Tall tales, salted meat residue and illegitimate sprogs: the history of seafaring slang reveals as many dubious habits as strange sayings, as Duncan Wright discovers
Usage: colloq. A person who is given menial tasks, esp. a junior in an office.
Etymology: During the Napoleonic wars, the navy supplied a notoriously poor diet for sailors, the worst of which was a pease pudding called ‘dogsbody’.The term soon became amalgamated with those who had to eat it; the lowest class who were tasked with menial and arduous tasks.
Usage: An argument of strained pedigree or questionable relevance.
Etymology: 15th-century explorers brought home bizarre produce from previously unknown locations.These novel items became known as far- fetched goods.The explorers also told stories of the people and places they had seen, which were heavily embellished and treated with scepticism.
slush fund, n
Usage: A fund used to supplement the salaries of government employees.
Etymology: Before refrigeration, salt was the primary means of preserving food on ships. Salted meat was kept in barrels below decks. Once eaten, a mixture of meat residue, salt and fat remained.This foul slush was commonly sold and the proceeds or ‘slush fund’ used to buy luxuries for the officers.
son of a gun, n
Usage: colloq. An epithet ascribing contempt, esp. toward males. Also used to convey shock or dissatisfaction.
Etymology: One of questionable paternity conceived or delivered on the gun deck. It was not uncommon for prostitutes to live aboard ships. If the father of a baby was unknown, the ship’s log would detail the newborn a ‘son of a gun’.
turning a blind eye
Usage: idiom. Conscious disregard or ignorance of a situation or information. Etymology: When engaged with the Danish-Norwegian fleet at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, the commander of the British forces sent a flag signal to Nelson, ordering him to withdraw. Nelson is said to have raised his telescope to his blind eye and claim that he could see nothing of the sort.