The Nautical Roots of 9 Common Phrases

The Vikings, Columbus, the Pilgrims … they all arrived here by ship. So it stands to reason that some of the phrases we use today were born on the high seas. While sources differ on the roots of many sayings, others have a clear path to the days of sailing across the ocean. Here’s a look at 9 family-friendly phrases that likely came from the mouths of sailors.

1. Clean Bill of Health

The “Age of Sail” in the 18th and early 19th centuries was a glorious time in naval history marked by many epic battles on the high seas, but it was also a time of widespread disease. In order to receive permission to dock at a foreign port, ships were often required to show a bill of health—a document that stated the medical condition of their previous port of call, as well as that of everyone aboard. A “clean bill of health” certified that the crew and their previous port were free from the plague, cholera and other epidemics. Today, a person with a “clean bill of health” has passed a doctor’s physical or other medical examination.

2. In the Doldrums

During the Age of Sail, “The Doldrums” were stretches of ocean north and south of the equator that were infamous for their light winds. If a vessel was caught there, it could languish for days or even weeks waiting for the wind to pick up, which made for a very bored crew. Eventually, The Doldrums became so well known that the name was applied to any area with light winds. Today, someone who is “in the doldrums” is either listless or depressed.

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Tags: English, etymology, language, phrases, words

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Replies to This Discussion

And neither of them have "Try a different tack" !?!?
And hardtack biscuit, reefer's nut.
You're right, of course! Is a cat o' nine tails an appropriate nautical correction device for the linguistically sloppy?
What's wrong with plank-walking or waterboarding?
I don't think so, but I thought the plank/board correlation was interesting. And Glenn deserves it for his misuse of language anyway ;-)
What if I promise to become Republican, though?

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