The nautical tradition behind some English idioms

The nautical tradition behind some English idioms

The English language is sprinkled with idioms¹ that have a nautical origin. Some people may use them routinely without being aware of the fact. The following are 10 such idiomatic expressions. They illustrate, not only how the shipping world has impacted on everday language, but also how it has helped unify peoples across the English-speaking world.

¹As defined by The Free Dictionary, an idiom is “a speech form or an expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements, as in keep tabs on”.

  above board: legitimate and honest, not hiding anything to deceive anyone

The reference is to the deck of a ship.

Example: Not all manning agents are above board in their dealings.

  batten down the hatches: to prepare for a difficult or challenging situation

In the Age of Sail, ship hatches were secured before a storm by covering them with tarpaulin, which was nailed down with battens (strips of wood).

Example: Maritime schools battened down the hatches on the eve of another inspection visit by the European Maritime Safety Agency.

  blow out of the water: to thoroughly defeat or destroy someone or something

In naval warfare, a warship that explodes after being hit directly by a broadside is said to be blown out of the water.

Example: Their football team played so well that it blew the competition out of the water

  deep-six: to discard, dump or abandon something or someone

The expression is believed to have its origins in the practice of burying sailors at sea to a depth of six fathoms.

Example: She was sensible enough to finally deep-six her boyfriend.

  flotsam and jetsam: various unwanted or discarded items; figuratively, perons who are considered unimportant or of little value

In nautical lingo, items floating on the sea after a shipwreck are called flotsam, whilst those thrown overboard because they are unwanted or useless are called jetsam.

Example: Despite all the talk about seafarers’ rights, those who work at sea are pretty much flotsam and jetsam to the maritime establishment.

  in the doldrums: in a state of inactivity, stagnation, or (emotional) depression

The term “doldrums” or “calms” refers to the equatorial regions of light ocean currents. Crews of sailing vessels hated the doldrums because it meant there was little or no wind to move the ship. (see Britannica article about doldrums)

Example: Many coffee shops are in the doldrums as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions.

  jettison: to discard or abandon something

The nautical term “jettison” refers to the act of throwing goods overboard to lighten a ship in stormy weather.

Example: The original plan was jettisoned because it would have cost a lot of money.

  red herring: a piece of information intended to mislead or draw attention away from the main point being discussed or considered.

Literally, a red herring is a species of fish that has turned red by smoking (in contrast, a white herring is one that is fresh).

Example: The suspect threw some red herrings, but the detectives were relentless in their questioning.

  taken aback : shocked or surprised by something one hears or sees

A sail is aback when the wind pushes against its forward side and towards astern.

Example: I was taken aback when the union president remarked that it was no big deal if manning agents skimmed money from seafarer remittances.

  toe the line: follow the rules or the established order; obey the commands of someone in authority

Sailors of old lined up wiith their toes touching a mark on the deck when the captain called out to address them.

Example: The captain expected his crew to always toe the line on pain of being sent home.

~ Barista Uno

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“The human element”: What’s happened to the human?

“The human element”: What’s happened to the human?

The use of the catchphrase “the human element” to refer to seafarers has always bothered me no end. It sounds too cold. It calls to mind the periodic table of elements invented by the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. But more important, the term degrades seafarers to the status of mere objects.

The recent case of the Romanian captain who died at sea illustrates to what extent seafarers have been objectified. Because his body was not allowed to be unloaded by 13 COVID-scared countries, it remained stuffed inside the ship’s freezer for six months.

The incident is appalling. It reminds me of the 2012 case of engineering cadet Dayra Wood, who was killed in an accident on board a Panamanian vessel. Instead of the Panama Maritime Authority being notified pronto, the ship merrily continued sailing for 17 days with Wood’s remains inside the ship’s refrigerator.

The term degrades seafarers to the status of mere objects.

More than the dead, it’s the living who have to contend with being treated like objects. For all the praises heaped upon them, seafarers are just cogs in the wheel. They can be replaced or discarded as one would the parts of a machine. Just look at the many incidents in which crews are abandoned by shipwowners, or left stranded at sea during the pandemic because those concerned are not acting quickly enough to repatriate them.

Life is hard enough for seafarers. Why make matters worse by using language that lessens their humanity?

The IMO website states: “The human element is recognized as a key element of the safety of life on board ships and a contributing factor to most of the casualties in the shipping sector. Maritime safety and safety of navigation can be enhanced by strengthening the focus on the human element.”

Tell that to the dead seafarers in ship’s refrigerators.

~ Barista Uno

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Rock vs. water: Reflections on the sea, life and humanity

Rock vs. water: Reflections on the sea, life and humanity

Rock vs. water: Reflections on the sea, life and humanity

“I take it that what all men are really after is some form or perhaps only some formula of peace,” wrote Joseph Conrad in his 1911 novel, Under Western Eyes. How true! Yet how difficult to achieve. Like the sea waves crashing against the rocks, life is an unceasing struggle: of man vs. nature; of man vs. man; and sometimes, of man vs. himself.

The whole of human history is a pattern of strifes that resounds with the clashing of opposing ideas and tendencies. “The whole concord of the universe,’ declared the Roman philospher and statesman Seneca, ”is a harmony of discords.”¹ By accepting this fundamental truth, perhaps modern man would be in a better position to attain harmony and balance in life.

¹ Seneca (4 BCE – 65 CE), from “Natural Questions” (Latin: Naturales Quaestiones)

La Vague (The Wave), 1888
Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903)
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Yet I know that I dwell in the midst of the roar of the cosmic wheel,
In the hot collision of Forces, and clangor of boundless Strife,
Mid the sound of the speed of the worlds, the rushing worlds, and the peal
Of the thunder of Life.

— Sir William Watson, from “Dawn of the Healand”

High Cliff, Coast of Maine, 1894
Winslow Homer (American, 1836–1910)
Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Men of today seem to feel more acutely than ever the paradox of their condition. They know themselves to be the supreme end to which all action should be subordinated, but the exigencies of action force them to treat one another as instruments or obstacles, as means. The more widespread their mastery of the world, the more they find themselves crushed by uncontrollable forces.

— Simone de Beauvoir, from The Ethics of Ambiguity, Part I (1947)

A Rock in the Sea, c. 1890
Elbridge Kingsley (American, 1842–1918)
Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The victories of Right
Are born of strife.
There were no Day were there no Night,
Nor, without dying, Life.

— Sir Lewis Morris, from The Ode of Evil, reported in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)

Rocks at Port Coton, the Lion Rock, 1886
Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926)
Courtesy of WikiArt: Visual Art Encyclopedia

What opposes unites, and the finest attunement stems from things bearing in opposite directions, and all things come about by strife.

— Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 535 BC – 475 BC), as quoted in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Folding screen with bald eagle on a rock on the coast, c. 1830–c. 1850
Ganryo (Japanese, 1798–1852)
Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Having taken Godlike power, we must seek in ourselves for the responsibility and the wisdom we once prayed some deity might have.

— John Steinbeck, from his speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, 10th December, 1962

~ Barista Uno

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Dead ship captain in a freezer: Disturbing questions

Dead ship captain in a freezer: Disturbing questions

In April this year, a Romanian captain died at sea and was kept in the ship’s walk-in freezer for six months because 13 countries refused to have the body unloaded. The story may no longer shock as strange things have been happening during the COVID-19 pandemic. But it raises some very disturbing questions.

Do the rights of seafarers expire when they die? Are these rights and human rights in general applicable only to the living? What about the rights of the family of the deceased? Don’t they have the right to have their loved one brought home as expeditiously as possible for a decent burial?

Do the rights of seafarers expire when they die? Are these rights and human rights in general applicable only to the living?

In the midst of the pandemic, the entire shipping world is hailing seafarers as “heroes of global trade”. What hollow words! A dead soldier is immediately repatriated and welcomed with honours. Why not give the same treatment to a seafarer who has died at sea instead of shooing away his or her remains?

~ Barista Uno

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The marvel of seashells in monochrome art

The marvel of seashells in monochrome art

Modern eyes have been spoiled by colours. Who would still want to use a mobile phone with a black & white screen? Even old films are being colourised to suit the contemporary viewer. Seashells, however, are just as captivating in a monochrome print or drawing as they are in an oil painting. Undistracted by colour, one can admire even more their wonderful contours and textures.

I believe that one should look at seashells like a child and be filled with wonder at the Great Design of which shells are just one manifestation.

— BU, “Nautilus shell: Behold the beauty and Nature’s math”, 23 July 2020 

Shell (Conus imperialis), 1644–1652
Etching
Wenceslaus Hollar (Bohemian, 1607–1677)
Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Shell (Nautilus pompilius), 1644–1652
Etching
Wenceslaus Hollar (Bohemian, 1607–1677)
Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Shell (Pacific Calliostoma)
Illustration in American Seashells by R. Tucker Abbott, M.S., published 1954

Crown Conch
Illustration in American Seashells by R. Tucker Abbott, M.S., published 1954

Shell: Hebrew Volute (Voluta ebraea L), c. 1646
Etching
Wenceslaus Hollar (Bohemian, 1607–1677)
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Shell, 1650
Etching / drypoint / burin
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669)
Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Shell (Conus marmoreus), 1650
Etching / engraving / drypoint
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669)
Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

~ Barista Uno

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