A surprising number of our sayings come from the nautical world. Have I already said that? Probably, but I always find it a bit surprising – perhaps because I live just about as far from the sea as it’s possible to get in the UK. But then again that’s only about 80 miles, and we are after all an island nation with a great maritime history.
Anyway, enough rambling. Here are three sayings from the days of Nelson. (Disclaimer: I’ve read that a couple of them are disputed, but I think there would be a consensus that these are genuine origins.)
The first one is actually pretty well-known as originating from the days of sail. One method of discipline on board ship was flogging (although it wasn’t as frequent nor were most captains as flog-happy as most people think). The implement they used was a whip consisting of nine leather strands – a cat o’ nine tails. It was a pretty long piece of kit: hence the expression in a small room: There’s not enough room to swing a cat in here.
The food was often pretty awful if the ship had been at sea for a long time, but again not always as bad as folk think and often better and supplied more frequently than they might have got at home, especially if they were close enough to land to be re-supplied with fresh food. The sailors ate from square wooden platters with raised edges to stop their penne pasta and petit pois etc from rolling off when the ship moved, so they came to say that they had had a square meal.
When the bigger warships ship anchored in home waters, to prevent them from deserting the sailors were often not allowed on shore. But the authorities weren’t all hard-hearted, so they allowed boats carrying lots of the sailors’ – ahem – ‘girlfriends’ to come alongside and admit their passengers to the ship. The sailors’ berths were between the big guns that lined the decks, and occasionally a new life would come into the world as a result of these social occasions. If it was a male and his father’s name was unknown to the mother, he would be nicknamed the son of a gun.