Footloose, Swinging Cats, and Other Salty Terms

During a recent meeting with some writer friends, the discussion somehow turned to modern idioms and their origins. Having spent some time on ships and boats in the service, and being something of a maritime historian, I started to explain how some common everyday terms originated as nautical talk.

For instance, the saying “let the cat out of the bag” today means you let some information slip out. The phrase, however, originated in the Golden Age of Sail and refers to a form of corporal punishment. The “cat” in the saying is a cat-o'-nine-tails, a whip made of nine knotted lines or cords fastened to a handle and used to flog offending sailors. The “cat” was kept in a bag attached to the mainmast. If a sailor did something to deserve lashes, he was said to have “let the cat out of the bag.”

Here are some more familiar phrases you probably didn’t realize were so “salty.”

Bottoms Up: You probably hear this salute during happy hours. But back in the days of press gangs and shanghaiing, it was a warning to sailors to check their drinks. A thirsty man would be offered a free drink from someone looking to man a ship. Unbeknownst to him, there was a coin at the bottom of the glass. Once he took the drink, he was deemed to have accepted payment for signing on board a ship and hustled off to his new home away—far away—from home.

Turn the Corner: Today when you reach some milestone, you are said to have “turned the corner.” But to old-timey American sailors, turning the corner meant successfully passing the Cape of Good Hope at Africa’s southern tip or Cape Horn at the bottom of South America—both of which were milestones in the days before steamships.

Son of a Gun: There are two versions of where this saying comes from, both involving childbirth at sea. Senior officers aboard ship occasionally brought their wives on long voyages. Some wives became pregnant while at sea. If a mother-to-be experienced prolonged labor, the ship’s cannon were fired to hasten the birth. Thus, a boy was called “a son of a gun.”

Another version of the term’s origin says if a male child was born aboard a naval ship, he was referred to as a son of a gun, the “gun” meaning a military man. In my opinion, this is less likely to be true since in the 17th and 18th centuries, the word “military” almost exclusively referred only to the army.

Feeling Blue: If you’re feeling a little sad these days, you might say you’re “feeling blue.” But back in the day when ships were made of wood and men of iron, the death of an officer aboard ship was honored by flying blue flags and by painting a band of blue on the ship’s hull. Eventually, “feeling blue” was equated to feeling sad.

Groggy: We all know how hard it is to get going in the morning when you’re still groggy. Specifically defined as “weak and unsteady on the feet or in action” (Meriam Webster), groggy originally referred to a sailor who had consumed too much grog, that rum, water, and lime concoction long issued to sailors at sea.

Haze: Long before college fraternities indoctrinated new pledges with “hazing,” it meant the practice of keeping a ship’s crew working all hours of the day and night as a form of punishment.

Footloose: Ah, yes. Those youthful days of being footloose and fancy-free, without a care in the world. Back in the day of wind and sail, however, footloose referred to the bottom part of a sail—known as the “foot”—coming loose and dancing wildly in the wind.

Windfall: We all dream of receiving a windfall—an unexpected inheritance, or winning the lottery, or hitting it big in Vegas. But back in the day when the wind powered your ship, “windfall” referred to a sudden unexpected rush of wind from a mountainous shore which gave a ship more leeway—or distance—from the land. Which, for sailing ships, was very lucky indeed.

And, finally, the phrase “No room to swing a cat.” Today, it describes a confined space (no doubt crowded with animal abusers.) But, in fact, its origin is similar to “letting the cat out of the bag.” In this phrase, the “cat” also refers to a cat-o'-nine-tails. During floggings, the cat was always wielded by the ship’s bosun. Crew members ordered to witness the punishment sometimes would crowd closely around the bosun, leaving him “no room to swing a cat” to show their displeasure at the punishment.