Ahoy Me Maties, Sailor talk in ordinary speech

Idioms are colorful parts of speech and English is full of them. They make little sense to a non-native speaker and contribute to the difficulty of learning this language.

And speaking of learning, let’s talk about learning the ropes, an expression that dates from the era of the sailing ships over 200 years ago. Ropes controlled the sails and a new sailor had to know which rope to choose from 10 or more, in the dark, and during a crisis. He had to ‘learn the ropes’.

He also had to cross the line; i.e. the Equator.

What about ‘at loggerheads’? Loggerheads were hollow spheres of iron at each end of a shaft. Once heated, they were used to melt tar in buckets. The loggerheads could never come together, hence the expression.

‘Chew the fat’? The heavy mastication required to eat the beef that had been brined for months on end.

And my personal favorite: ‘piping hot’. If you sat down to eat to as soon as the proper pipe sounded, the food was still hot.

In the 1700s, particularly the late 1700s, New England sailors were opening up trade with the East and bringing back pepper from Sumatra, spices from the Spice Islands, tea and silk from China, and cloth (madras, chintz, calico and other cottons such as seersucker and nankeen) from India. Whalers set off from Nantucket, Salem and Bedford and was a strong industry although it reached it’s peak later in the early nineteenth century.

Hard to believe but this country was already part of a global economy.


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