Bitter end – meaning the absolute end of something. The cleat or post where the anchor cable was tied was called the “bitt” or the “bitts.” So when an anchor was let out as far as possible, and had reached the extreme end of its tether, it had reached the “bitter end.”
Clean bill of health – meaning a certification that someone is healthy. This comes from a paper issued to a ship’s captain at the beginning of a voyage, proving that the vessel had not come from a port infected by plague or other dangerous diseases. Proof that the ship was unlikely to carry disease made it more likely to be welcomed in a new port.
Clean slate – meaning a new beginning. An officer of the watch made notations in chalk on a piece of slate near the ships wheel, describing the ship’s speed and direction. At the end of each watch, the entries would be written permanently in the ship’s log, and the slate would be wiped clean for the next officer’s notations.
Down the hatch – meaning swallowing something quickly. On sailing ships, cargo was lowered down into a hatch, a large opening in the deck, for storage in the hold. The open hatch seemed to swallow up the goods, much as a thirsty sailor might swallow a mug of beer.
First rate – meaning the very highest quality. British ships were rated according to size and armament. Smaller ships – “fifth rates” might carry only ten cannons, and have only a small budget for supplies and almost nothing aboard that was not absolutely necessary, while a “first rate” would carry over a hundred cannons and have a correspondingly large budget for supplies and luxuries.
Footloose – meaning not having any attachments. The top of a sail is the “head” and the bottom is the “foot.” A sail that is footloose dances in the wind, doing whatever it pleases.
Know the ropes – meaning to be familiar with all the aspects of something. A sailing-era ship had literally miles of ropes strung around it, holding sails, steadying masts, providing handholds and securing loose objects. Each rope had a particular name, and each knot in these ropes had a specific use. “Knowing the ropes” of a sailing ship took at least a year of on-the-job training.
Not enough room to swing a cat – meaning too crowded for working. On board ship, the “cat” was the whip used for punishment, a cat-o-nine-tails. Whippings were done with all the crew on deck to see. Given the large number of crew, and the small space on deck, if the sailors crowded too close, there might be not enough room to swing the “cat.”
Pipe down – meaning to become quiet. The last signal aboard a ship was when the bosun used a special whistle to “pipe the crew down,” signaling them to go below and be quiet for sleep.
Press into service – meaning to force someone or something to do a job they don’t usually do. The British navy always needed more sailors than volunteered. To make up the difference, they sent out officials to “impress” non-sailors into the Navy, by hauling them off to the ship in chains if necessary. The term “impress” was quickly shortened to “press” and the groups forcing the impressions were a “press gang,” who “pressed” civilians into the service.
Scuttlebutt – Meaning gossip. A butt was a barrel containing liquid. To “scuttle” meant to drill or knock a hole in something. On board a ship, a scuttled butt was a container of water, opened for drinking. As folks gathered around the sailing-era equivalent of a water cooler, they traded gossip.
Showing your true colors – meaning to reveal your actual nature. “Colors” were naval slang for a national flag. Often warships carried the flags of many nations, and would fly a flag not their own in order to deceive an enemy ship. Just before battle was joined, the attacking ship would fly its true colors, its actual national flag, revealing its origin and intention to attack.
Three sheets to the wind – meaning drunk. Most people would think a “sheet” referred to a sail, but in fact “sheets” are the rope which hold a sail in place. A sail with three sheets flapping in the wind would be wildly out of control.
Touch and go – meaning that a chance for something is possible but very uncertain. A ship could be badly damaged if its bottom struck a sand bar or a rock. But it was possible for the ship to touch briefly on a sandbar, and then go on – a very dangerous situation.
Turning a blind eye – meaning to deliberately ignore something. Horatio Nelson was England’s greatest naval hero and perhaps it’s bravest, being seriously wounded and partially blinded in battle. A much more timid commander once signaled Nelson was to break off fighting during the Battle of Copenhagen. Nelson famously held the spyglass to his blind eye, told his subordinates “I see no signal,” and continued to fight, winning the battle an hour later.