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The World is in your words

Words and phrases you May not realize exist, or even where they come from.

By Bob ParkerPublished 3 years ago 4 min read

The English language is a thief. Well maybe that is a little harsh.

The English language shamelessly ‘borrows’ words, phrases and sayings from other languages with absolutely no intention of ever giving them back. It has been doing this from its first utterances, this may be because the Language itself evolved due to invasions, immigration and conquests of the British peoples.

Due to the fact that for a long time the wealth and self image of the British nation was Maritime and trade, it is no surprise that many of its words and phrases come from this, and from the people that the maritime workers or merchants came in to contact with. After all, if you are trying to trade with someone, you need a common language, and most Brits are useless at learning anyone else’s language, so they ‘Knick’ useful stuff.

You know, words, phrases, grammar, countries. And before they knew it, Empire.

Modern English is full of sayings or truisms that originated at sea.

He is swing the lead. A phrase used to denote someone doing an easy task or being lazy.

When a vessel was entering a port before the days of echo sounders they used a method of determining depth called a Lead Line. A Lead weight, usually a 12 inch long cylindrical weight, one end with a ring to attach the rope, the other had a hollow in to which tallow was pushed. The line was marked at intervals ( 1,2,3 6 etc fathoms), with pieces of cloth drawn through the rope. Each distinctly different in colour, and texture to be easily identified in day, or night. The man using this would swing the lead on the end of the rope back and forward until he released it to drop to the sea bed. Running the rope through his fingers until he felt the lead reach the bottom he would then quickly pull the rope back until he felt the wet rope. Denoting the depth. Pulling the rope up some more until he felt the first mark gave him the measure of the depth. When the lead was brought on board the tallow was checked to see the nature of the sea bed. Sand, shells, mud or if nothing, ROCK.

Meanwhile, the other crew would be running up masts, setting sails, pulling ropes, maybe even rowing. So they saw the leadsmans job as an easy way out of doing hard work. Hence, swinging the lead.

Ever heard the phrase “ what a Balls up”, bet you thought it was rude, or referring to a gentleman’s bits? Well you are wrong.

If a ship has a breakdown at sea, such that they can not manoeuvre, say their rudder is gone ( it happens) or their engines have broken. The phrase is “ such that they can not manoeuvre as required by the rules” in other words they cant get out of the way. Then they have to raise a signal to let other ships know this, that they are not under command. Two black BALLS 0.6 meters in diameter, one above the other, where they can best be seen. Hence, something goes wrong, it’s a balls up.

Cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey? On some old sailing ships iron cannon balls were stowed on a brass table like shelf, as brass contracts more than iron in cold weather, if the temperature reduced too much the balls rolled of.

Letting the cat out of the bag? Punishment on navy ships could be Flogging. The whip used was called a cat. Or as the stories of pirates have denoted, if it had nine tails then it was a cat of nine tails. This whip was stored in a leather bag. If you had let the cat out of the bag then you had done or said something that would get you or someone else flogged.

Anyone herd the phrase sold down the river? An old phrase used to describe when you or someone else has been placed in a bad situation because of another’s greed or actions. Some say this comes from the times of the Press gangs, when navy ships kidnapped land workers or merchant crews to sail on warships. Sometimes merchants would send their apprentices to the ship on an ‘errand’ only for that unlucky chap to find his master had sold him in to service.

The English language is a constantly evolving, constantly changing thing. Words arrive, stay a while then go out of fashion. Some change their meaning drastically over time. Such as GAY, initially describing a man as full of life , a fashionista, a life and soul of the party. It morphed in to a label for a homosexual man. And from being a compliment it is often nowadays used as an insult.

Bad, still used to denote a situation or item that is not good, is used in some circles to denote good, great, or nice.

Then there are the obscure words, the ones that are seldom seen but are beautiful in their descriptiveness and evocation.

Crepuscular, crepuscular rays are the shafts of light that come from behind clouds when they are hiding the sun, often seen at evening.

Petrichor, that smell of fresh rain on dry ground.

Scintillating, Shining brightly, or brilliant or extremely skilful.

Explore the language, expand your knowledge of words. But be careful, once you start to find these gems it is addictive to the wordsmith.


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    Bob ParkerWritten by Bob Parker

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