Thursday 7 March 2013

Going 'OVER BOARD' With Research . . .


It’s something us writer’s must do.  In order to get our facts right in the story we’re telling, we need to look them up.  Do cows really have four stomach compartments?  I don’t know.  Let’s look it up.  Can fire still burn in the rain?  I don’t know.  Let’s look it up.

We need to research, and it’s so easy to get lost in it and forget the reason why we ventured there in the first place.  But there’s a reason why we get lost.  We find interest in what we’re looking up, and you find yourself learning and discovering new things (albeit things you may never need again after you've finished your WIP).

I definitely discovered something new researching for my current piece.  As many of you know, old galleon ships play a huge role in my story, and so a lot of research has had to be put in to get things right.  I'm fairly lucky in that I have a small amount of navy knowledge from my teens when I was contemplating joining the Merchant Navy as a communicator, and it's made my life a little easier despite the fact that modern ships and galleon ships are somewhat different (in case you couldn't tell).

However, some of the phrases used back in the day are still being used today, and did you know that a lot of our common phrases originate from old navy terms?  Yeah!  I was stunned to learn this and thought it interesting enough to share.  Here's a few examples:

  • Above board – "Everything seems above board; kosha; ok; legit"

Original meaning: On or above the deck, in plain view, not hiding anything.

  • Chock-a-block - "The shop is chock-a-block; rammed; tight"

Original meaning: The rigging blocks on a ship are so tight against one another that they cannot be further tightened.

  • Clean bill of health - "The person has been given a clean bill of health"

Original meaning: A certificate issued by a port indicating that the ship carries no infectious diseases.

  • Fly by night - "A term given to someone who is seldom seen " 

Original meaning: A large sail used only for sailing downwind, requiring little attention.

  • Flotsam and Jetsam - "random belongings; clutter; junk"

Original meaning: Debris ejected from a ship that sinks or washes ashore.

  • Know the ropes -  "A new person is learning the ropes; to know the ropes; knows what they are doing"

Original meaning: A sailor who 'knows the ropes' is familiar with the miles of cordage and ropes involved in running a ship.
  • Loose cannon - " A wild, outgoing person; someone hard to control"

Original meaning: An irresponsible and reckless individual whose behavior (either intended or unintended) endangers the group he or she belongs to. A loose cannon, weighing thousands of pounds, would crush anything and anyone in its path, and possibly even break a hole in the hull, thus endangering the seaworthiness of the whole ship.
  • Nipper - "A nickname given to a child with fondness"

Original meaning: A short rope used to bind a cable to the "messenger" (a moving line propelled by the capstan) so that the cable is dragged along too (used where the cable is too large to be wrapped round the capstan itself). During the raising of an anchor the nippers were attached and detached from the (endless) messenger by the ship's boys. Hence the term for small boys: 'nippers'.
  • No room to swing a cat – "A room that is too small"

Original meaning: The entire ship's company was expected to witness floggings and assemble on deck. If it was very crowded, the bosun might not have room to swing the 'cat o' nine tails' (the whip).
  • Son of a gun – "A slang term used to describe someone" 

Original meaning: The space between the guns was used as a semi-private place for trysts with prostitutes and wives, which sometimes led to birth of children with disputed parentage. Another claim is that the origin the term resulted from firing a ship's guns to hasten a difficult birth.
  • Taken aback - "Shocked, stunned"

Original meaning: An inattentive helmsmen might allow the dangerous situation to arise where the wind is blowing into the sails 'backwards', causing a sudden (and possibly dangerous) shift in the position of the sails.
  • Under the weather – "To feel a little under the weather; not well"

Original meaning: Serving a watch on the weather side of the ship, the side exposed to wind and spray.

There are so many more that I could list, and it's stunning how sea-fairing ways from centuries ago have influenced our ways, terms and sayings today.

Love a bit of research, I do.  Who knows what you might discover :)


  1. This is great stuff, really interesting. Ref navy - I once wanted to be a radio operator in the merchant navy but wasn't brainy enough, so I took up catering with the intention of being a ships cook - got the qualifications before deciding I didn't like cooking that much. Then life took me on a different turn. Life is damn funny.

  2. lol I was exactly the same. I actually hold a 1st class Royal Naval communications qualification (although, ask me to recite the alphabet in morse and I'll only be able to give you half now :) ). I put myself through all those course to gain my 1st class before realising I didn't like communications. I don't even like talking on the

    I never made it to the merchant navy. As you say life is damn funny, but I have often wondered whether I made the right choice. The lure of the seas still calls sometimes :)