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The Real Origins of Boating’s Most Common Terms: Part 1

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Boating Terms
Original Photo – Kira auf her Heide (Unsplash) (BoatBlurb)

Many expressions we commonly use today originate from early nautical activities. With a little research I found some interesting nautical origins for sayings we currently use. How many of these expression explanations do you know?

1) Over a Barrel: Old sailing ships often recruited crew members by force, including men that did not know how to swim, which made drownings a frequent concern. To help save sailors who were pulled unconscious from the water, the crew would place them over a barrel and roll the barrel back and forth to drain water from their lungs and possibly resuscitate them. Today, if you have a person “over a barrel” it means you have control over their situation or fate.

2) Kicked the Bucket: Persons convicted to be hanged were usually roped around the neck, placed on a scaffold, and dropped through a trap door. On ships there was no such scaffold, so a convicted sailor was placed on an inverted bucket, which was then kicked out from under him. Today if someone has “kicked the bucket,” you are saying they are dead.

3) Bombed or Tanked: Early pubs carried beer to tables in leather jugs that held several pints. This container was called a ‘bombard’ or an ale ‘tank’. If a sailor on shore leave drank a full bombard he would most certainly be intoxicated, and was described by his mates as being “bombed” or “tanked.” These descriptive words linger today.

4) Toe the Line: On special occasions, sailors in the British Royal Navy were required to stand on deck at attention. To keep them in a straight line, they were told to line their toes up to a specific plank on the deck. This was called ‘toeing’ the line. Today, if someone is asked to “toe the line” they are being asked to keep up to a standard performance level, or follow the standard of others.

5) Bite the Bullet: Floggings were a standard punishment on early ships. Men being flogged were generally given a bullet to bite on to help keep them from screaming as they were flogged. Today, if you tell someone to “bite the bullet” you are suggesting that they accept without complaint something that they regard as unpleasant.

6) Above Board: If a ship was carrying any cargo that was illegal they would hide it somewhere beneath the main deck boards. Even people were similarly placed. For example, pirates would hide below deck boards when approaching a merchant ship in order to disguise the larger number and type of persons onboard. Items and crew that were legitimate and legal could be stored above the deck boards and visible to others. Today, someone described as “above boar” is deemed to be acting legally and within the rules.

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