Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Dockland and maritime phrases that have survived into colloquial English

Just for fun, here are a few dockland and maritime idioms and phrases that have survived into modern colloquial English.
HMS Victory in 2008.
Photo by Andrea Byrnes

First-rate, second-rate and third-rate

Today if we call something first rate we mean that it is at the top of its class, something really rather special, whereas something third rate is really rather poor.  Originally, these were terms associated with different types of Royal Navy ships of the line that were built in the 16th century at the Deptford Royal Docks, Rotherhithe and elsewhere in Britain.  First-rate ships, which had three decks and around 100 canons, were almost prohibitively expensive to build and maintain, and only a few were in service at any one time.  The HMS Victory, which in preserved in Portsmouth, is the only surviving First-rate ship of the line.   First-rate ships were only built at the Royal docks but third-rate ships could be built at lesser shipyards, including some of those around Rotherhithe.  Each class of ship had its own benefits and a third-rate was not considered to be inferior to a first-rate, so the modern usage of the term has altered the original sense of the rating system.

Nick name given to grain porters in the docks and convicts in the early 1900s. They wrapped the sacking rags around feet and legs to protect themselves against the sharp grain residues. It has passed into the modern vernacular as a somewhat insulting term applied to individuals who are considered to be generally useless or unpleasant.

Dutch Courage
Free Trade Wharf. Photograph by Adrian Pingston
(Public Domain)
Taking a boat ride from Greenwich to St Katharine's Dock I listened to the crew's commentary, which said that the term Dutch Courage (now used to indicate bravery derived from the consumption of alcohol) actually dates to the Great Plague of London in 1665. The City of London was sealed off to prevent the spread of the plague, which effectively cut it off from any food supply. The story was that the only traders brave enough to approach London were the Dutch, who left food on jetties in return for money that was left there for them. The reference to alcohol comes from the story that the Dutch would drink liquor before entering the area, to bolster their courage The Dutch were granted the freedom of the river Thames in return for this life-saving service. According to the boat's guide, they used to travel down the Thames as far as the wharf now located by the brown "lego" building called Free Trade Wharf. I've never actually found a documentary confirmation for this, but it's a good story! Most of the explanations available for Dutch courage refer to a type of gin developed by the Dutch and consumed by troops during the Thirty Years War.

Money for old rope
Rope which had deteriorated to the point where it could no longer be used as rope was sold to prisons and workhouses where it was dismantled into its original fibres. This product was known as "oakum" and was used to seal the gaps in ship decks. The payment for the redundant rope became known as "money for old rope".

Flotsam and Jetsam
Two separate terms for things that were found floating on the sea or river surface in the 16th and 17th Centuries.  Today, the words are used together to indicate that something (or someone) is worthless.  In the past, flotsam referred to items that were released by the action of the sea itself or were accidentally released into the water (like the remains of a sunken ship), and jetsam referred to items that were deliberately thrown overboard from ships. 

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