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August 8, 2002 - Maritime Terms in Everyday English - 2002-08-07

Broadcast on "Coast to Coast": August 8, 2002
Rebroadcast on VOA News Now: August 11, 2002

SFX: Sounds of seagulls, ship horn

AA: I'm Avi Arditti, with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- the catch of the day, terms from the sea.

Lots of nautical expressions have washed ashore into everyday English. Alan Hartley researches them for the Oxford English Dictionary -- that is, when he's not supervising the loading of grain onto foreign ships in the Great Lakes. We called him at his office in Minnesota, and immediately made headway.

HARTLEY: "When you make 'headway,' you're making progress forward. 'Way' is usually the forward motion of a ship. It could also be rearward motion, and that was called 'sternway.' But there are a lot of analogous terms in English that never made it into the general vocabulary. 'Headway' and 'sternway' are a good example of a pair, one of which made it and the other didn't.'"

AA: Maritime metaphors lend themselves to all kinds of situations on land. Let's say you're making headway on that big project at work, going "full steam ahead." It's all "smooth sailing" toward that big promotion. Or so it seems.

All of a sudden you're "weathering a storm." You reach the "end of your rope" (anchor rope, that is). You look for "safe harbor." You "go overboard" to make things better. The last thing you want is to "scuttle" your career and wind up "on the rocks," all because you've "run afoul" of the boss.

HARTLEY: "If you encountered another ship accidentally, you got too close to it, maybe you got tangled in its anchor cable, in that case you have 'run afoul' of the other ship and had an accident, essentially."

AA: "And today we might talk about to 'run afoul of the law.'"

HARTLEY: "Sure, exactly. It's a very typical case of the extension into everyday English. And it shows that, you know, the word would be kicking around in nautical use for a few decades and gradually it would be picked up in general use."

RS: "Some of these words I find interesting because I didn't even know that they were maritime words."

HARTLEY: "Same for me. 'High and dry,' for instance, is something you say all the time. A ship got stuck on the mud flats or on a reef, the tide went out and the ship was left high and dry."

RS: "Well, here's an expression I never associated with the seas, usually associated with my doctor. When I go to the doctor I really like to come out with a 'clean bill of health.'"

HARTLEY: "Everybody does. And the crew of an old sailing ship would have felt the same way. It didn't mean quite the same thing then, but a ship on arriving at a port would have to be cleared by the local port authorities as having no communicable disease on board. And once they were cleared they got a 'clean bill of health.' Sometimes that took a long time. They would be in quarantine, which was a forty-day period. That's where the 'quarant' comes from."

RS: "Do you have a favorite maritime expression?"

HARTLEY: "The one that's maybe most striking to me is that phrase we use nowadays, the phrase 'to be taken aback.' A person is taken aback if he is surprised in a negative way, and that derives from an old sailing term in which if the ship were headed too close to the direction of the wind, the wind would strike the sails on the forward surface instead of the after -- or rear -- surface.

"So if the wind got around too much toward the bow, toward the front of the ship, it could stop you in your tracks. But also, if you were taken aback hard enough, you could break the entire mast that the sail was suspended from. So it was a very dangerous and startling situation."

AA: Nowadays, don't look to the sea for many new expressions. Alan Hartley points out that we're still using mostly terms from the days of sailing ships.

HARTLEY: "A lot of the vocabulary that's developed since then is very technical, very specific to modern ships. It has very little application in everyday life."

AA: Alan Hartley is a ship-loading superintendent in Minnesota and a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary. He's put together a list of nautical language for our Web site. That address is And our e-mail address is

Time to set sail! With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "Across the Sea"/Bobby Darin