Catchy Phrases and their Origin

The Bitter End

I recently read a book about the first woman maritime diver and rediscovered a few phrases that, unbeknownst to me, were maritime/nautical terms. We use them daily, but there are interesting origins of their first known printed use. Sometimes, they were included in a ship’s manual or term book.

Bitter end – it is the last segment or end of a rope that is tied around the “bitt” post, used for fastening cables and ropes. When it ends, it’s gone. In Seaman’s Grammar, 1627:

“A Bitter is but the turne of a cable about the bits, and veare it out by little and little. And the Bitters end is that part of the cable doth stay within boord.” — well, you get the drift.

Even keeled – meaning well balanced, often said of a vessel. (steady/even tempered). Modern use is to describe someone’s personality or nature.

Three sheets to the wind – sailing with the sails unsecured. Of course, we commonly use this as having too much to drink.

Feeling blue – when a ship lost its captain during a voyage, the ship would fly blue flags and have the hull painted blue when it returned to port. Of course, they were saddened by the loss; thus, now – feeling blue.

Taken aback– “aback” means in a backward wind direction. The sails of a ship were “aback” when the wind blew them flat against the masts and spars supporting them. It modernly came to mean startled or surprised as to be blown back a bit.

“I braced my main topsails aback.” London Gazette, 1697.

Learning the ropes – It seems obvious that sailors would have to know which ropes raised which sail and had to know a myriad of knots. Sailing came before theatre, but the first known printed mention of this phrase was in 1802, James Skene’s memoire, Italian Journey. So this phrase was passed down, but not printed until 1802.

“I am a stranger and…I beg you to show me how I ought to proceed…you know the ropes and can give me good advice.”

It’s a good phrase for learning or being shown how to do a job.

..with help from and

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