Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Whatever happens, the Oxford Etymologist will never jump ship!

One does not have to be a linguist to know that English is full of naval metaphors and phrases. How else could it be in the language of a seafaring nation?! Dozens, if not hundreds of metaphors going back to sailors’ life and experience crop up in our daily speech, and we don’t realize their origin. Nor should we, for speakers are not expected to think of the etymology of the words and collocations they use. Contributors to the excellent periodical The Mariner’s Mirror noted the role of naval phrases in our daily speech and sometimes composed short stories with them. Here is a sample of one of their texts: “Smith is sailing under false colors, or perhaps he has only lost his bearings and would be taken aback or might even fall foul of you, if you told him the truth,” and so on. Try to translate this passage into French, Spanish, or German and see what will happen. You will easily find equivalents, but their naval basis will probably change, and the stylistic coloring will be gone.

In my database, naval phrases are many. The most curious among them are such as do not at once reveal their origin or leave us puzzled. Some others are fully or partially transparent and reflect, among other things, seamen’s attitude toward life. For example, reliability has always been considered a great virtue. A story was told of a British captain, a devoted ship keeper, who, to a lieutenant remonstrating on the little privilege of leave enjoyed by junior officers, replied: “Sir, when I and the sheet anchor go ashore, you may go with us.” Hence, allegedly, the idiom to go ashore with the sheet anchor “the ultimate expression of attention to duty.”

One need not have absolute trust in such tales, because they are often invented in retrospect. The idiom may go back to somebody’s joke. Perhaps that captain never existed. We’ll never know. Yet the idiom had some currency in the navy a century ago. Perhaps it is still known. Compare the phrase to swallow the anchor. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the inference was one of giving up the career or premature departure from sea-going, rather than of normal retirement. This metaphor (like, for example, to swallow a bitter pill) is fairly transparent.

A monument to the man who nailed the colors to the mast in Mowbury Park, Sunderland. Photo by Craigy144 via Wikipedia. CC-by-SA 3.0.

The existence of stories and legends that supposedly gave rise to proverbial sayings should be investigated, rather than denied, and the same is true of all etiological legends (those purporting to explain the origin of some facts or phenomena). They may be based on true events, contain echoes of what was true years or centuries ago, or be pure fiction. Hardly anyone believed that Troy had existed until Heinrich Schliemann excavated it.

Here is an example of a tale we can probably believe, even though the veracity of all sayings based on alliteration (in this case, j…j and even j…j…j) arouses suspicion. There was a certain John Jackson, we are told, who nearly wrecked the ship in 1787 because he refused to listen to the pilot’s advice. The ship struck heavily, and someone on board asked ironically: “How does she go now, Jackson?” Among seamen, the phrase jammed like Jackson became proverbial in situations when obstinacy leads to disaster. Perhaps the man’s name (John Jackson) was added later, but the episode described here must have happened. Also, heroism on board a ship could not but leave its traces in language. To nail the colors to the mast means “to stick to one’s position; refuse to budge.” In 1797, in the Battle of Camperdown, fought between the British and the Dutch, Jack Crawford did nail the colors to the mast of the ship. The episode became famous, and the OED has references to it going back to 1800. The saying don’t give up the ship!, that is, “fight to the end,” also goes back to a real battle that took place in 1813.

The Battle of Camperdown, 11 October 1797. By Thomas Whitcombe, 1798. © National Maritime Museum Collections.

I cannot judge how popular such phrases are (perhaps their use is limited to professional circles), but the popularity of all idioms is a problem no one has ever investigated. Some such phrases have always been local, while others are known to many but used by few. I have often dealt with the situation in which I use a proverb or an idiom and find to my surprise that no one in the audience understands it. I once had a passing acquaintance with a handyman who opened a business under the name “Let George do it.” His name was George, and I found the sign on his shop funny and witty, because let George do it means “let someone else do it” (in this case, George!), but I have not yet met anyone among my students who recognizes the idiom. While compiling an explanatory and etymological dictionary of idioms, I often tried similar experiments, and I wonder how many of George’s customers smiled at the joke.

Admiral Nelson. His heroic life is a subject always worthy of broaching. Hoppner, after John, circa 1823-24. © National Maritime Museum Collections.

But back to our subject. Sailors have never been teetotal. Half-seas-over means “drunk,” though at one time, the phrase meant “half across the sea(s).” Its connotation remains a matter of debate. According to one opinion (just an opinion!), the reference is to sea sickness; other people insisted that the phrase referred to “semi-intoxication.” Nor is it entirely clear whether seas is indeed seas or sea’s (if sea’s, then “half of the sea”). In the publications dealing with this phrase, one sometimes finds references to a non-existing Dutch phrase as the source (such references are the curse of etymological studies; people repeat what they have read in unreliable books and don’t bother to look up such “Russian,” “Hebrew,” “Yiddish”, or “Dutch” words and phrases in a dictionary of those languages). Be that as it may, the phrase does mean “drunk” and must have something to do with sea voyages. We face the familiar problem: what shall we do with a drunken sailor?

More enigmatic is the phrase to broach (or tap) the admiral, also meaning “to get drunk.” An apocryphal story exists that, when the body of Lord Nelson was brought home for burial, it was preserved in a cask of rum, but the sailors had, before the arrival of the corpse, drained the cask completely dry by means of a straw. Like so much slang, the origin of broach the admiral remains unknown, but the story inspires little confidence.

Pirates were of course sailors too, and I wonder how many people know what fifteen men have to do with a dead man’s chest. The phrase, made famous by Robert L. Stevenson, was borrowed from Charles Kingsley’s book At Last: A Christmas in West Indies. This is what one can read in Notes and Queries, vol. 166 (1934), p. 212: “I have always understood that a ‘chest’ in the West Indies means a small uninhabited island, so that ‘the dead man’s chest’ = ‘Treasure Island’.” If this is how the song originated, many admirers of Stevenson’s novel will feel grateful to the author of the short letter to the editor of the once immensely popular periodical.

A drunken sailor, or three sheets in the wind. Sailors drinking in a crypt. Coloured etching by W. Elmes. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY 4.0.

And now something for a showy finale. Jibber the kibber means “to lure a vessel to destruction by giving a false signal from the shore.” The signal, according to folklore, was tied to a horse. Jibber is indeed slang for “horse.” But nothing else is known about the origin of this saying. Its sounding is ominous and almost too good to be true. Yet my information about it, like almost everything I have written above, comes from The Mariner’s Mirror and should be taken with respect.

If such posts, devoted to thematic idioms, are interesting to read, leave a comment, and I’ll go on in the same vein. If they are not, I’ll also be grateful for your opinion.

Feature image credit: from “Ilios: the city and country of the Trojans” by Heinrich Schliemann, 1880. No known copyright restrictions; via the Internet Archive Book Images on Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Stan Smith

    Four sheets to the wind?

  2. Stephen

    Please go on in the same vein. You could start with what that means? Great fun anyway, thank you

  3. Jean Cottel

    Love the thematic articles.

  4. Carole Kantor

    Please do continue with thematic groups of idioms – e.g., baking, sewing, winemaking.

  5. Jonathan Bellman

    Re “Let George do it”: wasn’t that something from the Empire, when any native/subaltern was called “George” because it was what you called the help? This was both far more convenient for the imperial occupiers (Jove! Those names are dashed strange, what?) and also he practice tcommunicated the idea that the colonials were really all the same, and interchangeable. It may have started during the reigns of the three King Georges, the days of the British East India Company, etc.

  6. Constantinos Ragazas

    Interesting and entertaining…but not too relevant. Unless you include a category on ‘primitive words’.


  7. Rudy Troike

    While nautical sources for disappearing expressions are interesting, it might be more relevant to point out farming idioms, or ones that survive (at least until now) from earlier mechanical and technological development, or modes of transport.

  8. Dave Garroch

    Heinrich Schliemann certainly excavated… something. Whether it was ‘Troy’ continues to be debated and there seems little chance that there will ever be a consensus until we find Homer’s tomb, King Arthur’s grave, and the definitive site of Atlantis.

  9. E robinson

    Thematic idioms show what items were important in the culture of a period or place, and popular reactions to events (e.g. horsepower and horseless carriage) i.e. living language development. Yes please continue – jibber the kibber is a great phrase!

  10. Esther Pereira

    I was married to a US Sailor from WWII. Until his death in 2015, he referred to the bathroom as the ‘head’. When he needed to use the bathroom, he would say that he needed to ‘hit the head’. The origin of this phrase is interesting. Apparently early ships did not have bathrooms and the sailors would use the sea instead,

  11. […] friendly comments urged me to continue the series on English idioms I started last week (see the post for August 12, 2020). That post was devoted to naval phrases. The comments suggested all kinds of topics, sewing and […]

  12. Peter Warne

    topically, quarantine was originally a naval measure to reduce infection.

Comments are closed.