nautical theme

At last Tuesday’s meeting of the Kapiti Historical Society your editors took a keen interest in what guest speaker, former naval man and Paraparaumu Beach identity John Granville, had to say on this topic, based on his own extensive research on colloquial sayings which have origins in the British Navy of the sailing ship era. The origin of words is a science in itself, known as etymology, and we have a few dictionaries of it in our own library.

Nearly all immigrants to NZ came by sea until the 1970s — by which time aircraft became the affordable option — and most immigrants from the early 19th to mid-20th centuries spent quite a few weeks on a ship.

He says more expressions of nautical origin remain in NZ use than in the other parts of the English speaking world.

A word like Posh is one that most wouldn’t recognise the origin of: on land it means rich or extravagant, but it comes from the term Port-side Out Starboard-side Home, used by affluent passengers preferring the shady side of the deck to maintain their complexions; alternatively, the way the ship would lean in the trade winds.

The word Mayday, now a distress call for vessels, aircraft and people in serious trouble and made official by an international telecommunications conference in 1948, is an anglicizing of the French “m’aidez” (help me).

Aloof comes from the Dutch word loef meaning “windward” and used to describe a boat capable of sailing unusually close to the wind.

When it comes to expressions, while “Don’t rock the boat” and “Learn the ropes” are pretty obvious, there are others that are less so: examples: “between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” — a reference not to Satan, but to to a narrow ledge around the top outside of a ship; “Let the cat out of the bag” and “there isn’t enough room to swing a cat” weren’t an animal reference, rather an implement of corporal punishment; “Feeling Blue” meaning experiencing feelings of sadness or melancholy comes from when a captain or officer of a ship died while at sea and the crew would fly blue flags and paint a blue band along the ship’s hull. Over time, this symbol of grieving was equated with feeling sad or melancholy. “In the Doldrums” meaning Depressed or listless comes from the doldrums, — the belt around the Earth near the equator. Because there is often little surface wind for ships’ sails to use in this geographic location, sailing ships got stuck on its windless waters. Over time, people equated the calmness of the doldrums with being listless or depressed.

The one which for us was the most amusing, and perhaps the most dubious, was “Son of a gun”: in olden times not only men but women were aboard a ship and any births took place on the gun deck where there was the most room.  If a woman couldn’t identify the father, then it was a…  But one might ask why “Daughter of a gun” didn’t become the equivalent.

The first part of John Granville’s talk covered the tradition of supplying a daily rum ration to sailors, something which lasted in the Royal NZ Navy until 1990, 20 years after it ended in the Royal Navy.  The American navy ended the practice in 1862 and the Australian navy never had it. According to Wikipedia: “The rum ration, or “tot”, from 1850 to 1970 consisted of one-eighth of an imperial pint (71 ml) of rum at 95.5 proof (54.6% ABV), given out to every sailor at midday. Senior ratings (petty officers and above) received their rum neat, whilst for junior ratings it was diluted with two parts of water to make three-eighths of an imperial pint (213 ml) of grog.” Full story

The Dutch navy supplied sailors with gin, the origin of the term “Dutch courage.”

Given the importance that ships and maritime activities have had in NZ’s history, and still have in trade, the whole subject should be of major interest.