Shiver Me Tim­bers If It Isn’t English!

Asian Journal - - Editorial -

Try­ing to fig­ure out the ori­gins and in­flu­ence of the English lan­guage is far from smooth sail­ing, but damn the tor­pe­does, we’ll go full steam ahead with an ex­plo­ration of the nau­ti­cal (not naughty) phrases we still use to­day. Shot across the bows: This was a per­ilous naval prac­tice of fir­ing a can­non shot across the bow of an op­po­nent’s ship to in­di­cate readi­ness to fight, en­force a block­ade or sig­nal an­other ship to heave to (stop). Not sur­pris­ingly, the term has en­dured, but in mod­ern use (other than while chas­ing pi­rates around the Gulf of Aden) it may mean a warn­ing of nasty con­se­quences for cer­tain busi­ness prac­tices or threats. Speak­ing of per­ils, A loose can­non in to­day’s terms is a very apt de­scrip­tion of some­one who is an un­pre­dictable, pos­si­bly danger­ous or treach­er­ous per­son, some­one who can do the group no good. It’s just like in the era of can­nons aboard ship. Th­ese very heavy weapons were mounted on cra­dles with wheels and rope sys­tems to al­low for re­coil when fired, reload­ing and so on. But if a can­non got loose in rough seas it could wreak hor­ren­dous dam­age to the ship by rolling about un­re­strained. To cut and run gen­er­ally refers to some­one who will run away at the first sign of trou­ble, and car­ries con­no­ta­tions of cow­ardice. His­tor­i­cally it meant to get away from a danger­ous sit­u­a­tion in­stantly with­out wait­ing to weigh an­chor, by cut­ting the an­chor ca­ble. Per­haps it was cow­ardly at times, but def­i­nitely a ra­tio­nal thing to do. Bat­ten down the hatches to­day means to pre­pare for trou­ble, whereas aboard ship, it meant to pro­tect against sea or rain wa­ter get­ting into the cargo holds in bad weather and rough seas. Hatches were usu­ally made with wooden grat­ing to al­low for ven­ti­la­tion be­low decks, while pro­tect­ing sailors from fall­ing into the holds. Bat­tens are sticks or long lathes used to fix tar­pau­lins over the hatches un­til the bad weather passed. And cer­tainly wa­ter get­ting into the cargo holds was cer­tainly trou­ble in those days. But my two favourite en­dur­ing terms are, three sheets to the wind and go­ing Posh. Three sheets to the wind is still used to de­scribe some­one who is very drunk. In the age of sail, ropes were fixed to the lower cor­ners of sails (some­times called sheets) to hold them in place. If three sheets got loose and were blow­ing about in the wind, the sails wouldn’t func­tion prop­erly caus­ing the ves­sel to lurch about like a drunken sailor. Fi­nally go­ing Posh came to be used to in­di­cate some­thing of high qual­ity, a home, a ve­hi­cle, a re­sort or event ship­board ac­com­mo­da­tions of the state­room va­ri­ety. The word is ac­tu­ally an acro­nym that arose dur­ing early trans-At­lantic steamship travel to re­fer to the state­rooms on the sunny side of the ship. They were nat­u­rally the best ap­pointed and most sought af­ter by the wealthy pas­sen­gers. When de­part­ing Eng­land or Europe to North Amer­ica and re­turn­ing, POSH meant Port (left side) Out (to Amer­ica) Star­board (right side) Home. And shiver my (me) tim­bers? A sailor’s oath in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Trea­sure Is­land in 1883 and in a book writ­ten in 1834, that if I’m un­truth­ful, may my (wooden) ship shiver (shat­ter) or break into pieces! Ar­rrrh! That be true me hearties!


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