Setting sail on a sea of language

Sir, – All trades and professions use words and expressions associated with their calling where the normal English words do not suit the occasion. So too the mariners of old had their own argot, and many of their words and expressions have come ashore, so to speak, and enhanced the English language we speak today.

Who has not been between the devil and the deep blue sea or kept on to the bitter end? Or indeed given someone a broadside, got there by Hook or by Crook, perhaps used the word cranky (taken by mariners from the Dutch), and what about feeling blue? We then have the figurehead, keeping your head above water, knowing the ropes, passing with flying colours, nailing one’s colours to the mast, having a square meal, swinging the lead and being three sheets to the wind.

When a ship was close to shore and touched a small sandbank with her keel but was able to sail on, it was touch and go.

One of my favourite words is skylarking. The young deck boys of 14 years upwards were not allowed in the ship’s rigging at sea, but were when their ship was alongside the quay, and they could climb the rigging and the spars, and they probably sounded like skylarks to the crew. These boys were able to climb onto the highest sail on the large ships, the skyscraper, another import to the language. I could go on about swinging the lead, losing one’s bearings, being on an even keel, or on the mat.


I’m sure you get my drift and have enjoyed some old maritime sayings that are in our modern language, and in the words of an old sailor’s farewell, “fair winds and following seas”. – Yours, etc,


(Merchant Navy, retired),


Co Wicklow.