Communications

18 Ways You Talk Like a Sailor and Don't Even Know It

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Donald Trump, according to Hillary Clinton, is a "loose cannon" who can't be trusted because he "tends to misfire."

This isn't true.

A loose cannon is a dangerous thing, but not because it misfires. That would be "shooting its wad." Rather, a loose cannon -- a real one -- tends to cause even more damage. When a cannon came loose from its mounting on a sailing ship in battle, it tended to rattle around the deck, a big, heavy, hot cylinder of metal that could take out limbs and, worst of all, go straight through a hull and sink a ship.

No wonder it's become such a common metaphor.

Many of the phrases we use in business and life came from the same great age of sailing that yielded "loose cannon." Hillary Clinton can be forgiven for getting one wrong. After all, you'd be horrified to hear that you talk like a sailor. But here's how you do:

1. Broadside.

Ever have a CEO get so angry, he delivered a broadside at you? You never wanted to be the ship to be facing an enemy that fired all its guns on a single side of a ship at once, which was a broadside. Just as our anger sometimes gets the best of us, a simultaneous broadside wasn't good for the ship firing it, either, since it shook the beams and often made the ship hard to keep course.

2. Cut and run.

There's no faster way to get away from a bad situation. Anchors are, by their nature, pretty heavy, so it would take a long period of time for a ship's crew to pull it up (or "weigh" it) to depart from a port. If an enemy happened to be bearing down on you, you really didn't have time to pull up an anchor, so you cut the line and left it behind.

3. Dressing down.

No one likes this severe form of reprimand, which is mistakenly thought by many to mean you are stripped of something, like your dignity. Actually, the derivation means you were added to. When sails because worn and had trouble holding firm in wind, sailors would take them down and treat them with waxes and oils to freshen them. So, when you get dressed down by your boss, she's trying to make you better.

4. Even keel.

This is one of the most sought-after personality traits in a leader or worker. Being on an even keel suggests one is a straight-shooter who can keep his attitude or emotions in check. A keel on the ship is the centerline which goes from front to back (stem to stern). When you're sailing on an even keel, you aren't leaning left or right. (This is also why we use the term "keel over" to say someone dropped dead. You usually did when your ship keeled over.)

5. Figurehead.

We use this term to suggest a leader has no real power, but is just there for show. That's exactly the use of the original term. More than just a decoration, a figurehead on the ship, often attached to the bow, had almost mythological powers, which was important, given that sailors were a superstitious lot.

6. Flying colors.

When we come through an ordeal, we say we made with "flying colors." Same thing with warships. The colors were your country's flag, which were enormous in size and flown at the stern of a vessel. When you lowered your colors, you surrendered. Sometimes, even when you fought, the battle was so fierce that your colors were ripped to shreds. Coming out with your colors still flying meant you won the day.

7. Griping.

No one likes a colleague who complains about everything, commonly called "griping." No one liked a ship that griped either. A ship gripes when its bow is too high and facing the wind, making it difficult to move forward quickly and harder to steer.

8. Groggy.

Next time you see someone nodding off at his cubicle, or zoning out during a meeting, check his breath for rum. To keep sailors hydrated (and happy), the British Navy, starting in 1740, issued a half pint of rum mixed with a quart of water, twice a day, to all sailors. This drink was known as "grog." You were "groggy" when you appeared to have had too much.

9. Hand over fist.

Everyone likes to make money hand over fist. It means you're winning. Sailors were a competitive group, and speed in climbing a line or raising a sail was often a matter of pride (or a gambling opportunity). In each case, the faster you were going hand over hand, or hand over fist, on a line, the better your chances of winning.

10. Hell to pay.

We get this one wrong all the time, since there isn't hell to pay, but rather the devil. When there was a bad situation brewing, sailors would often say, "There's the devil to pay, and no pitch hot." Satan needn't worry about his accounts receivable, though, because the "devil" in this case was a particularly hard-to-reach seam of a sailing ship to be filled with tar, an exercise known as paying with hot pitch. No one liked to pay pitch in the devil on a ship, since you had to hang off the side. over the water, just to get to the seam. (Fun fact: Most sailors back then didn't know how to swim.) This is also where the phrase "between the devil and deep, blue sea" derives.

11. Loggerheads.

No doubt you've seen colleagues arguing so sharply you've said they're "at loggerheads." A loggerhead was a long piece of iron, with a big ball at the end. Sailors would heat a loggerhead to warm tar to fill in the seams between planks in a ship's hull. In a fight, though, sailors would grab them and batter one another with them.

12. Overbearing.

Sometimes you might wish your office were a ship, so you could throw your overbearing colleague overboard. But, to overbear your enemy was a smart tactical move at sea. When you were overbearing, you were upwind of an opponent, so you could always move first and, as you got closer, your own sails would prevent wind from reaching the other ship's sails.

13. Scuttlebutt.

We use the term "scuttlebutt" to denote rumor or gossip, because, even before the invention of the office water cooler, there was still water-cooler chatter. A scuttlebutt was a water cask on ship opened for sailors to come and drink. Naturally, that's where many shared news, true or otherwise.

14. Slush fund.

Money put aside to pay for illicit activities, like bribes, or for activities not sanctioned by your budget, is often referred to as a "slush fund." Slush was the fat that was skimmed off the top of cooking pots. Ships' cooks tended to keep this for themselves, to sell it to tallow dealers to make things like candles.  

15. Taking turns.

Ship's were well-run machines, with crews going about their duties in "watches." Each watch was usually four hours, timed by a 30-minutes hourglass that was constantly turned. Every time the glass was turned, the ship's bell would sound. At some turns of the hourglass, then, a new watch would begin, and sailors would talk about taking their turn.

16. Toe the line.

Getting wayward employees to toe the line and get on the same page is a challenge for any leader. Sailors, when called to attention, lined up in unision by matching their toes to a given seam in the deck planking.

17. True colors.

When we think we know someone, and suddenly an action makes us doubt our intuition, we talk about someone showing her "true colors." Again, colors were a flag of origin, yet many ships sailed under "false colors" to deceive potential enemies. But, under rules of war, just before you fired a cannon or otherwise engaged an enemy, you were expected to hoist your country's real flag, or your true colors.

18. Under the weather.

Any time you were on the deck, you were in the weather. When you had to be brought belowdecks, you were considered under the weather. Passengers who were sick, or sailors who were injured, were taken below, and, thus, were under the weather, which became a euphemism for illness.