A Project of the Coast Guard Aviation Association



The rich colorful vocabulary of the sea from generations past is still an invariant part of daily English language. Most people do not know the origins of words and phrases that have become colloquial expressions, and time has changed or distorted the meanings. A few examples are below:

Discipline has always been demanded by the taskmaster of the sea. “He Let The Cat Out of the Bag”, said today, is often followed by an expletive. Six score years ago on board a square rigger, this utterance would have brought chills to the spine, for some poor soul had just committed an offense sufficiently grave to extract the cat—of—nine— tails from its canvas bag. The cat has been out of vogue since the early nineteenth century and needs an introduction. The cat was made of nine lengths of core, each about 18 inches long with three knots at the tip, fixed to the end of a larger rope which was used as a handle. Flogging, at the very least, would cause severe wounds and could cripple or even cause death. Only Errol Flynn and fellow Hollywood mariners have been able to shrug off its effects. The United States Congress prohibited the use of the cat in 1850, and it was outlawed from the British Royal Navy in 1879. In fact, the cat had fallen into disuse in both fleets shortly after the War of 1812. The brutal instrument is also the basis of the expression “Not Enough Room To Swing A Cat.” Obviously, the two—foot cat, added to the length of the fully extended arm of the flogger, required good measure of working room. A sailor’s misdeeds were recorded daily, and punishment was carried out the following Monday, thus the birth of the expression “Blue Monday.”

Sailors were considered a rough lot and not be trusted by their superiors, the officers. Although armed to the teeth when the enemy was at hand, sailors were prohibited from having weapons at any other time. The one exception to this rule was the knife, which was an essential tool for all seamen. Should, however, the sailor draw his knife in anger, he could lose his hand as specified by British Admiralty Law. Thus the derivation of the expression “Hands Off.”

Maritime discipline was harsh. Human rights were restricted, and, as a result, specific shipboard havens developed. The term “Scuttle Butt” evolved from this background. There was a cask (butt) with a square hole (scuttle) cut in its bilge, depot on deck to hold water for ready use. On board ships where discipline was strictly enforced, merchant as well as war, the “Scuttle butt” was one of the few places on deck where sailors were at liberty to talk, and, today the term is synonymous with gossip.

Mariners, being the chief patrons of seaport pubs, were often extended credit. A tally board was kept of the pints and quarts that a sailor consumed. The quartermaster of the slip, who was responsible for having a full crew for the next sailing, did well to remind his charges to “Mind Your “P’s and Q’s”, since this equated to their consumption.

An individual who “Knows The Ropes” today is an expert who knows what to do. A century—and—a—half ago, a novice sailor knew more than the names and uses of the primary ropes, and his discharge papers were marked, “Knows The Ropes.”

Luck also has its place in nautical expression. In past centuries, trees could not be cut on specified tracts of land in Great Britain. These forests were timber reserves for the Royal Navy. However, if a tree blew down, the proprietor could use the timber for his own ends, thus a stroke of good fortune, or a “Windfall.”

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British seamen, apt to be ashore and unemployed for considerable periods between voyages, generally preferred to live in boarding houses near the piers while waiting for sailing ships to take on crews. During these periods of unrestricted liberty, many ran out of money, so the innkeepers carried them on credit until they were hired for another voyage. When a seaman was booked on a ship, he was customarily advanced a month‘s wages, if needed, to pay off his boarding house debt. Then, while paying back the ship’s master, he worked for nothing but “salt horse” the first several weeks aboard.

Salt horse was the staple diet of early sailors and it wasn‘t exactly tasty cuisine. Consisting of a low quality beef that had been heavily salted, the salt horse was tough to chew and even harder to digest.

When the debt had been repaid, the salt horse was said to be dead and it was time of great celebration among the crew. Usually, an effigy of a horse was constructed from odds and ends, set afire, and then cast afloat to the cheers and hilarity of the ex-debtors. Today, just as in the days of sail, “dead horse” refers to a debt to the government of advance pay. Sailors today don‘t burn effigies when the debt is paid, but they are no less jubilant than their counterparts of old.


Today the expression “devil to pay” is used primarily as a means of conveying an unpleasant and impending happening. Originally, this expression denoted the specific task aboard the ship of caulking the ship’s longest seam.

The “devil” was the longest seam on the wooden ship, and caulking was done with “pay” or pitch. This grueling task of paying the devil was despised by every seaman, and the expression came to denote any unpleasant task.


Dog watch is the name given to the 1600-1800 and the 1800-2000 watches aboard ship. The 1600-2000 4-hour watch was originally split to prevent men from always having to stand the same watches daily. As a result, sailors dodge the same daily routine, hence they are dodging
the watch or standing the dodge watch.

In its corrupted form, dodge became dog and procedure is referred to as “dogging the watch” or standing the “dog watch.”


A Jacob‘s ladder is a portable ladder made of rope or metal and used primarily as an aid in boarding ship. Originally, the Jacob’s ladder was a network of line leading to the skysail on wooden ships. The name alludes to the biblical Jacob reputed to have dreamed of a ladder that reached into heaven.

Anyone who has ever tried climbing a Jacob’s ladder while carrying a sea bag can appreciate the allusion. It does seem that the climb is long enough to take one into the next world.


To be keelhauled today is merely to be given a severe reprimand for some infraction of the rules. As late as the 19th century, however, it meant the extreme. It was a dire and often fatal torture employed to punish offenders of certain naval laws.

An offender was securely bound both hand and foot and had heavy weights attached to his body. He was then lowered over the ship’s side and slowly dragged along under the ship’s hull. If he didn’t drown—which was rare— barnacles usually ripped him, causing him to bleed to

All navies stopped this cruel and unusual punishment many years ago and today any such punishment is forbidden.


There are few of us who have not at one time or another been admonished to “mind our Ps and Qs,” or in other words, to behave our best. Oddly enough, “mind your Ps and Qs” had nautical beginnings as a method of keeping books on the waterfront.

In the days of sail when sailors were paid a pittance, seamen drank their ale in taverns whose keepers were willing to extend credit until payday. Since many salts were illiterate, keepers kept a tally of pints and quarts consumed by each sailor on a chalkboard behind the bar. Next to each person‘s name, a mark was made under “P” for pint or “Q” for quart whenever a seaman ordered another draught.

On payday, each seaman was liable for each mark next to his name, so he was forced to “mind his Ps and Qs” or get into financial trouble. To ensure an accurate count by unscrupulous keepers, sailors had to keep their wits and remain somewhat sober. Sobriety usually ensured good behavior; hence, the meaning of “mind your Ps and Qs.”


The origin of the word “scuttlebutt,” which is nautical parlance for a rumor, comes from a combination of “scuttle, “ to make a hole in the ship’s side causing her to sink, and “butt,” a cask or hogshead used in the days of wooden ships to hold drinking water; thus the term scuttlebutt means a cask with a hole in it. “Scuttle” describes what most rumors accomplish if not to the ship, at least to morale. “Butt” describes the water cask where men naturally congregated, and that’s where most rumors get started. The terms “galley yarn” and “messdeck intelligence” also mean the spreading of rumors and many, of course, start on the messdeck.


Many of our Navy’s colorful expressions originated as practical means of communicating vital information. One such expression is “show a leg.” In the British Navy of king George III and earlier, many sailors’ wives accompanied them on long voyages. This practice caused a multitude of problems but some ingenious bosun solved one that tended to make reveille a hazardous event: that of distinguishing which bunks held males and which held females.

To avoid dragging the wrong “mates” out of the rack, the bosun asked all to “show a leg.” If the leg shown was adorned with silk, the owner was allowed to continue sleeping. If the leg was hairy and tattooed, the owner was forced to “turn-to.” In today’s Navy, showing a leg is a signal to the reveille petty officer that you have heard his call and are awake.

Historical Narratives