The cat's out of the bag on the footloose language of the high seas, matey

The World in Words

“Arrrrr!” goes the pirate.

Well, not exactly. It was actor Robert Newton, playing Long John Silver in the pirate flicks of the 1950s, who popularized those elongated rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrs. He was asked by the director of the first Treasure Island movie to sound more exotic. And so he went back to his roots, imitating the English West Country accent. A lot of people talk like that in Devon and Cornwall, says PRI's The World history guy Chris Woolf.

So how did men talk on the high seas? 

Of course, there was never one single language of the high seas. English did dominate from around 1700-1975. However, there are many, many words that have come into nautical language from other time periods and different languages.

“Captain” comes from Latin, because people have been sailing since the dawn of time. Then are words that come in from the big trading nations of the Middle Ages — “skipper” comes from Dutch and “admiral” from Italian.

While English rose in the 18th century, says Woolf, many other words continued to come into the language, like “shanty” from French and “hurricane” from Caribe.

“Even as early as the 18th century you see writers talking about how incomprehensible sailors were because they had their own language. It was incomprehensible by landlubbers,” Woolf says.

However, us landlubbers have taken many seafaring expressions and words for use on land.

“There are almost too many to count. You could find ‘any port in a storm.’ You could do something that’s ‘above board.’ You could ‘pressgang’ someone into working for you,” Woolf says.

Even the expression “to be green,” a novice, comes from the sea. In England, the Newfoundland cod trade was required by law to have 10 percent of the ship manned by new sailors. And these newbies were continually getting seasick; hence the color green.

The expression “the cat’s out of the bag” also comes from ship life. No, it has nothing to do with an actual cat in a bag. Rather the expression comes from the British Royal Navy and the cat of nine tails, which was the whip with 9-strands used for punishing misbehaving soldiers. When the cat came out of the bag, you knew you were in trouble. However, you’d never see the cat below deck because there was “no room to swing a cat.”

On and on the expressions go: Tying up loose ends, footloose, full steam ahead, first rate, show your true colors, dead reckoning, stay on an even keel, jiggy, cut me some slack, hand over fist, high and dry, scraping bottom, touch and go.

Not only do many expressions and words come from seafaring, but certain customs can be traced to the sailing tradition. For example, how many times did you hear from your parents not to eat with your elbows on the table?

Sailors used to have to eat with their elbows on the table firmly holding their bowl in place. So when a pressgang broke into a pub looking for people to push into the Navy, they would look for people with their elbows on the table. Good boys don’t do that, so they don’t get pressganged. Think about that the next time you get admonished for poor manners.

Today, seafaring is a much different job. Large container ships are manned by a skeletal and very international crew. And while English remains the predominant language of navigation on the high seas, below decks crews speak many, many languages.

There's more about shipping lingo at minute 11:15 of the World in Words podcast, above. Also in this episode, Patrick Cox explains the historical present tense and reads some of the Harvard Sentence found poems submitted by users. Follow the World in Words on Facebook or iTunes