groggy may surprise you.

This traditional greeting for hailing other vessels was originally a Viking battle cry.

Aye, Aye
Aye is old English for “yes.”   The seaman’s reply “Aye aye, sir,” means, “I understand and I will obey.”

From the 17th century, it described the Spanish custom of hoisting false flags to deceive (bamboozle) enemies.

Bitter End
The end of the anchor line secured to a sturdy post on the deck called a  bitt. The line was paid out in order to set the anchor. However, if the water was deeper than anticipated the rope would pay out to the bitter end . . . ooops.

Blind Eye
In 1801, during the Battle of Copenhagen, Admiral Nelson deliberately held his telescope to his blind eye, in order not to see the flag signal from the commander to stop the bombardment. He won. Turning a blind eye means to ignore intentionally.

Boot Camp
During the Spanish-American War, sailors wore leggings called boots, which came to mean a Navy (or Marine) recruit. These recruits trained in ‘boot’ camps.

Chewing the Fat
Literally, eating the seaman’s daily ration of tough, salt-cured pork or beef. Long before refrigeration, cured meats were tough but durable and it took a lot of chewing to make them edible. Has come to mean a friendly conversation (or talking too much, depending who’s talking).

Clean Slate
Prior to GPS and onboard computers, courses and distances were recorded on a slate. At the end of each watch these were transcribed into the ship’s log and the slate wiped clean for the next watch. Has come to mean starting anew.

Coxswain (pronounced cocks’n)
A coxswain was the helmsman of a ship’s boat. Originally, small boats carried on ships were known as cockboats or ‘cocks’, from whence the term derived. With the passing of time the coxswain became the helmsman of any boat, regardless of size.

Possibly from the Dutch krengd, a crank was an unstable sailing vessel. Due to a faulty design, the imbalance of her cargo, or a lack of ballast, a crank would heel too far to the wind. Has come to mean irritable.

Deep Six
A fathom, the unit of measurement in most maritime countries for the depth of the sea, is six feet. Sailors used the term to refer to throwing something overboard and it has come to mean getting rid of something.

Doldrums, In the Doldrums
Between the tradewinds of the northern and southern hemisphere lies an area of calm winds, close to the equator, called the doldrums. Since sailing vessels relied upon the wind, a trip through the doldrums was often long, hot and boring.

Flotsam and Jetsam
These are legal terms in maritime law. Flotsam is any part of the wreckage of a ship or her cargo that is lost by accident and found floating on the surface of the water. Jetsam are goods or equipment deliberately thrown overboard (jettisoned) to make the ship more stable in high winds or heavy seas. (Lagan are goods cast overboard with a rope attached so that they may be retrieved and sometimes refers to goods remaining inside a sunken ship or lying on the bottom.) The term flotsam and jetsam shore-side means odds and ends of no great value.

Grog, Groggy
Rum diluted with water. Brandy was part of a sailor’s daily rations in the Royal Navy until the conquest of Jamaica in 1687 when rum replaced it. In 1740, Admiral Vernon decided his fleet got a little too much rum and issued an order to have the daily ration of one pint of rum diluted with water. Since Vernon’s nickname was ‘Old Grogram’ because of the material out of which his (apparently rather ostentatious) ‘boat cloak’ was made. The watered down rum immediately became known as grog. Groggy is what happens to you when you indulge in it (even watered down).

For the complete list go to

You Might Also Like