All hands on deck

Apropå det dramatiska läget i Röda havet har president Bidens säkerhetsrådgivare Jake Sullivan konstaterat att det nu krävs ”all hands on deck”. Frasen är ett av oräkneliga exempel på sjöuttryck som förekommer i vardaglig engelska. Rimligen rör det sig om arv från den tid då ”Britannia ruled the waves” och solen aldrig gick ned över det brittiska imperiet. I slutet av min bok Havets ord har jag roat mig med att återge en hel del sådana exempel, med noter som leder till avslutande förklaringar på svenska. Läs och begrunda sjömanskårens inverkan på ett av världens ledande språk:

Showing the flag and chewing the fat – landlubbers’ sea-lingo

The winter is in the offing, and soon it will be cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey!

You’ve just enjoyed some of a myriad of maritime expressions, being integrated into the quite normal vocabulary of landlubbers. Most probably the landsmen are completely unaware of the salty origin; they are quite at sea1. Some of the phrases may be next to obsolete, but they are still part of colloquial English. So don’t miss the boat – enjoy the sea-lingo that washed ashore!

A ship is in the offing2 when in the open sea but visible from land. Hence, the expression also means that something is about to occur or to loom up. Another loan-phrase from the sea with a similar meaning is to be under way (or under weigh, alluding to weighing anchor).

The brass monkey was a brass frame on deck, for storing the pyramid of cannon balls. (It has also been associated with a small brass barrel cannon, easy to move along the gunwale of the ship.) In the wintry northern seas, it was likely to contract, so that the iron cannon balls didn’t fit in – thus freezing the balls of a brass monkey. (”The brass monkey” is also the seafarers’ nickname of the golden lion on the Cunard Steamship Co. house flag.)

To have a shot in the locker3 is to have something in reserve, e.g. money. The captains were advised to keep a good supply of cannon balls in the shot-locker. Nowadays, if somebody “doesn’t have a shot in the locker”, he or she is completely out of resources. Another expression for being broke is to be on one’s beam ends4; originally referring to a ship rolling in heavy weather, with one of the rails dipping into the sea. In other words, the ship is almost overwhelmed. In that situation, the seaman is likely to get scuppered5, i.e. washed down to the lee scuppers and likely to get killed.

A long shot6 is a gambling term, meaning ”great odds”. In the old days, the marksmanship of long-range ships’ cannons was quite poor. Only an extremely lucky shot would hit the mark, hence the modern connotation.But belay there!7 – if you gamble you’re likely to fall hook, line, and sinker8, go by the board9 (originally to be thrown into the sea), and end up flotsam and jetsam10 or high and dry 11.

When hard up or on the rocks12, gamblers and others couldn’t afford to be a stick in the mud13 (like the corpses of executed pirates, left in the London River estuary). They should rather raise the wind14(i.e. money), not just being at a loose end while dreaming about ”when my ship comes in”15 (”to be in clover”). An easy way is to get money for old rope16, which is a salty counterpart to the piece of cake of the “Brylcream boys” (RAF flyers). 

Originally, the mariner would try to raise the wind before departure, with the help of a lady of easy virtue. That is, if the lady didn’t dislike the cut of his jib17. Mariners keeping their weather eyes lifting18 would recognize the nationality of approaching ships by the way their triangular jibs were cut. But at times, the enemy would try to bamboozle19 them by sailing under false colours20 Especially the pirates knew the ropes21. Such a scurvy trick22 (scurvy was a dreadful deficiency disease, rife among sailors of the past) included hiding the armed boarding party behind the bulwark. When boarding, the attackers would leave no quarter23, i.e. pardon. On the other side,displaying the crew above board24 was a token of honesty and peaceful intentions. 

In the good old days, ladies were allowed to join the sailors, even on voyages. Without them, life onboard could be quite listless25 (originally, the ship was listless due to calm). But the ship’s hammocks weren’t the most suitable breeding-ground, so the courting couples would probably seek privacy between the guns. When a baby boy was born onboard and the fatherhood wasn’t evident, he would be logged in as a ”son of a gun”. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to be called son of a gun26 among mates. But it used to be derogatory; in fact a maritime counterpart of ”bastard”, which is French for ”son of a saddle”.

In the early days of sail the ship’s log27 consisted of log shingles, hinged to form a book for the ship’s records.

A gluttonous shipmate is likely to be called a gannet. Another name of this seabird is booby. With right or wrong, it’s considered to be quite slack in stays28 (”obtuse”, actually hinting at a slow ship). In some ships there used to be a small room down aft, called the booby hatch29. Perhaps mentally deranged crew members were confined there. Nowadays, it’s a landlubbers’ term for a ”madhouse”.

By and large30 (once a sailing advice to the helmsman, related to at large), the seafarers hold the seabirds in esteem. Albatrosses and others could house the restless souls of drowned shipmates, and they were rarely hurt. Moreover, it would be very ominous to kill an albatross. If somebody did, he should be tied to the main mast with the carcass around his neck, until the raging storm of the bird’s realm abated. To have an albatross around one’s neck31 is to carry an oppressive burden (of guilt).

An offending seafarer could also be called on the carpet32, i.e. in front of a cloth covered table, for a scolding or rebuke. If long-winded, it might be labeled chewing the fat33 (chunks of leathery beef). The offender could also be taken down a peg34, hinting at the British way of raising or lowering the flags by pegs. In the wake of35 Lord Nelson, a prison might be nicknamed brig36 (during battles, he used a brig for temporary confinement). Much feared was the cat o’ nine tails. This flogging tool survives in the expression not enough room to swing a cat37, when cramped. The cat is out of the bag38 means that “the secret is out”, hinting at the cat o’ nine tails being extracted from its canvas bag.

To scuttle a ship is to drill a hole in the hull, causing her to sink. The scuttlebutt39 was a cask on deck, containing drinking water. The crew members would gather around it, exchanging “galley orders” and other gossip. Therefore, it’s now synonymous with rumors.

A number of expressions indicate that the sailors didn’t always use water only to ”freshen the hawse”. Hopefully, most of them didn’t have to be requested ”mind your P’s and Q’s”40. The waterfront innkeepers had tally or score boards, where they marked up all the pints and quarts of beer consumed on tick. To mind one’s own depts, and pay for them, was a code of honour. In a figurative sense, the phrase means ”to behave” or ”to watch one’s step”.

To push the boat out41 is a colloquialism for standing beer all around, not infrequently signaled by striking the bar bell.

Aboard, the eight bells ending the forenoon watch was the signal for the sun’s over the fore yard, meaning ”it’s time for a drink”.

The drams were possibly called snifters (squalls off Cape Stiff) or nor’westers, and instead of our widespread Skål!, the sailors probably burst out a Down the hatch! (”bottom up!”). The drink may have been a grog, named after Admiral Edward ”Old Grog” Vernon, who always wore a grogram cloth cloak. He introduced rum inundated with water as a remedy against most ailments; not least feeling blue (e.g. on a blue Monday, when the floggings were carried out), or being under the weather42.

All hands forward to splice the main brace43 was the order of the day on special occasions; i.e. Armistice Day 1918. The main brace is the heaviest of the ropes attached to the outer ends of the yards of a square-rigged ship, but the phrase used to mean treating the crew with an extra double tot of rum. The custom has fallen into disuse, as has the daily ration of rum, and as a result the sightings of sea-monsters of all sorts have supposedly become more rare. 

Boozing could be classified: To be slightly tipsy – half seas over44. To be half drunk – under full sail. Clearly intoxicated – three sheets in the wind. Drunk – loaded to the gills. Dead drunk – sewn up45 (a deceased seaman used to be sewn up in his hammock before being tripped over the side).

To extract rum from a barrel by drilling a small hole for a straw, is called bleeding or sucking the monkey. It may also be called tapping the Admiral. After slipping his cable46 at Trafalgar, Lord Nelson was brought back home from Gibraltar. He was literally kept in good spirits, and Nelson’s blood was minted as a nickname for rum (not to be confused with monkey’s blood, i.e. red wine). But actually, he was preserved in a cask of brandy. It has been suggested – and denied – that his guards on sentry were tapping the Admiral, so that he was ”high and dry” on arrival to the Big Smoke (London).

With ladies aboard, the officer of the watch had to be tactful when rousing the sailors. He would shout “show a leg!”47. If the leg was coarse, hairy and tattooed, the owner had to turn out immediately. Nowadays, to show or shake a leg means to get up, to hurry up, or even to take a turn round the dance-floor.

Some years ago I saw a charming film, titled Between the devil and the deep blue sea. It was screened in Hong Kong, and the story is about a Greek ship’s sparks and his fatherly friendship with a very young but also very wise sampan girlie. When shown in Stockholm, the title of the film was translated word-for-word into Swedish. Thus, the spectators missed the whole point of a most expressive maritime saying!

To be between the devil and the deep blue sea48 usually means to be faced with a difficult choice. But actually, it is about the devil seam between the outside planks, just above the waterline. This situation is also called between wind and water49, ashore translated “an exposed position”. To caulk the seam with oakum and pitch was a precarious job. The sailor was lowered between the devil and the deep blue sea.

This arduous task gave birth to other maritime sayings. There will be the devil to pay and no hot pitch is hinting at the stress when no hot pitch was ready. Ashore, there’ll be the devil to pay50 means ”there’ll be an awful row”. ”Pay” is actually poix, French for pitch.

The unhappy sailor used a long-handled tool, called the loggerhead to spread the pitch. To do so between the devil and the deep blue sea was a strain on the nerves. Scuffles could occur, with the loggerhead as a weapon. This gave rise to the expression to be at loggerheads51 with each other. Quite a normal sailor could suffer a sea change52, be carried away53and draw his knife in anger The punishment for such an offense was allegedly to chop his hand off. This may be the background of the phrase hands off!54

The officers wouldn’t slip the painter55 for the sailor. When needed, they could easily take the wind out of his sail56. Normally, he wasn’t given much sea room57. He couldn’t cut and run58 or shove off59 but had to carry on60 (in full sail), perhaps sailing close to the wind61. He could also trim his sails to the wind62 (being a turncoat), like a human figurehead63. If proven to fit the bill64 (alluding to the bill of lading), he might be given some leeway65 aboard. E.g. to indulge in skylarking66, climbing to the sky sail yardarms and sliding down the back stays. By the way, the real meaning of a skyscraper is a triangular sail above the sky sail.

Apparently, many expressions originate from handling the canvas (formerly made by hemp fibers of Cannabis sativa), e.g. the sails. Among landlubbers to take in a reef67 is synonymous with taking it easy68 (which at sea, however, is the same as handsomely; i.e. to slow down a bit when hauling or hoisting). Ashore you may be on the wrong tack69, instead of track. If indecisive, you are said to back and fill70.

Shipshape and Bristol fashion71 denotes a model orderliness. Before entering Bristol, the slave ships of the past had to go through a rigorous inspection. If strong and tidy enough, they were eventually declared shipshape and Bristol fashion. At low tide they were stranded in the mud, and only the hull of “A-1”72 vessels could withstand that structural stress. A similar expression is spick-and-span73 (actually hinting at a shipyard newbuilding). Such a ship may well show the flag74, i.e. make official calls at foreign ports (ashore meaning to attend a gathering long enough to have been observed).

The Roman seafarers were paid some of their wages in a most precious currency of that time: common salt. Hence, the English language was enriched by the word salary, depicting just that.

Most of the maritime lingo may be Greek to the landlubbers. Indeed, the word sea itself has been alleged to originate from the Greek seiō (meaning “to be tossed about”). Even if this proves to be a spun yarn75 (“tall story”), one shouldn’t take the gilt off the ginger bread76. The latter is hinting at the elaborate stern carvings of ships like the Vasa

On her maiden voyage back in 1628, Vasa didn’t get many cable’s distance until foundering on the roads of Stockholm. Now she’s the world’s most prominent shipwreck with an exquisite museum in her home port. It’s an ill wind…77 (someone is benefited by every misfortune)! Ships that just touch and go78, i.e. strikes the bottom or a shoal and sails on, make headway79 in another sense, but usually they don’t end up in museums.

We have reached the bitter end80 (actually referring to the end part of a hawser or the anchor chain around the bitts, i.e. the “twin bollards” on the fo’c’s’le of the ship). Perhaps you’re taken all aback81 by the fact that this article is chock-a-block82 with hardy sea phrases, not likely to be deep-sixed83 in a hurry. But now it’s time to knock off84 (when the wooden clubs beating rowing rhythm aboard a galley were silenced, it was time to rest for the slaves).

Bear up!85

1 ”Förstår inte ett dugg.”

2 Under uppsegling, dvs ”i antågande” eller ”i faggorna”. 

3 Syftar ungefär på vänsterstopp eller ”att ha något i bakfickan”.

4 ”Vara i knipa” (egentligen att ligga med ena relingen i vattnet).

5 ”Nu är det klippt!”

6 ”Högoddsare”, vild chansning, ”rövare”.

7 Stopp och belägg!

8 ”Fastna med hull och hår.”

9 Gå överstyr.

10 Vrakgods; även ”vrak” i symbolisk mening, ”lösdrivare”.

11 Strandad, ”lämnad i sticket.”

12 ”Stå på bar backe.”

13 ”Fantasilös och oföretagsam trögmåns.”

14 ”Skaffa pengar”, ursprungligen ”göra medväder” inför avsegling.

15 ”Komma på grön kvist.”

16 ”Lättförtjänta pengar.”

17 Någons ”uppsyn”. The jib är den trekantiga klyvaren.

18 ”Vara på sin vakt”, ”ha ögonen med sig”.

19 ”Lura”, ”locka” eller ”förbrylla”.

20 Segla under falsk flagg.

21 ”Känna till knepen.”

22 ”Tarvlighet”, ”gemenhet” (av bristsjukdomen skörbjugg).

23 ”Ingen pardon.”

24 ”Öppen”, ”ärlig”.

25 ”Håglös”, ”liknöjd”, ”apatisk”; egentligen att fartyget ligger i stiltje helt utan slagsida.

26 Ungefär ”din gamle knickedick”.

27 Skeppsdagboken, ursprungligen noteringar förda på spån från en timmerstock (log).

28 Trög i vändningen.

29 Akter- eller tonnageluckan. Det engelska uttrycket syftar på havssulan.

30 ”I stort sett”, ”på det hela taget.”  Ursprungligen om att segla bidevind respektive slöra (sail large).

31 Motsvarar ungefär ”ha en kvarnsten om halsen” (men har en djupare innebörd).

32 ”Bli åthutad”, ”få en skrapa”.

33 ”Snacka i det oändliga.”

34 ”Bli nedflyttad ett pinnhål”, ”bli satt på plats”.

35 I någons kölvatten.

36 ”Kåken.”

37 ”Det är trångt om saligheten.” Syftar på svängrum för repdaggen, ”den niosvansade katten”.

38 ”Hemligheten har sipprat ut.”

39 Rykten, skvaller (egentligen ”samling vid pumpen”, vattenfatet på däck).

40 ”Tänk på vad du säger (och gör).”

41Lägga ut. ”Bjuda laget runt.”

42 I lovart med bibetydelsen ”vissen”, ”krasslig”.

43Splejsa storbrassen, med betydelsen ”få en sup”.

44 ”Lite dragen”, ”på lyran”.

45 ”Aspackad.”

46 ”Kola av.”

47 ”Sätt lite fart!”

48 Ungefär ”mellan två eldar”, ”i valet och kvalet”. Syftar på den svårdrivna ”djävulsnåten” i vattenlinjen.

49 ”En ömtålig punkt”, ”ett utsatt läge”.

50 ”Det kommer att bli ett jäkla liv”, ”då kommer fan lös”.

51 ”Vara i luven på varandra.” Syftar på lodredskapet, med vilket man drev beck i nåten.

52 ”Undergå en fullständig förvandling.”

53 ”Förivra sig”, ”tappa besinningen”.

54 ”Bort med tassarna!”

55 Lossa fånglinan; ”ge någon fria tyglar”, ”släppa vind för våg”.

56 Ta loven av, ”besegra”.


58Kapa förtöjningarna; ”ge sig iväg”, ”sticka”.

59Lägga ut; ”sticka iväg”.


61Segla dikt bidevind; ”tangera gränsen för det tillåtna”.

62”Vändakappan efter vinden.”


64”Vara lämplig för sin plats.” Syftar på konossementet (B/L).

65”Fritt spelrum”, egentligen syftande på avdrift.

66”Stoj”, ”spex”, ”galenskaper”.

67Ta in ett rev; ”ta det lugnt (försiktigt)”.

68Ta det vackert!”

69”På fel spår (bog).” Syftar på sned- eller underseglets hals.


71”Klappat och klart”, ”i fin (mönstergill) ordning”.

72”Förstklassig”, ”prima”; egentligen första klassens fartyg i Lloyd’s Register.

73”Prydlig”, ”skinande ren”, ”splitter ny”.

74”Markera sin närvaro”, ”visa sig”. Syftar på officiellt anlöp i utländsk hamn.

75Dra en skröna eller skepparhistoria (yarn betyder kabelgarn).

76Ta bort glansen eller det roliga från något. Gingerbread work är ”snickarglädje”. Syftar t.ex. på Vasas snirklade häck.

77”Inget ont som inte har något gott med sig.”

78”Nära ögat.”

79”Komma vidare”, ”göra framsteg”.

80”Till det ’bittra’ slutet.” Syftar på tvillingpollaren på backen, bitts, genom vilken tross eller kätting löper så långt det går. 

81Få back i seglen; ”baxna”, ”häpna”, ”bli förbluffad”.

82Block om block; ”fullpackad”, ”proppfull”.

83”Spola”, ”kasta överbord”. Syftar på lodning av sex famnars djup.

84Nocka av.

85Fall av!; ”tappa inte modet!”.


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