To celebrate the 160th anniversary of Lamb’s Navy Rum, veterans across the country have been remembering their sailing days and the sayings borne of the sea that have now become part of our everyday lives.
A nationwide poll has revealed our top three most famous naval sayings and it appears we are a united nation in the troubled waters we’re going through. The traditional naval sayings once used to describe the life on ships and shore, have evolved to take on new meanings which are as befitting to our current times as they were 160 year ago. Albert Jack, who is a world leading language expert on the origins of sayings, has helped us explain what these sayings actually mean.
It’s not a surprise that the good old British weather has come into the mix. Under the weather is ranked as the third most popular saying in the country, with 16% of the vote. Maybe it’s the doom and gloom of the recession really affecting us…or it could simply be the weather dragging us down!
But do we really know what this famous saying really means? Albert Jack explains; “In days gone by, under the weather was used for people who felt unwell and were unable to function properly, again with its origin far out at sea. When a sailor was genuinely ill he would be sent well below decks where he could recover without the wind and rain making his condition worse. The raging sea could also make a man feel ill and yet under the decks and ‘under the weather’ his condition could begin to improve. Sick bays were usually located in the very depths of the hull, as low as possible”.
Coming in second place with a fifth of the votes is the popular and well-known saying, You Scratch my back I’ll Scratch Yours. Demonstrating we are all pulling together and showing our sense of solidarity and strength in uncertain times.
Almost everyone understands the true meaning of the saying, knowing it was all about helping one another out and doing each other a good turn but where did it originate? According to Albert Jack; “During the 17th & 18th centuries the English Navy was traditionally brutal and punishments for disobedience or absenteeism were extremely harsh and involved crewmates being punished by other crewmates. It was likely that the crewmate would himself become a victim at some stage, so would be lenient with his victim by applying only light stokes and merely ‘scratching’ his back. He himself would then receive equally lenient treatment by another shipmate if and when he was on the receiving end”.
The overall winner and most famous saying of all which ranked in first place is Freeze the Balls off a Brass Monkey. This cheeky little saying stole a quarter of the votes, could our sense of humour be helping us survive the recession?
Most people believe the saying means it’s cold outside. Very few understand the true meaning which dates back to old nautical records. Surprisingly it has nothing to do with monkey’s balls or brass monkey’s balls!
“Well”, says Albert Jack, “On man-of-war ships young boys used to carry gunpowder along tiny passages and galleys on the ships. The young boys were known as ‘powder monkeys’ because of their agility, and by association the brass trays used to stack the cannonballs became known as brass monkeys. These trays formed the base of a cannonball pyramid. Brass was used because the iron balls would not stick to brass through rust or frost, but the drawback was that brass contracts faster than iron does when it’s cold. On severely cold days the indentations holding the lower level of cannonballs contracted, spilling the pyramid across deck. Hence, it was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”.So next time you use one of these, take a moment to think of our sailors and the many sayings they have given us for us to enjoy in our everyday lives.