Tuesday 22 January 2019

Life in the Time of Sailing Ships – Part III, by Jayne Davis #History #Ships #Regency @jaynedavis142

Life in the Time of Sailing Ships – Part III
By Jayne Davis

Part I of Life in theTime of Sailing Ships looked at some phrases in everyday language that originated in the days of sail. Part II looked at living on a warship. For Part III, I’m returning to some of those everyday phrases.

Slush fund

The meaning today is a reserve of money used for illicit purposes. The meaning has changed over the years, as it was originally a fund used to buy small items for a ship’s crew, such as books for them to read.
So why ‘slush’? It is an unappetising explanation.
Ships’ crews ate a lot of salted meat. The cooking for all the men was done in a central galley, and for the salt beef or pork this consisted of boiling it up in large vats. The fat floated to the top, having much the same consistency as the slush we get when snow partially melts. The cook would skim this off and store it for sale.

The galley on HMS Victory. Note the tiles to prevent falling embers setting fire to deck planks. The fire would be put out in rough weather or when going into action—there is nowhere to run to if a ship catches fire at sea..

Learn the ropes or Know the ropes

Knowing the ropes is to understand how to do something. Sailing ships use ropes—lots of ropes!
The photos below are of the Cutty Sark, a 150-year old tea clipper now on permanent display in Greenwich, London. It was the fastest ship of its day.

Just some of the rigging on the Cutty Sark.
Some of the running rigging on Cutty Sark. These are some of the ropes used to control the yards and sails. You need to know which one to pull on.

It seems obvious that the phrase must have come from the days of sailing ships, but this is disputed. It has been suggested that the phrase originated in the theatre, where ropes were used for raising and lowering scenery, and the word wasn’t seen in print until the beginning of the 19th century.
I’m sticking with the nautical version – even if the phrase did not originate with sailing ships, it is very appropriate.

To the bitter end

Not bitter as in lemons…
The photo below shows two sets of bitts on a tall ship (with ropes very neatly coiled). The bitts are the pairs of posts almost hidden by the rope.

Bitts, with cable wound around them.

An anchor or mooring cable would have one end wound around the bitts to fasten it to the ship. As the rope was paid out, it would eventually come to the bitter end—the end attached to the bitts. So the bitter end is when you can go no further.
Again, this is disputed, but it sounds good to me.

Taken aback

As I’ve given you two potentially dodgy phrases, I’ll finish with this one which is more definite.
Taken aback today is to be startled or surprised. The first things to be taken aback were sails, the phrase being first recorded in the 17th century. It means when the wind gets on the wrong side of a sail. This can happen due to a sudden shift in the wind, or due to a course change. If this happens accidently, it is not normally a good thing, but sometimes sails are ‘backed’ on purpose, when a ship heaves to, or if it is caught ‘in irons’. The principles are the same for tall ships like the Cutty Sark and for sailing dinghies, but it is much easier to explain using the latter!
Heaving to is bringing a ship to a stop in the water, without anchoring. A ship being boarded for customs checks, for example, would have to heave to. On a sailing ship, this is done by having some of the sails backed. These backed sails push the ship back while others are trying to move it forwards.

Heaving to.

A sailing ship wanting to go in the direction the wind is coming from (into the wind) has to tack back and forth. Each time the ship turns, it has to pass though a position where the wind is coming from dead ahead. If the ship doesn’t have enough momentum in its turn, it can get stuck pointing directly into the wind, unable to move or turn further. As the ship is hardly moving the rudder doesn’t work. It is referred to as being ‘in irons’. This is an example of a phrase going from everyday like into shipboard life—a convict in manacles (in irons) cannot move, and nor can a sailing ship in this position.
The way out of this, as I rapidly learned in my dinghy sailing days, is to back the jib. This pushes the boat backwards, giving enough movement for the rudder to work and put the boat in a position where both sails can fill. You then try again, hoping not too many people were watching.

Backing the jib to escape an embarrassing situation.

Further reading:
The Phrase Finder website discusses lots of phrases that have nautical origins, and debunks some that seem to be obviously related to the sea but are not.

The Mrs MacKinnons 

England, 1799
Major Matthew Southam returns from India, hoping to put the trauma of war behind him and forget his past. Instead, he finds a derelict estate and a family who wish he'd died abroad.
Charlotte MacKinnon married without love to avoid her father’s unpleasant choice of husband. Now a widow with a young son, she lives in a small Cotswold village with only the money she earns by her writing.
Matthew is haunted by his past, and Charlotte is fearful of her father’s renewed meddling in her future. After a disastrous first meeting, can they help each other find happiness?
4.7* average on Amazon, available on Kindle Unlimited.

Jayne Davis

Jayne Davis writes historical romances set in the late Georgian/Regency era, published as both ebooks and paperbacks. There are more articles on her blog. [please link to http://www.jaynedavisromance.co.uk/]
She was hooked on Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer as a teenager, and longed to write similar novels herself. Real life intervened, and she had several careers, including as a non-fiction author under her real name. That wasn't quite the writing career she had in mind...
Finally, she got around to polishing up stories written for her own amusement in long winter evenings, and became the kind of author she’d dreamed of in her teens. Her first book, The Mrs MacKinnons, was published in 2018. She is now working on the first few books in the Marstone Series, set in the late Georgian/early Regency period.
Book 1 in the Marstone Series, Sauce for the Gander, will be published in early 2019.

Connect with Jayne: WebsiteTwitterPinterest


  1. love these explanations of terms, always fascinating �� Thank you for an entertaining and educational post. x

  2. What an interesting article, Jayne.


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