The surprising naval origins of 11 common phrases

Naval slang has left a deep mark on the English language, although many are unaware that a number of widely-used words, expressions, and phrases ultimately originated with sailors.

Terms ranging from “bamboozle” to “mind your Ps and Qs” have their roots in nautical terms and situations.

Helpfully, the US Navy has compiled multiple glossaries of naval slang that has worked its way into common English.

In honour of NYC’s 2016 Fleet Week we picked some unexpected examples of naval terminology that is now used in everyday life.

1. Mind Your Ps And Qs

If you were ever told to 'mind your Ps and Qs' you knew to behave your best.

In times when many sailors were illiterate, barkeepers would maintain a running chalkboard tally of the pints and quarts of ale that each sailor consumed. A 'P' for pint or 'Q' for quart was added next to each person's name whenever a seaman ordered another draught.

On payday, a seaman had to pay up for each mark next to his name, so he was forced to 'mind his Ps and Qs' or get into financial trouble.

2. Took The Wind Out Of His Sails

The USS Constitution at sea.

'Taking the wind out of someone's sails' means beating them in an argument, or making them feel less confident in their actions.

Originally, the term referred to a naval manoeuvre. One ship would pass close to its opponent and block its access to the wind. In an age of wind-powered ships, this would cause the enemy to lose manoeuvrability and make the opposing vessel more susceptible to attack.

3. Devil To Pay

This expression denoted the task of caulking the longest seam on a wooden ship, called the 'devil.' The caulking was referred to as 'pay,' so this unpleasant duty was called 'paying the devil' and was despised by every seaman. The phrase came to denote any unpleasant job.

5. Wallop

Gunner's Mate 2nd Class Levi Horn observes as Operations Specialist 3rd Class Monica Ruiz fires a 50-calibre machine gun during a live-fire qualification aboard amphibious assault ship USS Boxer.

To wallop is to strike a major blow against an enemy or to hit incredibly hard. The term comes from the last name of English Admiral Sir John Wallop, who King Henry VIII sent to devastate the coast of France in the 1500s in retaliation for the French burning down the British city of Brighton in 1513.

Wallop's complete destruction of the French coast made him name immortal.

6. Three Sheets To The Wind

Sailors and Marines participate in a swim call aboard USS Mesa Verde

The term 'three sheets to the wind' is generally used to describe someone who has had too much to drink. It comes from a term that originally described a ship in a complete state of disarray, with its sails flapping in the breeze.

7. Yankee

The word Yankee is believed to originate with Dutch merchants. Dutchmen would refer to American sea captains as 'yankers,' which translates as 'wranglers.' This was apparently due to the Americans' ability to drive a hard bargain.

8. Knowing The Ropes

US Navy

The phrase 'knowing the ropes,' indicating that someone is competent at what they do, has its roots in old nautical talk.

The statement, printed on a seaman's discharge, indicated that he knew the main uses of the ropes on a ship. Yet rather than indicating that the sailor was a master, the phrase meant that he was a novice who only knew the basics of sailing.

9. Crow's Nest

US Navy Photo
A US Navy control room.

Crows played an essential part in early sailing. Due to their tendency to fly towards the closest landmass, sailors would release a crow during poor visibility and plot a course based on the bird's flight. The crows were often kept where the look-out held watch, leading to the area being named the 'crow's nest.'

10. Bamboozle

F/A-18 Hornets demonstrate air power over the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74).

In the manoeuvre known as a bamboozle, a word first used in the early 1700s, pirates would fly the flag of a friendly nation in order to deceive passing ships into letting their guard down. The enemy ship would then attack, thereby 'bamboozling' its stunned opponent.

11. Navy Blue

US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Lorelei Vander Griend
Sailors conduct a service dress blue uniform inspection aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush.

The colour 'navy blue' was officially recognised in 1745 when King George of England was unable to decide on a colour for the fleet's new uniforms. The king finally chose a blue and white uniform because it was the favourite colour combination of the Duchess of Bedford.

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