Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Word Nerd's Delight...everyday phrases and their surprising nautical origins

Captain Lord George Graham in his Cabin, 1745, by William Hogarth
I guess I’m just a word-nerd (which, I suppose, most writers are) but I love to learn the origins of some of our commonly used terms and phrases, especially the more colorful ones. In researching for my current novel-in-progress, I ran across several glossaries of nautical terminology and was tickled to see how many we’ve transposed into our everyday land-lubbery speech. Below is a sampling for you to enjoy and to hold you over for a couple weeks or so as I near the finish line of the first draft of my Young Adult  novel, Through the Hour Glass (the first installment in my series, Time Shadow.)
Working Cover of my novel-in-progress, Through the Hourglass

So, not to cut and run but since the completion of the all-important first draft is in the offing and I must ensure its ending is first rate I shall bid you adieu for just a little while as I focus my attention on it. Thanks for your kind understanding and your interest in this, my fifty-second blog post, marking my first year anniversary as a blogger! Woo Hoo!

Between the Devil and the deep blue sea -  The Devil Seam is the curved seam in the deck planking closest to the side of the ship, next to the scuppers. A sailor slipping on the deck would be "between the Devil and the deep blue sea". This also relates to the phrase, Devil to pay since  ‘Paying' the Devil is sealing the devil seam. It is a difficult and unpleasant job (with no resources) because of the shape of the seam (closest to the hull).
Bitter end - The anchor cable is tied to the bitts, when the cable is fully paid out, the bitter end has been reached. The last part of a rope or cable.
Booby - A type of bird that has little fear and therefore is particularly easy to catch, hence Booby prize.
By and large - "By" means into the wind, while "large" means with the wind. By and large is used to indicate all possible situations "the ship handles well both by and large".
Chock-a-block- Rigging blocks that are so tight against one another  they cannot be further tightened.
The West Indiaman "Britannia", 1838 by Joseph Walter
Clean bill of health- A certificate issued by a port indicating that the ship carries no infectious diseases.
Clean slate - At the helm, the watch keeper would record details of speed, distances, headings, etc. on a slate. At the beginning of a new watch the slate would be wiped clean.
As the crow flies - A direct line between two points (which might cross land) which is the way crows travel rather than ships which must go around land.
Cut and run- When wanting to make a quick escape, a ship might cut lashings to sails or cables for anchors, causing damage to the rigging, or losing an anchor, but shortening the time needed to make ready by bypassing the proper procedures.
First rate- The classification for the largest sailing warships of the 17th through 19th centuries. They had 3 masts, 850+ crew and 100+ guns.
Fly-by-night- A large sail used only for sailing downwind, requiring little attention.
Footloose - If the foot of a sail is not secured properly, it is footloose, blowing around in the wind.
Groggy - Drunk from having consumed a lot of grog.
Hand over fist - To climb steadily upwards, from the motion of a sailor climbing shrouds on a sailing ship (originally "hand over hand.")
In the offing - In the water visible from on board a ship, now used to mean something imminent.
Know the ropes - A sailor who 'knows the ropes' is familiar with the miles of cordage and ropes involved in running a ship.
Leeway - The amount that a ship is blown leeward (away from) the wind.
A British Man of War before the Rock of Gibraltar, late 18th cent, by Thomas Whitcombe
Let the cat out of the bag - To break bad news (the "cat o' nine tails" being taken out of the bag by the bosun was bad news, announcing a flogging).
No room to swing a cat - The entire ship's company was expected to witness floggings, assembled on deck. If it was very crowded, the bosun might not have room to swing the 'cat o' nine tails' (the whip).
Over the barrel - Adult sailors were flogged on the back or shoulders while tied to a grating, but boys were beaten instead on the posterior (often bared), with a cane or cat, while bending, often tied down, over the barrel of a gun, known as (kissing) the gunner's daughter.
Overwhelmed - Capsized or foundered.
Pipe down - A signal on the bosun's pipe to signal the end of the day, requiring lights (and smoking pipes) to be extinguished and silence from the crew
Pooped - 1. Swamped by a high, following sea. 2. Exhausted. (Poop deck - A high deck on the aft superstructure of a ship from French for stern: la poupe.)
Rummage sale - A sale of damaged cargo (from French for stowage: arrimage).
Shakes - Pieces of barrels or casks broken down to save space. They are worth very little, leading to the phrase No great shakes.
Skyscraper - A small, triangular sail, above the skysail. Used in light winds on a few ships.
Slush fund - The money obtained by the cook selling slush ashore. Used for the benefit of the crew (or the cook). Slush - Greasy substance obtained by boiling or scraping the fat from empty salted meat storage barrels, or the floating fat residue after boiling the crew's meal. In the Royal Navy the perquisite of the cook who could sell it or exchange it (usually for alcohol) with other members of the crew. Used for greasing parts of the running rigging of the ship and therefore valuable to the master and bosun.
Son of a gun - The space between the guns was used as a semi-private place for trysts with prostitutes and wives, which sometimes led to pregnancies. Other thoughts on this are that the gun deck afforded the necessary amount of space for a woman to give birth aboard ship and that sometimes shooting off a canon would give a woman’s labor a kick start.
Taken aback - An inattentive helmsmen might allow the dangerous situation to arise where the wind is blowing into the sails 'backwards', causing a sudden (and possibly dangerous) shift in the position of the sails.
Taking the wind out of his sails - To sail in a way that steals the wind from another ship. To overbear.
A Seaman of The Pallas Leaning on a Bowchaser ,
 1776 by Gabriel Bray
Three sheets to the wind - On a three-masted ship, having the sheets of the three lower courses loose will result in the ship meandering aimlessly downwind. Also, a sailor who has drunk strong spirits beyond his capacity.
Touch and go - The bottom of the ship touching the bottom, but not grounding.
Under the weather - Serving a watch on the weather side of the ship, exposed to wind and spray.
Wide berth - To leave room between two ships moored (berthed) to allow space for maneuver (To give a wide berth.)

Have a good (couple) weeks (or so,) dear Reader. (There's lots to read or re-read over the last 52 posts. Probably enough to keep you busy till I return!) Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now!

(Although my research sent me far and wide, the bulk of the information for today’s post is thanks to

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Time is Priceless...unless you wish to buy an 18th century pocket watch

Maker: Joseph Green, London, 1725
£1950 ($3255.23)
(Bloggers Update: August, 2015----Hmmmmm....something's amiss, here---all photos have disappeared. I must have used URLs which have since been removed from the Internet. Probably all the watches sold! Oh well, they do say TIME FLIES!!!)

In perusing the Internet for images of 18th century timepieces, I ran across a few sites which had the genuine articles for sale. Many of the clocks and watches are truly incredible in their beauty and ingeniousness of design and these sites prove that, contrary to popular belief, you really can buy time...if you have enough money that is. Check these out for yourself and see how some of our ancestors kept time. You will see from the photographs that often the interior workings of the pocket watches are even more elaborate and decorative than the more utilitarian faces. These appear to me as little secret gardens for the private pleasure of their owners. Perhaps you will see one you can't resist and will buy a little time of your own! You may find the following pocket watches for sale at:   (I've included the current US dollar exchange.) 

Green Interior

Maker:  Dufour, London, 1720
£2250 ($3756.04)

Dufour Interior

Maker: John Welldon, 1728
£3000 ($5008.05)

Welldon Outer Case

Welldon Inner Case

Welldon Interior

Maker: Spencer & Perkins, London, 1773
£3250 ($5425.39)

Spencer & Perkins Outer Case

Spencer & Perkins Interior

Maker: Wakelin & Taylor, London, 1790
£2950 ($4924.58)

Wakelin & Taylor Outer Case

Wakelin & Taylor Interior
(and, yes, that is a diamond!)

Well, time to go!
Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now!


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

That's a Good One!...18th century humor

While perusing a book of 18th and early 19th century jokes, Joe Miller’s Complete Jest Book, I ran across an alarming number of Irish jokes in the same vein as our more recent Polish jokes. Not  being Irish, myself, I am hesitant to repeat them here. I have no compunction, however, in reproducing several of the many Lawyer jokes! Yeah, I know, so sue me. Apparently this occupation, although graced with many honest and hard-working attorneys, has been the bane and butt of many a joke over the years. Below, I have “cut” and “pasted”a few jokes directly from Joe Miller’s Complete Jest Book to give you a look at the humor of an earlier age. I've included a couple not directly related to lawyers but I couldn't pass them up: one pokes fun at an alderman (an elected municipal official) and the other regards the will of a man in which he hopes to have the last laugh.

Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now!


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Digging the 18th Century...uncovering Edenton's past

1767 Chowan County Courthouse and the Green on which the
original 1718 Courthouse stood (photo by the author)
It may not be Indiana Jones territory, no Ark of the Covenant, no Holy Grail, no marauding Nazis, no slithering snakes (well maybe the odd snake or two,) but my town of Edenton, North Carolina was the scene last week of an archaeological dig, nonetheless. The quiet streets and pathways, dripping with crape myrtles and history, are inroads into the early years of American life. The casual tourist, reading the many historical markers and admiring the dozens of beautiful homes and buildings in continual use since the 18th and 19th centuries, is unaware of what might be hiding beneath the surface. It could be the surface of a tiny, inconsequential-looking cottage, covered over by asbestos shingles or it could be the surface of the lush, green expanse on which they tread between the majestic brick Courthouse, constructed in 1767, and the water’s edge where two 18th century cannon stand guard over Edenton Bay, a bay that merges into the Albemarle Sound which, itself, leads all the way to the Outer Banks and to the seas of the Atlantic Ocean. Edenton is in an area known as the Inner Banks and was, once, an important port of entry for merchants sailing from the Old World to customers in the New.

Lane House, 1718, (photo by Harvey Harrison -
 Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Wikimedia Commons)
The little, old (very old, indeed) cottage of which I refer, resides on the eastside of town, used for years as a rental house. Its tin-roofed, asbestos-shingled exterior belied a historical treasure unknown to all until its owners, Steve and Linda Lane, ordered some renovation work be done to improve it for the next potential renter. My friend and neighbor Wayne Griffin, owner of Old Edenton Co., was the first to discover the modest home’s hidden secret. Pulling away cheap cherry paneling, he found hand-hewn wooden beams pegged together in ways not seen since the early centuries of this country. He knew, immediately, there was more to the house than met the eye. Experts were brought in and the upshot of it was the house was thought to be built around 1718 making it not only the oldest standing structure in the town, but in all of the state of North Carolina. Ironically, it was built in the same timeframe as Edenton’s original courthouse building.

The beautiful, 1767 Chowan County Courthouse, with its commanding view of Edenton Bay, is still in use and open for visitors. What many do not know is, although it is very old, it is not the county’s first courthouse. The first, built in 1718 and in use for fifty years, sat on the green just across the street from its newer version. The original building was in no way similar to the grand structure that replaced it. Covered in clapboards, its windows not glazed with glass for some time, it was rather ignobly described in 1729 by visiting William Byrd II: “Justice herself is but indifferently Lodged, the Court-House having much the Air of a Common Tobacco-House.”
Old Postcard of "New," 1767 Courthouse, bricks painted white

Beginning July 28, 2014, a group of archaeologists from New South Associates armed with a GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar,) surveyed the green and discovered a likely area for the foundation of that original building. For several days, they meticulously dug up the sod and set it aside, retrieving brick fragments as well as 18th century glass and nails that point to the probable site of Edenton’s first house of justice. Their initial work completed, the archaeologists replaced the sod, returning the green to normal, a place on which people walk, every day, unaware of the history beneath their feet.

Who knows what historical treasures might be sleeping just below the surface of the ground on which we walk or, for that matter, beneath the façade of another little, shingled rental house?
The author's granddaughters on 18th century cannon, Edenton
(photo by their dad, John Sutton)

Have a good week, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...Y'all come back now!