The following is presented by Nova Scotia writer, performer and folklore researcher, Clary Croft.
Clary is also the author of the song Sackville featured on the home page of this site. He can be contacted at http://www.clarycroft.ca/
We use many folk sayings and phrases that can be traced to a nautical heritage and, while some are obvious, others may surprise you. The origins of these terms have been the subject of historical research and, in many cases, rampant dispute as to their proper origin. You be the judge!
Familiar terms such as old salt are pretty straight forward. A sailor who spent his life on the briny sea could probably not help being a bit salty, both is salinity and speech.
A popular seafood manufacturer used the term highliner to indicate top quality. It was the traditional term used to describe the first schooner to arrive back from the Grand Banks with her holds filled to such capacity that the Plimsoll line around the hull was at water level – a highliner.
Incidentally, the Plimsoll Line was named for Samuel Plimsoll, a British leader in shipping regulations who, after a vessel had capsized because her hull was overloaded, insisted a balance line be painted on the sides of every ship.
In the days of sail each country had a particular way of shaping the jib – the triangular sail at the front of the vessel. British ships were usually rigged with one large jib; French ships had two; Dutch ships had jibs which were attached at a distinctive angle. Therefore, a captain could tell from a distance whether a ship was friendly or could pose a problem – by the cut of its jib!
Between the devil and the deep blue sea. The devil was the name assigned to the seam that ran along the plank nearest the water line on the hull. Naturally, while afloat, it would be very difficult to re caulk this seam. So, if a repair had to be made at sea, a sailor was lowered over the side where he would literally hang between the devil and the deep blue sea.
The devil seam gives us another nautical reference. Sailors used hot pitch or tar to caulk that seam. An old term for pitch was pay. To pitch a seam was to pay the devil. Or, a hard task was the devil to pay!
An old English term for a beach or sandy shore was the strand. A ship that was blown ashore or deliberately beached was said to be stranded. And, once you were stranded, and the tide went out, you were also left high and dry.
Which was better than being knocked down a peg or two. This term for a comeuppance comes from an expression used in the British navy in the eighteenth century. Ships’ flags were lowered and raised on a system of pegs. An admiral could show his esteem for a captain by allowing him to fly his colors (flag) on a higher peg on the mast. Conversely, his displeasure could be shown by making the captain fly his flag on a lower peg.
Another term that came from the British navy doesn’t, at first, seem to have a nautical relevance. When conditions are crowded someone might say there wasn’t enough room to swing a cat. The cat referred to in this saying is not a feline, but a whip. Sailors were frequently disciplined with whippings given with a Cat o nine tails – made of leather with nine separate lengths of cord or rawhide, with three knots tied to each end. The nine “tails” were attached to a larger rope which served as a handle. In the early days of the British navy, the whippings were done below decks, with little or no room to swing the whip – not enough room to swing the cat. Fortunately, whipping was outlawed in the British navy in 1879.
Then there is the popular phrase used to describe extremely cold weather. To delicately paraphrase the saying – frigid enough to freeze the spheres from a metallic ape! Here is an often quoted and, sometimes disputed, explanation.
In the days of sail, many things on a vessel were referred to as monkey – a small grog cask for example. A monkey pump was a straw sailors used to sneak wine from a barrel. And a powder monkey was a small boy who scampered among the cannon providing powder and shot. Monkey was also the name given to the pyramid shaped, iron or brass structure set near the cannon that was used for keeping the cannon balls in place. Problems arose when, in cold weather, the brass monkey did not contract as much as the iron cannon balls. As the balls became colder, they shrunk, and rolled off the monkey. Thus – cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. At least that’s the folklore of the phrase.
Weather Lore of the Sea collected in the Maritimes
Wind travels in the direction of shooting star
Wind goes up and down with the sun
The higher gulls fly, the harder the wind will blow
If a fiddle won’t stay in tune there will be a storm
Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. From the Bible, Matthew 16:2 3. “When it is evening, ye say, it will be fair weather: for the sky is red. And in the morning, it will be foul weather today; for the sky is red and lowering.”
Place money under the mast of a vessel before she is launched. This is called stepping the mast.
It is bad luck to whistle on a vessel. It will bring up the wind.
Women in the Maritimes once knit hair in toe of stocking of her sailor lover so he would come back to her.
Bad luck to begin any voyage on Friday.
It was once believed to bring bad luck to have a woman on ship. Some voyages that did allow women were known as a hen voyage.
A tattoo would bring good luck and, some believed, could act as a form of inoculation.
A person born with a caul would never drown. Sailors would buy cauls to take with them on a voyage.
Nautical Cures and Remedies
Most of these cures came from the age of sail:
Hot tar or hot pitch on a cut to cauterize the wound. In extreme cases you could sew up the wound with a sail needle.
Wear copper wrist bands to prevent boils
Wear wristers [narrow knit bands covering the wrist] to prevent chafing, but on no account ever wear white gloves or mittens. They bring bad luck.
Nautical Tales of Witchcraft
Vinter de Vitch
At La Have, Nova Scotia a man told Dr. Helen Creighton, the famed collector of Maritime folklore, of a time when he and a number of other men were busy rigging a vessel at the wharf. These seamen were natives of Lunenburg County and still retained the strong ancestral German accent of their forefathers. An old man came along in a horse and wagon and said, “What a nice little wessel. Whose wessel is it? Can I come aboard?” However, one of the men refused him and drove him away saying, “Dat’s old Vinter de Vitch”. Apparently old Mr. Winter had wanted to purchase a calf owned by an acquaintance of the man who sent him off. When the man refused to sell the calf, Mr. Winter remarked on how calves sometimes die and, shortly after, the one in question did.
During the era when sailing vessels were being built in the New Brunswick town of St. Andrews there was a woman named Old Betty who was reputed to be a witch. A vessel named Black Swan was on her skids and ready to be launched when Old Betty came to the captain’s house and demanded a new shawl. She warned if she didn’t get her request the vessel would never get off the ways. Apparently this was something she did at other launchings but, this time, the captain, Thomas Smith, said he would prove that her powers were useless and refused to give her a shawl. On the day of the launch everything was made ready and the ship was let go. At first the vessel refused to move but eventually began to slip down the rollers. But, as it moved down the skids the captain’s fingers were caught and broken.