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Naval origins of commonplace sayings

navalimageryMany sayings and words in common usage have their origins in the Royal Navy, some of which are quite obvious and well known, some less familiar.

Here are a few to think about:

MIND YOUR Ps AND Qs
Many sailors were illiterate so to facilitate credit in taverns and pubs the landlord would have a chalkboard for each of his regular customers. On this board he would write the letter “P” for every pint on credit or “Q” for every quart. When naval payday, or voyage departure date was approaching, the landlord would show the sailor the chalkboard and remind him of his Ps and Qs.

THE DEVIL TO PAY
The longest seam between timbers on a sailing ship was called the devil. The gap between the planking was filled with oakum and pitch in a process called paying. Filling the gap on the devil was a hated job so the phrase “The devil to pay” was commonplace and indicative of a miserable experience.

TO GIVE A WALLOP
In 1513 the French fleet arrived off Brighton (on an awayday presumably), and destroyed the town by fire. Henry VIII, the king, was a bit miffed about it so ordered Admiral Sir John Wallop to go to France and retaliate. Apparently he successfully set about the French coast causing much damage and mayhem. Since then people give others a wallop!

IN THE OFFING
These days it means something is about to happen….in the days of naval sailing ships “the offing” was what was out of sight in an offshore direction. In consequence if rumours were afoot, but there was uncertainty about something that might occur it was said “to be in the offing”

GROGGY
Sailors were issued with rum on a daily basis, but to stop them hoarding it up it was, when issued, watered down and called grog. This substantially reduced its shelf life. The sailors would, therefore drink it straight away and the drunken effects would lead to grogginess. (The rum issue was ended in about 1967 because the navy were concerned that groggy fingers could not work electronic equipment efficiently…for compensation sailors were given an extra sixpence a day!)

A NIPPER
In present day parlance a nipper is a relatively young person, called that as a general description of their status. In the days of sailing ships the “Nippers” were the boy seamen who must have had a very hard life. The “Nip” was, in fact, a length of cord that each boy carried and when the anchor rope had to be hauled in the nippers tied the anchor rope to this nip rope, attached at its other end to another rope that was wound round the windlass so that the anchor rope, in case of urgency, was never fully attached to the ship and could be released.

SHOW A LEG
In present parlance this means get out of bed and get up! In the days of naval sailing ships, when in port, the navy allowed sailors to share their hammocks with women of their acquaintance. When it was time for the sailors to get up in the morning, the ship’s Bosun would shout out “Show a leg” which was an order for the women to put a leg over the edge of the hammock to emphasise that they were no longer sharing the hammock with a sailor!!

Finally….and not in every day parlance…..

When the body of Admiral Nelson was brought home for burial, it was pickled in a barrel of brandy for the voyage. Sailors were not averse to a swig of brandy so would sneak below decks and draw off some of the brandy to drink! They called this process “Tapping the Admiral”!!

Martin Hallam

August – September 2018