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Words or Phrases Derived from Nautical Expressions

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Posted by Bill Dashfield on August 28, 2020 at 03:27:50 user BillD.

Not sure if this is on-topic enough for TarBoard, but I can imagine Roger having great fun with these and some of them were new to me. With thanks to Bob of Lowry Bay Yacht Club

Slush Fund

Definition: an unregulated fund often used for illicit purposes

In nautical jargon, slush is the refuse grease rendered from the salted meat cooked on board a ship. This slush was once commonly skimmed and put into barrels to be sold in port. The money received from sales was put into a "slush fund" and used to purchase luxuries for the crew that they otherwise could not afford.

In the late 19th century, the term slush fund was appropriated for monies set aside for political ends. Such slush funds were used to supplement the salaries of government employees, bribing public officials, or carrying on corruptive propaganda on behalf of special interests.

Bitter End

Definition: the last extremity however painful or calamitous

The phrase derives from the nautical term bitter end. On a ship, the word bitter is used for a turn of anchoring line around the bitts, or the posts fixed to the deck for securing lines. The bitter end is the inboard end of this anchoring line. When the line is paid out to the bitter end, there is no more line, and you are literally at the end of your rope.

Three Sheets to the Wind

Definition: drunk

"Three sheets to the wind" goes back to the early 19th century. The "sheets" in this expression are not bedclothes, as you might have guessed, but neither are they sails. The sheets are ropes or chains that are attached to the lower corner of a ship's sails and used to extend or shorten the sails. If you were on a three-sailed vessel and all three sheets were loose in the wind the boat would wallow about uncontrollably much like a staggering drunk. Old-time sailors would say that someone only slightly tipsy was "one sheet to the wind," while a rip-roaring drunk was "three sheets to the wind."

Pipe Down

Definition: to stop talking or making noise

Aboard a ship, a boatswain's pipe, or whistle, is used to summon a crew or to relay orders. The sounding of this instrument is referred to as piping. A crew would be "piped" to a meal, for example. To dismiss a crew, the boatswain's pipe is sounded and the command "pipe down" is given. Because it got much quieter after the dismissal, the command became associated with quieting down or making less noise.

By and Large

Definition: on the whole

Oddly enough, the expression comes from the language of sailing, in which by and large refers to the ability of a vessel to sail well both on (that is, toward) and off (away from) the wind. In this context, the word "by" basically means "near" or "at hand," and the word "large" means "with the wind on the quarter." Hence, a vessel that sails well by and large can sail well close to the wind or off it.


Definition: removed or distant either physically or emotionally

Not from 'aloft' as you might think, Aloof was originally a nautical term referring to sailing into the wind as a way to stay clear of the shore or a hazard. (Its opposite is alee.) The word is commonly found with keep, to sea." The "steering away" technique of keeping aloof influenced the general uses of the word relating to physical or emotional distance or indifference.

Aloof is based on the prefix a- and louf, an older variant of another nautical term luff, which refers to sailing a ship nearer to the wind.

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