As part of my research for my upcoming novel, Asunder, I came across the 1867 “The Sailor’s Word-Book: An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms, including some more especially military and scientific, but useful to seamen; as well as archaisms of early voyagers, etc. by the late ADMIRAL W. H. SMYTH, K.S.F., D.C.L., &c.” It’s a massive document, but below is a small gleaning; if you want more, check out my original posts on History Undusted here. It’s a fascinating insight into life and demands at sea in the 18th & 19th centuries, and gives a glimpse of just how many of our common idioms originated at sea; how dull our language might have been otherwise! I’ve also included a few odd ones that I think deserve revival!
ACCOMPANY, to. To sail together; to sail in convoy.
AVAST. The order to stop, hold, cease, or stay, in any operation: its derivation from the Italian basta is more plausible than have fast.
BADGER, to. To tease or confound by frivolous orders.
BALLARAG, to. To abuse or bully. Thus Warton of the French king— “You surely thought to ballarag us with your fine squadron off Cape Lagos.”
BAMBOOZLE, to. To decoy the enemy by hoisting false colours.
BEAT TO QUARTERS. The order for the drummer to summon everyone to his respective station.
BLOAT, to. To dry by smoke; a method latterly applied almost exclusively to cure herrings or bloaters.—Bloated is also applied to any half-dried fish.
BONE, to. To seize, take, or apprehend. A ship is said to carry a bone in her mouth and cut a feather, when she makes the water foam before her.
BOTCH, to. To make bungling work.
BULLYRAG, to. To reproach contemptuously, and in a hectoring manner; to bluster, to abuse, and to insult noisily. Shakspeare makes mine host of the Garter dub Falstaff a bully-rook.
BUNGLE, to. To perform a duty in a slovenly manner.
CLINCH A BUSINESS, to. To finish it; to settle it beyond further dispute, as the recruit taking the shilling (those who were impressed into the Royal Navy, if they took the pre-payment of one shilling, were forthwith considered volunteers).
COBBLE, to. To mend or repair hastily. Also, the coggle or cog.—Cobble or coggle stones, pebbly shingle, ballast-stones rounded by attrition, boulders, &c.
CORN, to. A remainder of the Anglo-Saxon ge-cyrned, salted. To preserve meat for a time by salting it slightly.
CUT AND RUN, to. To cut the cable for an escape. Also, to move off quickly; to quit occupation; to be gone.
EGG, to. To instigate, incite, provoke, to urge on: from the Anglo-Saxon eggion.
FLEATE, to. To skim fresh water off the sea, as practised at the mouths of the Rhone, the Nile, &c. The word is derived from the Dutch vlieten, to skim milk; it also means to float.
GEE, to. To suit or fit; as, “that will just gee.”
GUDDLE, to. To catch fish with the hands by groping along a stream’s bank.
HARASS, to. To torment and fatigue men with needless work.
HOLD-FAST. A rope; also the order to the people aloft, when shaking out reefs, &c., to suspend the operation. In ship-building, it means a bolt going down through the rough tree rail, and the fore or after part of each stanchion.
JIRK, to. To cut or score the flesh of the wild hog on the inner surface, as practised by the Maroons. It is then smoked and otherwise prepared in a manner that gives the meat a fine flavour.
KEEP YOUR LUFF. An order to the helmsman to keep the ship close to the wind, i.e. sailing with a course as near as possible to the direction from which the wind is coming. LUFF, or Loofe. The order to the helmsman, so as to bring the ship’s head up more to windward. Sometimes called springing a luff. Also, the air or wind. Also, an old familiar term for lieutenant. Also, the fullest or roundest part of a ship’s bows. Also, the weather-leech of a sail.
MAKE IT SO. The order of a commander to confirm the time, sunrise, noon, or sunset, reported to him by the officer of the watch.
PIPE DOWN! The order to dismiss the men from the deck when a duty has been performed on board ship.
STAND FROM UNDER! A notice given to those below to keep out of the way of anything being lowered down, or let fall from above.
TOE A LINE! The order to stand in a row.
KICK THE BUCKET, to. To expire; an inconsiderate phrase for dying.
KICK UP A DUST, to. To create a row or disturbance.
LET FLY, to. To let go a rope at once, suddenly.
MAN-HANDLE, to. To move by force of men, without levers or tackles.
MARINATE, to. To salt fish, and afterwards preserve it in oil or vinegar.
NAIL, to. Is colloquially used for binding a person to a bargain. In weighing articles of food, a nail is 8 lbs.
OVERSHOOT, to. To give a ship too much way.
PITCH IN, to. To set to work earnestly; to beat a person violently. (A colloquialism.)
RANSACK, to. To pillage; but to ransack the hold is merely to overhaul its contents.
SKEDADDLE, to. To stray wilfully from a watering or a working party. An archaism retained by the Americans.
SPIN A TWIST OR A YARN, to. To tell a long story; much prized in a dreary watch, if not tedious.
SUCK THE MONKEY, to. To rob the grog-can.
TOP THE GLIM, to. To snuff the candle.
TROUNCE, to. To beat or punish. Used as far back as the 1550s.
TURN A TURTLE, to. To take the animal by seizing a flipper, and throwing him on his back, which renders him quite helpless. Also applied to a vessel capsizing; or throwing a person suddenly out of his hammock.
TWIG, to. To pull upon a bowline. Also, in familiar phrase, to understand or observe.
WADE, to. An Anglo-Saxon word, meaning to pass through water without swimming. In the north, the sun was said to wade when covered by a dense atmosphere.
WALK SPANISH, to. To quit duty without leave; to desert.
WEATHER ONE’S DIFFICULTIES, to. A colloquial phrase meaning to contend with and surmount troubles.
WHISTLE FOR THE WIND, to. A superstitious practice among old seamen, who are equally scrupulous to avoid whistling during a heavy gale.—To wet one’s whistle. To take a drink. Thus Chaucer tells us that the miller of Trumpington’s lady had “Hir joly whistle wel ywette.”
WORK DOUBLE-TIDES, to. Implying that the work of three days is done in two, or at least two tides’ work in twenty-four hours.
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