Showing your True Colours – The Naval Origins of some Popular English Phrases


For over two hundred years, the United Kingdom ruled the world. From the start of the Georgian Era, until the end of the Second World War, Britannia ruled the waves and oceans of the globe. When the English culture and language was spread so far around the world for so long, and when the British Royal Navy was such a key part of spreading this culture, several, now, well-known phrases in the English language, were spread around the world and gradually started being worked into popular speech. But what do these phrases mean, and where do they get their origins from? This article will look into the backgrounds of some of the more well-known English phrases which had their origins in the British Royal Navy of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Bite the Bullet.

If someone asks you to ‘bite the bullet’, it means to put up with something unpleasant for a short period of time, to get it over and done with. This phrase had its origins in naval surgery of the 18th century, appropriately enough. The ‘something unpleasant’ was having a limb amputated, and to take your mind off the pain (and more importantly, to stop you screaming), the surgeon’s mate literally gave you a bullet (that is to say, a musket-ball), to bite on. He’d shove it in your mouth and instruct you to ‘bite the bullet’ to distract you from the pain, while the surgeon amputated your limb. In later years, the bullet was replaced with a folded piece of leather (which was more comfortable than biting on a solid lead ball!), but the expression ‘bite the bullet’, remained.

Black as Pitch.

Something described as being ‘black as pitch’ generally means that it’s so dark, you can’t see anything. But what is pitch?

Pitch was a black, tarry substance used in shipbuilding during the days when most ships were still made of wood. Pitch, together with oakum (rope-fibres), were hammered into the seams of the wooden planks onboard ships, to make the hulls watertight. The pitch was so dark that it eventually passed into common parlance that something which was too black to see the details of, was known to be as ‘black as pitch’. Also, the type of jug, today known as a ‘pitcher’, was the vessel or container in which pitch was stored and poured from, when it was in-use.

Broadside.

If someone is said to be giving you a ‘broadside’, it means that they’re attacking you viciously for some reason, perhaps for an opinion that you hold or a belief that you have. Back in Napoleonic times, a ‘broadside’ was a naval tactic for attacking the enemy.

A ‘broadside’ is literally the broad side (long, wide, big side) of a ship. Firing a broadside meant shooting all the cannons you had on one side of your ship, for maximum firepower. Thus, a ‘broadside’ meant throwing everything you could muster, at the enemy.

Mainstay

If something is the ‘mainstay’ of something, it means it’s the one thing which holds it up, the most important thing which keeps it all together.

Onboard a sailing ship, the ropes which held the masts rigid were called ‘stays’. The ‘mainstay’ was therefore the most important of these ropes, which kept the mast from toppling over in a storm.

Running the Gauntlet

To ‘run the gauntlet’ means to endure a punishment dealt out by your friends or colleagues. Back in the 1700s, it was an actual naval punishment.

If a sailor was condemmed to ‘run’ or ‘walk’ the guantlet, it meant that he would be led around the the quarterdeck of the ship and flogged by his fellow sailors. Typically, two officers would stand around the convicted man, one in front (walking backwards), and one behind him, both holding out swords, pointed at his back and abdomen, to prevent him from running away. All the other sailors were given knotted ropes. As the sailor was ‘run through the gauntlet’, each of the other sailors would flog him with his given piece of rope, until the man had reached the end of the line.

Shake a leg.

Your grandparents might use this phrase on you, by coming into your bedroom in the morning, grabbing you by the ankle and calling out ‘Come on! Shake a leg!’, or words to that effect. It basically means ‘wake up!’ But where does this phrase come from?

Before rules were tightened and regulations stiffened, one of the perks of being a sailor or a ship’s officer, was that you could bring your wife or sweetheart onboard with you, for the long voyages. She was someone to talk to, someone to be intimate with and someone to nurse you if you were injured. Usually, husbands and wives or sweethearts, would sleep in hammocks. Since the hammocks onboard sailing-ships were designed to wrap around you really tightly (so as to prevent you falling out in a storm), ascertaining who was sleeping in which hammocks without actually asking them to stick a bodypart out, was pretty hard. When officers went to wake up the men for their shift-duties, they would go through the berths shouting out “shake a leg!” or “show a leg!”. If a woman’s leg appeared out of the hammock, the sleeper was left alone. If a man’s leg popped out, he was hauled out of bed and made to report to duty.

Showing your True Colours.

To “show your true colours” means to show yourself for who you really are, or to show your true intentions in a given situation. But what are ‘colours’ and how do you show them?

In naval warfare of the 18th century, your ‘colours’ were your flags, specifically, your naval jack (the naval flag of the country which your ship was a part of). Under the Articles of War (the Royal Navy’s code of conduct for nearly 400 years; discontinued in 2006!), when going into battle, you were obliged to run up your colours (your naval flag), to identify the nationality of your ship. If you wished to decieve your enemy, you might run up a different flag than that which belonged to your country, perhaps to make the other ship think that you were an ally. Once you were nice and close, within firing-range, you’d literally ‘show your true colours’ as say, a British Man-o’-War instead of a French one, and open fire on a French warship, catching its crews off-guard and gaining an advantage in battle.

Sailing into battle under false colours went against the Articles of War, but unscrupulous captains and officers who cared more for payback and beating the enemy than stuffy rules and regulations, would often go into action with false colours in order to gain the element of surprise.

Show/Learn the ropes.

When you start on something new, you’re generally put under the instruction of a more experienced person who will ‘show you the ropes’, that is, teach you the basics of the job which you are to perform.

Onboard a sailing ship, the ‘ropes’ was the rigging. The stays, ratlines, lashings and other cordage, which operated the ship’s sails. Learning the ropes meant being able to know instantly, which ropes did what, so that you could power the ship effectively through the waves.

Loose Cannnon.

A ‘loose cannon’ is something or someone that is totally out of control, which is going around everywhere, wrecking everything and laying waste to whatever it touches. This phrase came from the gun-decks of 18th century warships, where a cannon and its gun-carriage (which weighed several hundred pounds) might literally break loose from its shackles and ropes, and rock and roll and pitch and swing all over the gun-deck, causing catastrophic damage, like a battering-ram from hell.

Pipe Down.

Yet another phrase your grandparents might use. To ‘pipe down’ is a polite way of saying ‘shut up!’. But what’s the pipe?

The ‘pipe’ is the Bosun’s pipe. The bosun (or ‘boatswain’, as is his full title), was a member of the ship’s crew, in charge of the sails, rigging, and as the name suggests, the ship’s boats. The bosun’s pipe was the long, thin metal whistle which he used to issue commands. On a roaring ocean, or on a warship in the thick of battle, shouted commands were almost useless, since nobody would hear them. The shrill, piercing, almost dog-whistle-like sound of the bosun’s pipe, could be heard clearly over the sounds of wind, rain or cannonfire. A bit like morse code, the bosun piped out long and short notes, which meant various commands.

To ‘pipe down’ meant to be absolutely dead silent. As the pipe could be heard for a considerable distance, it also meant that the bosun was not to blow on his pipe (sounds travel a long way over water), which might reveal the position of the ship in the dark, or in fog, when they were hiding from a persuing enemy.


A bosun’s pipe.

Red Light District.

The ‘red light district’ of a city or town is where brothels are located. They get this name from the fact that back in the old days, brothels were obliged to identify themselves to the public, by hanging red lanterns outside their doors. Why? So that sea-captains could quickly and easily identify houses of carnal pleasure and round up their horny sailors as quickly as possible before setting sail, probably the next morning.

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5 Comments

  1. David said,

    June 19, 2010 at 4:22 PM

    Not a comment but a question: In the film “Master and Commander” there is a scene where a sailor can be heard yelling out the phrase “Sound and broken shell’ This phrase is then repeated by another sailor. What does it mean?

    • scheong said,

      June 19, 2010 at 5:15 PM

      I’m not entirely sure (although I have seen the movie several times). I think it’s a reference to cannon-shells (explosive cannonballs) or roundshot, probably an indication that there’d been a naval engagement nearby.

      Or it could just refer to shells as in seashells…but that far out in the ocean, that seems fairly unlikely.

  2. john said,

    August 17, 2010 at 1:27 AM

    It was “sand” and broken shell. The man was reporting the composition of the see bed.

  3. Rick said,

    November 18, 2010 at 11:45 AM

    Sand and broken shell is a report of the composition of the seabed under the vessel ascertained by using a leadline. The lead attached to a marked length of rope had a hollow in the base which was filled with tallow which allowed a sample of the seabed to adhere to it. Mainly of use when finding non rocky ground that is suitable for anchoring in and the depth.


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