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Commentary by Dr. Lucas Boyd: Why Do We Say It? Part One

We have a rich language that has been evolving over several centuries. Often times we use words and expressions without having any idea of their origins or why we say it that way. Since many of our ancestors were connected to the sea and sailing, our language has numerous examples of that relationship.

Slush fund. Today we know this as a pool of unaudited money, which can be used at the discretion of the holder for most any miscellaneous purpose. Because these purposes are often illegal, the expression carries a negative connotation. But the term originated in the English navy in the 18th century. Food was of poor quality with meat being served every other day. It was mostly fat and gristle and was boiled in a large vat. In the boiling a thick scum of fat called slush collected on the surface. It was skimmed off and half of it rubbed on the rigging to waterproof it. The other half belonged to the cook who sold it to tallow merchants to supplement his low wages. Thus, it was the cook’s “slush fund.”

A Good Square Meal. Currently, we use this term for healthy, hearty, tasteful dining. Originally, it meant just the opposite. It also comes from the English Navy of the 18th century. A ship’s officers usually dined on china but because china or clay was so easily broken, the crew used wooden plates and cups. For ease in storage, these plates were square with a rim to keep the food from sloshing off. Considering the poor quality of the food, “a good square meal” was a sarcastic, derogatory term.

Head.  We know this as the name for the toilet on a ship. Originally, these facilities were just long seats with holes cut in them.  There were usually two located on each side of the bow offering a clear drop to the sea. Since they were just behind the area called the beakhead where the figurehead and cat heads (beams to secure the anchor) were located, a sailor “going to the heads” was going to the toilet. Because these “heads” were open and exposed to the elements and salt spray, sailors did not like to use them and would often relieve themselves while hanging in the rigging on the lee or downwind side of the ship. The wind tilted the ship over on this side, offering the waste a clean drop to the sea. Life for sailors was not easy in those days.

Port, starboard.  These are, of course, the two sides of a ship. As you face the bow (front), port is on the left; starboard is on the right. For many centuries ships did not have rudders at the stern.  To aid in steering, a wooden frame was built on the right side near the stern, which held a board—a “steer board.” Through usage it became the “starboard” and was always on the right side of the ship. When docking, the left side was always placed against the dock (port) because waves banging the steering frame into the dock would damage it. Thus, the left side became the port side. However, for a number of years the left side was called the “larboard” side. Since it was too easy in speech to confuse “lar” with “star,” larboard passed out of usage. As an aside, this is why a left-handed baseball pitcher is called a “port sider.”

Limey.  This is a nickname and sometimes, derogatory term for an English sailor. On long voyages scurvy could incapacitate a large percentage of a ship’s crew. By the 18th century it was discovered that citrus fruit in a sailor’s diet would prevent this scourge and by the end of that century, English captains were ordering citrus fruits as a regular part of their ships’ supplies.  This practice led to English ships having much more healthy and effective sailors than other countries—a distinct advantage in naval struggles.

Three sheets in the wind.  This expression is often said about a person who is drunk enough to be out of control. It comes from a situation on board ships when a sail—a sheet— is not secure and is blowing and flapping in the wind. In this condition it is of no use in sailing the ship and a ship with three sheets in the wind would be totally out of control—as would an inebriated person.

As I have come to my word limit for this piece, I find that I still have some expressions to write about. I’ll do them in a couple of weeks in Part Two.

Dr. Lucas G. (Luke) Boyd is the retired principal of Battle Ground Academy. He lives in Franklin and may be contacted at

Posted on: 8/8/2013


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