Endeavour related nautical sayings

Endeavour is back in her home port where she will remain open to the general public as a museum. However there is much scuttlebutt that she will return to the high seas early next year. To keep up with all the latest information on Endeavour, including forthcoming sailing programs visit our website or like our new Endeavour facebook fan page.

The ship has now been open to the public for a month and our guides have been doing a great job in telling visitors about the life on board an 18th century sailing ship. One of my favorite reactions is when people hear some of the origins of modern day sayings and expressions, so many of them derive from ships and this is often a surprise to many people.

I am going to write about a few sayings and their meanings that apply on board Endeavour or are said to have originated from such ships of this era.

The first is to have a ‘square meal’, which we commonly use as a phase as to eat a proper or substantial meal.  It is said to have derived from the British Navy from the 18th century and prior, as serving plates were commonly square and not round.

Square serving plates

The next item is the ‘cat o’ nine tales’ where there are a few said phrases. ‘The cat o’ nine tails,’ is a style of whip that has nine plaited strands. It was used to whip and punish the sailors from the Royal Navy for such punishment as disobedience, mutinous talk or being drunk on duty. The sailor would receive usually twelve lashes, administrated by the boatswain. It was said to have been kept in a red baize bag and the reason it was red is that it wouldn’t show the blood.

Cat O’ Nine tails

So the first phrase is; ‘Letting the cat out of the bag’ which we now use as a phrase for someone having said something they shouldn’t or having revealed a secret. Whereas back then it referred to someone who had done something that would deserve punishment in the form of the ‘cat o’ nine tails’.

The next phrase is ‘Not enough room to swing a cat’ which today is used to describe a small crowded area or a small room. On board a ship it was used as down below there wouldn’t be the room to swing the ‘cat o’ nine tails’ and so the punishment was carried out on deck.

The final one for today is ‘scuttlebutt’ which we use to describe gossip or rumor. A scuttle butt was a cask where the sailors would get drinking water and an area where they would convene and talk and discuss matters out of ear reach.

All of the above sayings are ‘believed’ to have derived from nautical terms, but are not guaranteed. If you have heard a different origin for these expressions we would be keen to hear them. Or if you know of any other relevant expressions please let us know. I will run another blog in the near future with other nautical themed sayings.

All’s well

7 thoughts on “Endeavour related nautical sayings

  1. So the ‘Scuttlebutt’ was the eighteenth century equivalent of the contemporary office’s ‘Water Cooler’? Goes to show, somethings never change!

    • Could the ‘grapevine’ be pre 18th century and refrigerated water times then?

  2. Great post. I love the history behind all these saying. Thanks so much. I saw the Endeavour when it was docked at Melbourne a couple of months back. The ship itself was terrific, but the passion of the volunteer guides really made my day. They bought it all to life. Cheers again!

  3. Ever heard of CANOE – the Campaign to Ascribe a Nautical Origin to Everything! The one I heard on the Endeavour as an alternative derivation for “no room to swing a cat” was “cat” as a term for a Whitby coal ship -well known for their manoeuvrability -hence no room to swing a cat meant not a lot of room to move.

  4. The origin of letting the cat out of the bag is often attributed to disclosing the fraud (letting the cat out of the bag) of substituting a cat for a piglet at markets in the 1500’s (or earlier, but pig in a poke was recorded in the 1500s, referring to the cat-pig trickery. This origin matches up with how the phrase is widely used – to disclose a trick or secret, whereas it seems like quite a stretch to connect that to a cat o’ nine tails.

    • Both definitions are explained on various websites online. Like most sayings their true origins are often up for debate, however I see relevance in both statements.

  5. A simple nautical one to balance the focus on letting secrets or trickery out and gossip is “above board” – openly, not hiding anything, without trickery.

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