Navy Vocabulary

Do you sometimes wonder about the original meaning of words? For instance, why do many people say "as cold as hell" on a freezingly cold day when most of us today consider hell to be hot? That's for another day, but here are some words derived from the navy (verbatim from Navy Federal Credit Union's newsletter Homeport, Fall 2006, page 18):

Bamboozle: In the days of sailing, this modern term for deception meant disguising your ship's nationality by flying colors that were not your own--a practice common among pirates. Today, an intentional deception among frineds, usually mean as a joke, is said to be bamboozling.

Devil to pay: Although now used primarily to warn of an unpleasant consequence, this phrase described a grueling job--caulking the longest seam, or "devil," of a wooden ship. A sailor would use a pitch, known as a "pay," to do the caulking.

Figurehead: This carved wooden figure placed at the bow had no function but to "see the way." The term now denotes a person appointed to a leadership position, but with no real responsibilities.

Long shot: Here's a modern gambling term that has nautical origins. Because the guns on early ships were inaccurate except when fired at close range, it was an extremely lucky "long shot" that would find its target at a great distance.

Slush fund: Slush, a watery mixture of fats made from scraping empty meat-storage barrels, was often sold ashore by the ship's cook, who would pocket the profit. This money became known as a slush fund.

Squared away: This term for being finished with one task and ready for a new one came from a square-rigged ship with her yards braced so the ship was said to run "squarely" ahead of the wind.

Three sheets to the wind: If the "sheets" (the rope lines used to control the sails) are loose on a fully rigged ship, the sails flap and flutter in the breeze--and are said to be "in the wind." A ship in this condition appears "drunk" because it shudders and staggers in the water, aimlessly floating.

Under the weather: The bow of a ship that comes under the constant beating of the sea, or "under the weather," is where sailors below deck were most likely to become seasick. The phrase evolved to indicate feeling ill in today's lingo.

Wallop: Admiral Wallop of King Henry VIII's navy gained notoriety after he and his ships were sent to the French coast to retaliate for the burning of the town of Brighton, England. He so thoroughly destroyed his enemies that his name now indicates a might blow.