Etymology Lesson # 1

Or how so many words and phrases from the English language find their anchors in Sailing English

“Son Of A Gun”

Once a ship reached port, ‘floozies’ (ladies that entertained sailors) would come aboard these naval vessels to aid ship morale. And in those days, sailors slept in hammocks. Hammocks were not really suited to the activities of these kind ladies and most preferred to work in the spaces between the guns. The gun decks also offered convenient spaces (with suitable rings for tying wrists and ankles) for subsequent child-birth. Children born on the gun decks could never be certain of their father’s identity and were entered in the Deck Log as the “Son of a Gun”.

“Footloose And Fancy Free”

The bottom of a sail is called the foot. It is usually tied to a boom, but when it is footloose and fancy free (or loose-footed) it often dances freely in the wind, as if with a mind of its own, and can catch out the careless sailor.


Roman sailors were paid a quantity of salt as part of their salarium (from the Latin sal, meaning salt). These sailors did not take kindly to losing part of their salary when having to rub salt into their wounds after sea battles.

“Fly By Night”

When sailing downwind short handed at night (most of the crew would be asleep) a large “fly by night” would be used to do the job of several smaller, more intricate sails. It required less attention but could only be used downwind and therefore was seen infrequently by sailors.

“Square Meal”

If sailors were lucky, they could go below to eat a warm square meal off the square wooden platters that the cook stowed in a rack. If heavy weather required all hands on deck, then sailors would eat what they could from out of their pockets, between one hard tack and another.

“Freeze The Balls Off A Brass Monkey”

Between the guns, pyramids of cannon balls stood upon small lipped edged trays called monkeys. In larger ships of the fleet, these monkeys were made of brass (for ceremonial reasons). If the weather changed rapidly to bitter cold, the different co-efficients of expansion of metal might cause the thin brass trays to contract faster than the solid iron canon balls. Sometimes it was so cold for sailors to expect that it might freeze the trays rapidly enough to squeeze, and thus freeze the balls off a brass monkey.

India Boating, March 07


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