Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

Dear Mr. Lederer: Since San Diego is a Navy town, we should all know that “three sheets to the wind” means “very drunk.“ But why? — Gloria Reams, Otay Mesa

For sailors, sheets refer to the lines attached to the lower corner of a sail. When all three sheets of an old sailing vessel were allowed to run free, they were said to be “in the wind,” and the ship would lurch and stagger like a person inebriated. That’s why we call an unsteady state of drunkenness three sheets to the wind.

In “Sea Fever” (1902), the poet John Masefield sang:

I must go down to the seas again

To the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship

And a star to steer her by.

Let us taste the salty flavor of the nautical metaphors that ebb and flow through our language. Consider our use of the word ship. We continue to ship goods, even when that shipping is done by truck, train or plane. We compliment someone on “running a tight ship,” even when that “ship” is an office or a classroom. And many things besides ships can be ship shape or sinking ships.

Now that you get my drift, consider how the following idioms of sailing and the sea sprinkle salt on our tongues: shape up or ship out, to take the wind out of his sails, the tide turns, a sea of faces, down the hatch, hit the deck, to steer clear of, don’t rock the boat, to harbor a grudge and to give a wide berth to.

For ancient mariners, by and large was a command that meant “to sail slightly off the wind,” in contrast to “full and by.” When we say by and large today, we mean “in general; for the most part” because we do not wish to sail directly into the topic.

The expression taken aback probably conjures up in your mind an image of a person caught off guard and staggering backward. But the origin of the phrase is nautical, too: Sailing by and large left an inexperienced helmsman in less danger of being taken aback, which meant “to catch the wind on the wrong side of the sails.”

The long, narrow central hall of a cruciform church gets its name from navis, the Latin word for “ship,” because the church is thought of as an ark for its congregants. Many of these long corridors do indeed resemble upside-down ships, and ships are often built bottoms up. These corridors are called naves.

The lee is the side of the ship sheltered from the wind. Hence, when we make things easy for others, we give them leeway.

From the Greek word for ship, we inherit a word that means “illness” but that originally signified “seasickness.” That word is nauseated. Feeling nauseated on shipboard can force one to go below deck to recover. That’s where we get the expression under the weather.

Next week: more seaworthy expressions

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