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Lexicons of Lost Lifestyles: From Ship to Shore

Many words used on land have their origins in the sea and from sea-going vessels. Here we examine some of the common terms that come from our sailing ancestors.


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When our ancestors set sail for the new country, they probably never imagined that they would bring along a number of words and phrases from their weeks at sea to enrich their lives on land. Long after they settled into the new territory, the terminology of the sea remained in the vernacular. Let us look at the sailor's jargon as we might find it in the world of landlubbers.

While, on wash day, the women of the colonies hung out their sheets on the lines, seagoing men have a completely different meaning for the words "lines" and "sheets": on a sailing ship, ropes are called lines and the sheet is the chain or line at the lower corner of a sail used to control its "set" (Glazier, pp. 218-219). If one were to let three of those sheets get loose (especially on a three-masted schooner), allowing the sails to flap in the wind, it is probably easy to imagine the ship sailing off course, perhaps appearing to stagger along. No wonder that, after someone finds the jug hidden behind the shed, it might be said that he was "three sheets to the wind," another term for "drunk" (Holt, p. 237).

The lines on sailing vessels are not simple to operate (perhaps a reason why letting three sheets loose was not that uncommon). There are hundreds of ropes involved in raising and lowering sails and, when they break, they are either repaired or replaced. The ropes that are fixed to the vessel are not easy to repair, but the frugal ship owners are not quick to replace them (and, if they are at sea, that might not even be an option). Instead, the line that is severed, with part of it still attached to the deck and the other, perhaps, hanging almost out of reach, needs to be brought together to be spliced. This action is called "making both ends meet," a term which has come ashore and been applied in everyday life (Garrison, p. 149). We know that many of our ancestors who never saw a ship were frequently in a state of trying to "make ends meet," as some of us are likely to be during this upcoming holiday season.

One can imagine that the inexperienced sailor might have some problems with those many lines and, if he doesn't "know the ropes" might soon lose control of the vessel. On the other hand, the ambitious sailor makes it his business to "know the ropes" if he wants to advance in his position (Mordock & Korach, p. 111). Similarly, the newcomer to genealogy research often finds it overwhelming to learn all the family history "ropes." When a sailor was "at loose ends," he was in the process of repairing the ropes. This sailing term refers to the frayed ends of ropes that have come apart, making the vessel look rather unkempt. A captain puts crew members to work repairing the frayed ends and one who is so engaged is said to be "at loose ends," having nothing of consequence to occupy him (Garrison, pp. 150-151). Today, when we are not sure which way to go in our research and feel as if we are getting nowhere, we proclaim our frustration of being "at loose ends," not accomplishing much at all.

The lines controlling the sails are not the only ropes on a ship: the rope or chain that attaches the anchor to the "bitt" - the deck post to which the end of the anchor chain is fastened (Glazier, p. 217) - is another important line. When the anchor is used, the line is let out and, if the depth is greater than the length of the line, it is played out to the "bitter end." This "coming to the end of one's rope" has clear nautical beginnings and is completely unrelated to taste (bitter or otherwise) (Funk, C. E., pp. 205-206). Sometimes we vow to stay on the trail of that elusive ancestor "to the bitter end" (knowing that, if we are successful, it will be a sweet victory)!

Citizens of the newly formed communities occasionally had to reprimand a wayward resident, taking the offender "down a peg." On the earliest ships, the colors (flag) were raised and lowered by pegs; colors that were positioned up high on the pole implied great honor, but if the colors were "taken down a peg," it meant dishonor or even disgrace to the crew (Mordock & Korach, p. 190). This type of humiliation was a public display, sure to embarrass the one "taken down." A person thusly ridiculed might soon, thereafter, exact revenge on the one who had so humiliated him, accosting the unaware disciplinarian. Initially, the term "accost" meant "along side of" and its origin is "coast," from ships sailing close to the coast line. Eventually the term evolved to mean "approach for any reason" (Funk, W., p. 345), but we know what the reasons for approaching are in the case of the embarrassed citizen.

Of course, when a ship sails too close to the shore, it may be in a situation that is "touch and go": the keel may "touch" bottom or the side and actually be stuck for a moment before breaking free to "go" (Funk, C. E., p. 99). Our pioneering ancestors must have frequently been in situations where things seemed to be "touch and go," with potential demise just around the next corner: one lost crop, one dead horse, etc. could mean the loss of the whole farm. Of course, if the ship's captain is not cautious, the "touch" can become permanent: rocks nearby could spell danger and cause the vessel to go "on the rocks," a term used to describe "in trouble." Now we use that phrase most often to refer to marriages gone bad (p. 94), but it is hard to tell which of our ancestors had marriages that were "on the rocks": divorce was not very common in the earliest days of this country.

Maneuvering a large ship is hard enough when going forward, but when the captain finds himself headed towards the rocks, it becomes necessary to reverse the direction; not an easy feat by any means. This procedure of making a quick change of direction because he has been surprised by the rocks suddenly looming into view has given rise to the phrase "taken aback," and the entire crew becomes engaged in the maneuver. Of course the term has been adapted to us on land in times when we are "taken aback" by some surprise event (Mordock & Korach, pp. 116-117), such as when we discover an ancestor living in a place that was entirely unexpected or engaged in an unusual activity.

Most of us try to give a "wide berth" to genealogy sources we know to be fraudulent or inaccurate. This phrase - giving something a wide berth - comes from the procedure of ships docking in a harbor; an experienced sea captain knows he must allow plenty of space between his vessel and any others as ships are often steered in large arcs (Morris & Morris, p. 249). But it also refers to the space in which the ship is anchored - the berth - which needs to be at least twice the length of the vessel to allow for maneuvering room (Mordock & Korach, p. 116).

Well, it may be a bit overwhelming to "fathom," but terms that come from seagoing vessels have existed on land for many, many years. Perhaps the pioneers who left New England and hit the Oregon Trail thought they were leaving the sea behind, but it seems apparent to me that they just left the water; the jargon of their ocean voyage traveled right along with them on their journey westward.


Funk, Charles Earle. Heavens to Betsy! & Other Curious Sayings. New York: Harper & Row, 1955, 1983.

Funk, Wilfred. Word Origins and their Romantic Stories. New York: Bell Pub., 1978.

Garrison, Webb. What's in a Word? Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 2000.

Glazier, Stephen. Random House Webster's Word Menu. New York: Random House, 1992.

Holt, Alfred H. Phrase and Word Origins, Rev. Ed. New York: Dover Pub., 1961.

Mordock, John, & Myron Korach. Common Phrases and Where they Come from. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2001.

Morris, William, & Mary Morris. Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2009.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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