Anchors away: seafaring, sailor, and oceanic clichés per request!! I am always interested in where sayings come from, especially when where you think it came from is quite different as to where they actually originated. My fellow blogger (sounds like I am going to start a political speech–I promise you I won’t) Lynn lives over in the UK and thought a listing of seafaring clichés might just be cool. I agreed, especially as the British Navy was the originally largest in the world in size and length of time it operated around the world. I figured many of these clichés might have come from that Navy. Shows just how wrong I could be…..
Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning, red sky at night, sailor’s delight: the meaning is simply the meteorlogical one as stated in the cliche. If the morning skies are red, it is because clear skies over the horizon to the east permit the sun to light the undersides of moisture-bearing clouds. The saying assumes that more such clouds are coming in from the west. Conversely, in order to see red clouds in the evening, sunlight must have a clear path from the west, and therefore the prevailing westerly wind must be bringing clear skies*. The phrase is first found in the bible, and has transmuted many times since. Some of the earlier versions use shepherds instead of sailors. Shakespeare was the first to connect it to sailors:
“Like a red morn, that ever yet betoken’d wreck to the seaman – sorrow to shepherds.” —Venus & Adonis, 1593
Between the Devil and the deep blue sea: meaning in between two difficult choices. While the exact connection to the sea is hard to pin down, it would in fact be bad to fall in the deep sea or be into the Devil for any reason. There is also a version of a 1867 Sailor’s Word-Book that states: “Devil – the seam which margins the waterways on a ship’s hull”. A common punishment at sea would be keelhauling, which would be a misbehaving sailor hung from a line and scraped along the hull from one end of ship to the other. That would definitely be between the devil and the deep blue sea.
High and dry: stranded. An easy one to learn the origin of, this cliché was first used an a newspaper in 1796 to describe a ship resting fully on sand. Taken to mean a ship that has not only beached out of water, but expected to remain that way.
Give a wide berth to: to avoid, normally avoidance of a specific person. “Berth” was introduced in the English language early in the 1600s. It was a nautical term meaning enough roomway on the ship to work. To give a wide berth was to avoid, or keep well away from.
Pour oil on troubled waters: something offered for easing a troubled condition. As early as the first century A.D. it was known that oil poured upon a stormy sea would quiet the waves, as recorded by both Pliny and Plutarch. Five hundred years later Irish seamen were given holy oil to calm the seas, and Benjamin Franklin mentions it in 1774. During the height of the whale fishing industry, it became a common scientific fact that was often used; especially as the whaling ships had large quantities on hand.
Loose Cannon: our favorite phrase to describe oh, so, many movie and tv cops! Out of control, unpredictable. And, of course, on ships that regularly carried heavy cannon on rough seas, nothing could be quite so dangerous as a heavy object on wheels loose on a smooth ship’s deck. The first use of this particular phrase was by Victor Hugo in Ninety Three (1874):
“The carronade, hurled forward by the pitching, dashed into this knot of men, and crushed four at the first blow; then, flung back and shot out anew by the rolling, it cut in two a fifth poor fellow… The enormous cannon was left alone. She was given up to herself. She was her own mistress, and mistress of the vessel. She could do what she willed with both.”**
Panic Stations: in a situation requiring high alert. British naval ships had several ways to call the sailors to alert, one of which was “action stations.” Perhaps just because it sounded close to ‘action’ were panic stations so named. It was , however, the last station called before abandoning ship.
And so I was able to close with an actual British cliche!