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Deep-Six: Fishing for Sailors' Expressions

Terms from the sea. Transcript of radio broadcast:

Now, the VOA Special English program, Words and Their Stories.


Sailors seem -- to those of us on land -- to lead exciting, even mysterious lives. Many things are different at sea. Even the language is different.

Simple words like "right" and "left" are not the same. On a ship, "right" is "starboard." And "left" is "port."

Sailors also are responsible for many colorful English expressions.

One of these is deep-six. It means to hide something or put it where it will not be found. You can also deep-six,or reject a proposal.

One language expert says that deep six is the bottom of the ocean. "Deep," in this case, means deepest. The "six" in the expression comes from the six feet that make up a fathom -- which is a little less than two meters.

Sailors measure the depth of the water in fathoms. Thus, the deep six is the deepest fathom...the final six feet at the bottom of the ocean. A sailor who never wants to see something again will give it the deep-six. He will drop it from the ship to the ocean bottom.

You can deep-six something even if you are not a sailor. All you do is throw it away or put it where it will never be found. You might, for example, deep-six an unpleasant letter from a former friend.

Another expression linked to sailing is batten down the hatches. That is what sailors do to prepare their ship for a storm at sea.

Battens are thin pieces of wood. Hatches are the openings in the deck. Before a storm, sailors cover the hatches with waterproof material. Then they nail on battens to hold the hatch coverings firmly in place. This keeps rain and waves out of the ship.

Now, people use the expression to mean to prepare for dealing with any kind of trouble.

A news report, for example, might say that people in Washington were battening down the hatches for a big winter storm. Or a newspaper might report that "defense lawyers were 'battening down the hatches' for testimony by someone who observed the crime."

An old expression of the sailors that is still heard is to sail under false colors. Experts on language say the expression was born more than two hundred fifty years ago, when pirates sailed the seas, attacking and robbing trade ships.

Pirate ships often flew the flag of a friendly country as they sailed toward the ship they planned to rob. They sailed under false colors until they were close enough to attack. Then the pirates pulled down the false flag, and showed their true colors. They raised the pirate flag -- with its picture of a skull and crossed bones.

Today, a person, not a ship, is said to sail under false colors. Such a person appears to be something he is not. His purpose is to get something from you. If you are careful, you will soon see his true colors, and have nothing to do with him.


This VOA Special English program, Words and Their Stories, was written by Marilyn Christiano. This is Warren Scheer.