Nautical terms and phrases in English
Ahoy, me hearties! When I plumbed the hidden depths of the nautical origins of common English words and phrases last year, I dredged up a treasure chest brimful of material, more than enough for the post I was writing at the time. With thoughts of summer holidays uppermost in many of our minds right now, perhaps including plans to be beside the seaside or afloat on the briny, it seems an opportune moment to revisit this absorbing topic. Please join me on another cruise of discovery through the waters of our linguistic maritime heritage. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum purely optional!
to cut and run
The government would not hear of possible defeat; we would never cut and run.
I considered just cutting and running, but a sense of guilt made me stick it out.
If you cut and run, it means that you make a swift exit from a tricky situation rather than remaining to deal with it. Nowadays, it’s all about taking the easy way out, rather than manning up and seeing things through.
In the age of sail, however, a captain’s options were limited if a more powerful enemy ship was spotted while his own vessel lay at anchor. If the situation was urgent and staying put would lead to loss of life and his ship, a captain might decide that it was more prudent to cut the anchor cable (leaving the anchor in the seabed rather than taking the time to haul it back on board), and run, living to fight another day. Clearly, the verb to run in this case has nothing to do with moving your legs very fast, but relates to a boat sailing fast and directly before the wind (that is, with the wind blowing from the stern).
Cut and run, currently first recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in the early 18th century, gradually moved from purely nautical use into the wider language in the 19th century: today, all associations with abandoned anchors are as unseen as the anchors themselves.
To describe someone as aloof is to say that their manner towards other people isn’t warm, approachable, or friendly – they prefer to keep others at a distance:
She was cold and aloof, barely acknowledging that he was in the room.
Aloof can also mean that someone chooses to remain clearly uninvolved in a particular sphere of activity:
I have kept aloof from politics and haven’t even voted since I joined the police.
This adjective’s origins stem from an Old French word, lof, which gave us the English nautical term luff. Today, luff has two main meanings: as a verb, it means ‘‘to steer a boat in a windward direction’’ and as a noun, it refers to the edge of a fore-and-aft sail next to the mast or stay.
Returning to aloof, this word began life as an adverb, meaning ‘away and to windward’, and formed from a- (expressing direction to or towards something) and luff. In the mid-16th century, a sailor being ordered to keep aloff or aloofe would therefore steer the ship’s bows as close as possible towards the wind, so as to keep clear of a lee shore, towards which the ship might be blown and even run aground: not a desirable situation. From this usage arose the more general sense ‘‘at a distance’’, first appearing (according to OED research) very soon after the literal meaning, in the 1540s.
Today, this adjective means ‘crammed full with people or things’ (the narrow roads are chock-a-block with vehicles).
Chock derives from chock-full, a Middle English word of unknown origin meaning ‘very full’. It rhymes nicely with the block in question, more fully known as a pulley block, part of a block and tackle. This is a device much used on boats and elsewhere to make lifting heavy weights less demanding. Since such things are far easier to illustrate than to describe, here’s a picture of a simple block and tackle, consisting of ropes (the tackle), pulley blocks, and a hook:
You haul on the single rope to lift the load. If the two pulley blocks run so close together so that they touch each other, this means that the limit of hoisting has been reached: seamen used to describe this as being chock-a-block. This nautical usage is first recorded in 1840 (hauling the reef-tackles chock-a-block); the more general senses of being jammed or crammed close together, or being crammed full of people or things, developed in the late 19th century.
to swing the lead
I hate the implication that I’m swinging the lead – I’m a devoted teacher who wants to get back to work.
If someone accuses you of swinging the lead, they’re saying that you’re avoiding work or failing to do your duty, especially by claiming to be unwell: you’re a lazy malingerer, to put it bluntly! This British informal idiom is first found in the Army slang of the First World War, but it has a possible connection to the vital activity of depth-sounding (measuring the depth of water between a ship and the seabed or river bottom) in the days before sonar transformed the procedure.
The Oxford Companion to the Sea is my guide here. A lead was a large lump of lead suspended from a rope (a lead line). This weight was cast or heaved (these phrases are well-evidenced from Middle English onwards) by the leadsman over the side of the ship and came to rest on the seabed. The lead line had markers (knots or different textured materials) so that it was easy to gauge by touch alone how many fathoms of water the ship was floating in, and the captain would thus ensure that his vessel didn’t run aground.
The lead was very heavy – anything from 9 to 32 pounds (for deep-water sounding) – so you can imagine that this task, which often had to be undertaken frequently if a ship were in shallow water, was pretty demanding, especially in rough weather: rather them than me, judging from the illustration below!
The problem with linking this phrase to depth-sounding lies in the fact that to swing the lead isn’t recorded (as far as we know) in any nautical word-books or similar maritime sources: as mentioned above, it first appears as early 20th century Army slang. Authorities such as World Wide Words have suggested that either soldiers mistakenly regarded the leadsman’s job as an easy one, or that there may have been times when the leadsman, instead of dropping the weight right to the seabed, would shirk his duty and just ‘swing’ it over the ship’s side, so that it didn’t have to be hauled up such a long way.
However, since depth-sounding was so important to the safety of the ship, it’s hard to tell whether this actually happened. Someone may eventually track down a hard-and-fast link to nautical use, but for now the case is unproven.
I waited for an opportune moment to make my move.
Did you know that this everyday word, used to describe a time that is especially suitable or convenient for doing something, is linked to an ancient Roman god? Me neither, until I began my researches into words with maritime connections.
Opportune made its way into Middle English via Old French and ultimately derives from the classical Latin adjective opportunus, from ob– ‘in the direction of’ + Portūnus, the name of a god who protected harbours. In Latin, opportunus originally described a favourable wind blowing ships towards the harbour (for which seafarers would have been heartily grateful). The term later moved from nautical use and gained the meanings ‘suitable, convenient, timely’ etc.
Time to find a safe haven and return to dry land, shipmates! My next foray into the language of travel and transportation will let the train take the strain, with a look at terms relating to railways.