Word Origins


(1)     Shit!

Ever wonder where the word "shit" comes from. Well here it is: (according to certain versions…)

Certain types of manure used to be transported (as everything was back then) by ship. In dry form it weighs a lot less, but once water (at sea) hit it, it not only became heavier, but the process of fermentation began again, of which a by-product is methane gas.

As the stuff was stored below decks in bundles you can see what could (and did) happen; methane began to build up below decks and the first time someone came below at night with a lantern. BOOOOM!

Several ships were destroyed in this manner before it was discovered what was happening.

After that, the bundles of manure where always stamped with the term "S.H.I.T" on them which meant to the sailors to "Ship High In Transit." In other words, high enough off the lower decks so that any water that came into the hold would not touch this volatile cargo and start the production of methane.

Bet you didn't know that one. Here I always thought it was a golf term.


(2)     Toe the line.

The space between each pair of deck planks in a wooden ship was filled with a packing material called "oakum" and then sealed with a mixture of pitch and tar. The result, from afar, was a series of parallel lines a half-foot or so apart, running the length of the deck. 

Once a week, as a rule, usually on Sunday, a warship's crew was ordered to fall in at quarters - that is, each group of men into which the crew was divided would line up in formation in a given area of the deck. To insure a neat alignment of each row, the Sailors were directed to stand with their toes just touching a particular seam. 

Another use for these seams was punitive. The youngsters in a ship, be they ship's boys or student officers, might be required to stand with their toes just touching a designated seam for a length of time as punishment for some minor infraction of discipline, such as talking or fidgeting at the wrong time. A tough captain might require the miscreant to stand there, not talking to anyone, in fair weather or foul, for hours at a time. 

Hopefully, he would learn it was easier and more pleasant to conduct himself in the required manner rather than suffer the punishment. From these two uses of deck seams comes our cautionary word to obstreperous youngsters to "toe the line."


(3)     Turn a Blind Eye

In 1801, during the Battle of Copenhagen, Admiral Nelson deliberately held his telescope to his blind eye, in order not to see the flag signal from the commander to stop the bombardment. He won. Turning a blind eye means to ignore intentionally.


(4)     Chewing the Fat

Literally, eating the seaman's daily ration of tough, salt-cured pork or beef. Long before refrigeration, cured meats were tough but durable and it took a lot of chewing to make them edible. Has come to mean a friendly conversation (or talking too much, depending who's talking).


(5)     Fly-by-Night

An easily set extra sail used temporarily when running before the wind (wind coming from behind). Has come to mean 'here today, gone tomorrow', or a less-than-stellar reputation.


(6)     Figurehead

An ornamental figure placed on the front of a ship, under the bowsprit. Originally a religious and/or protective emblem. The custom continued but for purely decorative purposes. Hence the term figurehead - a leader with no real power or function except to 'look good' or appeal to a certain group.

© Marine Engineering Education 2013-2017