When I was sixteen years old, I had my first real paying job (though these days, ninety cents an hour doesn’t seem like real pay). I had a car my Dad helped me buy, and a girlfriend, too. There wasn’t much else a guy needed at that age, except maybe a regularly-pitched voice.
My first day on the job, I was told that I needed to learn the ropes. This was pretty much in my pre-figurative days, and I wasn’t aware that a grocery store had any ropes, to speak of. So I asked what the guy meant, and was told that I had to learn all of the intricacies of grocery-ing. I found that there was more to it than just throwing stuff in a sack.
But what interested me was the language about learning the ropes. Of course it’s an old nautical term for when there were hundreds of ropes aboard a ship, each with a different function, and thousands of knots on top of that. To learn the ropes was to understand how and be able to sail a ship like a competent person. The phrase got into our ordinary language, and we use it without even thinking about its origins.
In the years since, I’ve learned that there are many, many such phrases in our language. Below are ten of the most surprising ones:
In a very light wind, a ship needs all of the sail material exposed as it can get. A skyscraper was a small triangular sail set atop the skysail (the topmost sail of the middle, or mizzen, mast) so that the wind could be used most effectively.
A ship has two sides: the side the wind is coming from is called the weather side. The side of the ship away from the wind is called the lee side. A lee shore is a shore that is downwind of the ship. In order to avoid being driven into the shore by the wind, a ship must always have room on the lee side. This room is called leeway.
3. Rummage sale
The French term for cargo is arrimage. Damaged cargo was sold at the port for a fraction of its worth in what was called an arrimage sale. Through the years, this term became Anglicized and the cargo sale became known as a rummage sale. Now, of course, it isn’t cargo, but still stuff sold for a fraction of the original price.
4. Three sheets to the wind
A sheet is a rope which controls the tension on the bottom side of a square sail. On a three-masted fully-rigged ship, there are three sheets. If the sheets of these sails are loose, the sails will flap and flutter in the wind, causing the ship to move unpredictably and wander aimlessly downwind. Rather like some drunks.
5. Slush fund
This one can be attributed to the ship’s cook. Often the cook would boil or scrape salt meat which had been stored in barrels aboard the ship. A slushy volume of fat resulted, and the cook would often sell this fat slush ashore for himself or for the crew. The money he obtained this way was called a slush fund.
6. Between the devil and the deep blue sea
The devil on a ship was the name for the curved seam in the deck planking closest to the side of the ship. This seam was next to the scupper gutters which allowed deck wash to run off back into the sea. If a sailor happened to slip on the deck, he could very easily find himself between the devil and the deep blue sea.
7. Touch and go
Touch and go was a term for a ship’s keel touching the bottom in shallow water, which threatened to ground it. If the ship could get off the bottom again, it was touch and go.
8. No great shakes
Everything on a ship was kept in barrels. When they were empty, the barrel was broken up to save room. This breaking up was called “shaking,” and the pieces called “shakes.” These shakes had no value.
A fly-by-night was a large sail which was used only for sailing downwind. Since it required very little attention, most sailors barely noticed it, if at all. Same as those guys who promise to work on our houses, and we never see them again.
10. The devil to pay
The infinitive verb “to pay” means to seal a deck seam with tar, making the ship watertight. The devil seam, mentioned above, was the most difficult to pay because it was curved and had joints with straight deck planking. It was also nearest to the water. Paying the devil was the job sailors hated most, especially when the devil seam was below water. If you have the devil to pay, you have something to do you’d much rather not do.
There are very many more of these nautical terms used in English. I think it’s part of what makes English so interesting—there is a story behind nearly every one of our expressions.