Do you fathom the lapping of the sea at our English language? When we try to fathom an idea, we are making poetic use of an old word that originally meant “the span between two outstretched arms.” Then the word came to mean “a unit of six feet used for measuring the depth of water.” By poetic extension the verb to fathom now means “to get to the bottom of” something, and that something doesn’t have to be the ocean.
To help you learn the ropes and get your bearings with seafaring metaphors, take a turn at the helm.
The coast is clear for you to sound out the lay of the land by taking a different tack.
Don’t go overboard by barging ahead, come hell or high water.
If you feel all washed up, on the rocks, in over your head and sinking fast in a wave of confusion, try to stay on an even keel.
As your friendly anchorman, I won’t rock the boat by lowering the boom on you.
On sailing ships of yesteryear the butt was a popular term for the large, lidded casks that held drinking water. These butts were equipped with “scuttles,” openings through which sailors ladled out the water. Just as today’s office workers gather about a water cooler to exchange chitchat and rumor, crewmen stood about the scuttled butts to trade scuttlebutt.
The phrase old salts use to describe a ship in shallow water that touches bottom from time to time has been extended to designate any precarious situation as touch and go.
A worse situation is one in which a ship strikes bottom and is held tight, unable to proceed. Today we use the expression hard and fast to identify any rigid rule or opinion.
Similarly, like a vessel driven ashore beyond the normal high-water mark, one who is abandoned or rejected is left high and dry.
The doldrums are those parts of the ocean near the equator that are noted for calm and neutral weather. They pose no difficulty for fuel-driven vessels, but for sailing ships they mean a dead standstill. When we are stuck in boredom or depression, we are in the doldrums.
Ships’ colors used to be raised and lowered a peg at a time. The higher the colors, the greater the honor. Nowadays, we diminish others’ self-esteem by taking them down a peg.
In sailing parlance devil is not he of the horns and forked tail but a nautical term for the seam between two planks in the hull of a ship, on or below the water line. Anyone who had to caulk such a “devil” was figuratively caught between a rock and a hard place, or between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Seafaring folk called that part of the cable that is to the rear of the windlass bitt, and the turn of the cable around the bitts the bitter. When a ship rides out a gale, the cable is let out to just the place that this column has reached — the bitter end.
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