Today, the expression, "He let the cat out of the bag," usually means nothing much more than that somebody gave something away. But such was not the case 150 years ago. On board a square-rigger, this utterance would have brought chills to the spine - for it meant some poor soul had just committed an offense grave enough to extract the "cat o' nine tails" from its canvas bag.
The "cat" was made of nine lengths of cord, each about 18 inches long with three knots at the tip, fixed to the end of a larger rope that was used as a handle. A flogging with this instrument would, at the very least, cause severe superficial wounds, and could cripple or even result in death. (Only Errol Flynn and other Hollywood sailors were capable of shrugging off the effects of the "cat!")
The US Congress prohibited the use of the "cat" in 1850, and it was outlawed by the British Royal Navy in 1879. Actually, the "cat" had fallen into disuse in both fleets shortly after the War of 1812. The brutal instrument also was the basis for the expression, "Not enough room to swing a cat".
A surprising number of phrases in the English language that ring with familiarity have seafaring origins. Mariners and landlubbers alike have heard of "Blue Monday", credited to the day of the week when a sailor's misdeeds, duly recorded, met with their punishment.
Sailors were, indeed, a scurvy lot and not to be trusted by their superiors. Although armed to the teeth for battle, they were not allowed to carry arms at other times. The one exception to this rule was the sailor's knife - a tool essential to all seamen. Drawing of a knife in anger was prohibited by admiralty law, and should a sailor do so, he risked forfeiting a hand. Thus, the expression, "Hands off".
Maritime discipline was harsh, and human rights often restricted. One of the few places on deck where sailors were at liberty to talk was at the cask (or "butt") with a square hole (or "scuttle") cut into its bilge, kept on deck to hold water for ready use. Today, the term "scuttlebutt" is synonymous with "gossip".
At sea, the captain and the law were one and the same. Martyrdom was the only reward for the individual who opposed justice, but the system could be challenged if there was strength in numbers and the leader's identity could be concealed. The solution was to put signatures on a grievance petition in a pattern like the spokes of a wheel; from the French word "ruban", meaning "ribbon", comes the term for this "round robin". This practice also may have given us the word "ringleader".
What does it mean to "mind your P's and Q's"? In the old days, a tally board was used in local pubs to keep tabs on the number of pints (P's) and quarts (Q's) consumed by sailors. The quartermaster of the ship, responsible for having a full crew at sailing time, would warn his charges to watch their intake.
The practice of having women on board British Royal Navy ships was not abolished until about 1840. During the time when women were permitted aboard ships, the end result, not infrequently, was "a son of a gun". A warship's belowdecks were crowded, and the passageways had to be kept clear of obstruction. The only place where women could give birth was between the guns.
Another colloquial expression that has an unpleasant connotation is "flotsam and jetsam". Flotsam is floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo; jetsam is cargo thrown overboard when a ship is in imminent danger. Together they are now sometimes used to describe the undesirable elements of society.
Utterances against the devil by a seaman were not directed at the Devil himself, but at a particular seam (a narrow gap between planks) on each side of the ship just above the waterline. This seam - christened the "devil's seam" - was the most difficult and dangerous to caulk. Lowered over the side of the ship, a sailor would work in the precarious position "between the devil and the deep blue sea".
The modern fisherman has contributed to the nautical vocabulary, too. "Fish or cut bait" emphasizes there is no room for the idle. Have you ever "taken the bait"? Once you have, you're "hooked". And, if you become more deeply involved than reason would dictate, you have fallen for the project "hook, line and sinker".
Sailors' SuperstitionsIt is unlucky to start a cruise on Friday, the day Christ was crucified. In the nineteenth century the British Navy tried to dispel this superstition. The keel of a new ship was laid on a Friday, she was named H.M.S. Friday, launched on a Friday, and finally sent to sea on a Friday. Neither the ship nor her crew were ever heard from again.
When on the way to the dock, avoid people with red hair because they bring bad luck to a ship. The bad luck can be averted by speaking to the redheads first.
A naked woman aboard a ship calms the sea. (This is the reason so many ships have figureheads of a woman with her breasts bared.)
It is unlucky to look back once a ship has left port, or even to have someone call you.
It is useless to fight the sea if you fall overboard, and thus it is foolish to learn how to swim - the reason many sailors never bothered to learn in the past.
If the rim of a glass rings, stop it quickly or there will be a shipwreck.
It is unlucky to sit on top of a Baked Alaska if it's still burning. (No, that's not a real superstition (grin)).
I hope you have enjoyed this little bit of nautical history. Thanks to Royal Viking Line (a wonderful but now defunct cruise line) for providing much of this material for this column.
Originally from Australia, Alan has for some time been permanently settled in Vancouver where he is a practicing Attorney. He has been a SeaLetter columnist, reviewer and our resident humorist for some time now.
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