Nautical fun on National Trivia Day

I guess there’s a day for just about anything, so it’s no surprise that today is National Trivia Day. I don’t know who declared it — fake news from a trivia manufacturer’s PR agency, perhaps.

Nevertheless, have fun today checking your nautical knowledge by identifying the origin and/or meaning of these 15 trivial nautical expressions. And special thanks to Steve and Doris Colgate and their Offshore Sailing School for most of them:

1) Freeze the balls off a brass monkey

In days of old, cannonballs were piled on deck beside the cannon in pyramid fashion and retained in a ring called a brass monkey. If the weather was very cold, the brass ring would contract faster than the iron cannonballs, causing some of them to topple. From this the expression was, and is today, used to describe something that is very cold.

2) As the crow flies

It’s the most direct route from one place to another without detours. Before modern navigational systems existed, British vessels customarily carried a cage of crows. These birds fly straight to the nearest land when released at sea, indicating where the nearest land is.

3) Aboveboard

Pirates would often hide much of their crew below the deck. Ships that displayed crew openly on the deck were thought to be honest merchant ships, known as “above board.”

4) In the doldrums

Sailors named the area of the ocean on either side of the equator the Doldrums. This area is known to have unstable, light wind conditions, so sailing ships caught in the Doldrums could be stranded. Today it describes someone in low spirits, stagnated or depressed.

5) Mind your p’s and q’s

When in port, sailors would get credit at the taverns until they were paid. The barman would keep a record of their drinks on a chalkboard behind the bar. A mark was made under “p” for pint or “q” for quart. On payday, a sailor was liable for each mark next to his name and forced to “mind his p’s and q’s.” Today the term means to remain well behaved.

6) Pierced ears

Pirates pierced their ears, not to look suave but because it was believed that piercing the ears with such precious metals as silver and gold improved one's eyesight. Even relatively respectable seafaring men indulged in the practice.

7) Letting the cat out of the bag

This term comes from the old naval punishment of being whipped with a “cat-o’-nine-tails.” The whip was kept in a leather bag, and when the sailors “let the cat out of the bag” they had usually done something that would result in punishment. The term today means someone has said something that was not to be said or revealed a secret.

8) Walk the plank

It is confirmed that pirates would throw men overboard for one infraction or another. But no one was ever recorded to have “walked the plank.” It’s a Hollywood movie myth.

9) Pipe down

This original nautical term was an officer’s whistle sound denoting the completion of an above-deck work shift and giving permission to go below. This expression is now used to mean “be quiet” or keep quiet.”

10) Limey

It originally was a term that referred to a British sailor. Now it’s used generally to indicate someone who is British. But the term came from the 17th- and 18th-century practice of issuing lime juice to British sailors to combat scurvy.

11) Square meal

This is an expression synonymous with a proper or substantial meal. It originated from the square platters that were used to serve meals aboard sailing ships.

12) Footloose and fancy-free

The word comes from the name of the bottom of a sail — the foot — which must be attached to the boom. If it is not properly attached it may become “footloose,” causing the vessel not to sail properly. Footloose and fancy-free have come to mean someone acting without commitment.

13) Davy Jones’ locker

A nautical term dating from the 1700s. Davy Jones was sailor slang for the devil. To send someone to Davy Jones meant killing him. Being sent to Davy Jones’ locker implied that the individual was definitely not going to heaven!

14) Posh

Today this word means superior or fashionable and expensive. The word originated in Colonial Boston, where the trunks of wealthy passengers would carry the label “POSH,” which stood for “Portside Out Starboard Home.” It told handlers where to place the luggage to avoid intense sun exposure.

15) Skyscraper

It originates from the term for a small, triangular-shaped sail that was set above the other sails on the old square-rigged vessels. They were so tall that they seemed to scrape the sky.


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