READY, SET, SAIL!

Do You Know What Hunky Dory Means? Discover 10 Nautical Terms!


Published on June 11, 2024


Credit: Andrew Neel

Languages in general are perpetually evolving entities, and English is no exception. Ever-changing, over the years the English language has adopted words and phrases from other languages and even completely invented slang.

Many idioms, sayings, and figures of speech like "batten down the hatches" or "hunky-dory" that we still use in the 21st century, actually have a nautical origin, from the golden days of sailing. You may already be using many of them in your everyday conversations, not knowing the true meaning behind them. That's why we've put together a list of ten naval sayings and sailing phrases to let you know the history behind them. So hoist the mainsail and set course for discovery!

1

Long Shot

Credit: Andreea Swank

There’s little chance you’ve never used this expression, by a long shot. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a long shot means "a venture involving great risk but promising a great reward if successful" . It is an idiom we also use regularly to express "by a great deal".

Its origin can be traced back to early naval guns from the late 18th and early 19th centuries , whose accuracy left a lot to be desired. Apparently, these weapons were effective only at close range and weren’t very good for targets placed at great distances. So if a long shot managed to hit its target, it was considered out of the ordinary and something to celebrate.

2

Batten Down The Hatches

Credit: Torsten Dederichs

The literal meaning of this expression is "to fasten the entrances to the lower part of a ship using wooden boards" . However, in our everyday conversations, we use it when we want to prepare ourselves or others for a difficult or dangerous situation.

The term batten was originated in the 18th century. It refers to an iron bar used to secure the covering of a hatchway on a ship when bad weather was expected. **The earliest record of the expression "** batten down the hatches" was found on Vocabulaire des Termes de Marine , a French-English dictionary of sailing terms published in 1799. The first example of a colloquial use of the phrase, similar to the one we have now, appears as recently as 1955, in an article published in the Bulletin of the General Contractors Association of New York.

3

All Hands On Deck

Credit: sharkolot

Name one TV crime series where the phrase "all hands on deck" has never been used. There probably isn’t a single one! Today we use this figure of speech in an informal way to call for everyone available to get involved in a group task or an urgent situation . However, a long time ago it had a more straightforward meaning. In times of pirates, captains would urge their crew to help whenever a storm was coming or if enemies were attacking the ship. It literally meant "All available sailors come to the deck". Over the years, as the English language evolved, it just became the expression we use when we need as much help as we can get.

4

Loose Cannon

Credit: bernswaelz

We all have at least one family member or friend who is uncontrollable and unpredictable. In our everyday vocabulary, we usually call this type of person a "loose cannon", although perhaps we’ve never stopped to think about what it really means or where it comes from.

The origin of this metaphoric expression can be sourced from the cannons that used to be mounted on the decks of warships in the early 1900s . During combat or a storm, these big and heavy weapons sometimes got dislodged, causing serious damage to the vessel and its crew. We can say that something similar happens when people with erratic behavior are around.

5

Hunky-Dory

Credit: Alex Knight

The origin of this cute little slang phrase meaning "quite satisfactory, fine" is a bit obscure. There are a few theories that explain where "hunky-dory" was first coined, but our favorite has nautical connotations. Legend has it, the expression comes from "Honcho dori" , a term that means something like "main street" in Japanese, where lonely American sailors allegedly went for all sorts of diversions and services in the 1860s.

This Japanese influence was first suggested by American historian and linguist John Russell Bartlett in the 4th edition of the Dictionary of Americanisms of 1877. His theory, although picturesque and with some historical merit, can’t be 100% proven. But for the moment let’s just say: it’s all hunky-dory!

6

Tight Ship

Credit: Ksenia Makagonova

Yes, the word ship has given us away. As you can imagine, this commonly used expression has a clear naval origin. The term can be traced back to when ships were made out of wood and needed to be properly sealed to prevent any leaks. Captains used to supervise this operation and apparently were very rigorous about it.

In its more metaphorical sense, it alludes to a ship in which the ropes are taut, meaning it is strictly managed . In a tight ship the crew and officers work well together, that is to say, the phrase has a very similar meaning to the one we give it today. In informal and colloquial situations we now use it to refer to an institution or business that is highly organized and running efficiently .

7

To Show One's True Colors

Credit: Annie Spratt

Once upon a time, when battles were fought in faraway seas, ships would heave their national flag before a battle. However, some captains were known to be swindlers. To have an advantage over their enemies, they would carry flags of other countries in order to confuse them on the high seas. This practice was especially common in the 17th century among Spanish sailors and it was referred to as bamboozle (sounds familiar?).

Nowadays, we use this expression to describe a dishonest person who eventually reveals who he or she really is . It would be great if some people came with flags, don’t you think?

8

Learn The Ropes

Credit: Tanner Mardis

Starting at a new job can feel overwhelming until you finally learn the ropes . That’s probably how rookie sailors felt like in times before steam or fossil fuel ships. A long time ago, when almost all ships had sails, new recruits had to learn how to manipulate ropes and tie knots . The nautical origin of the expression, therefore, is very clear.

It is true that ropes are rarely used in modern jobs, but the phrase has survived for centuries and we still use it today to refer to the special way things are done in a particular activity . So now that you know, you’ll never be able to teach someone to do something again without thinking of a poor young sailor handling ropes out in the cold sea.

9

Sink or Swim

Credit: Jason Schuller

Not surprisingly, the origin of the idiom "sink or swim" is nautical. Today, we use it to mean that a specific situation will fail or succeed . The source of this expression, however, is purely literal and a bit bleak. In Medieval times, suspected witches were thrown into deep waters to prove their condition. If the victim sank, she would die, but if she managed to swim, she was considered evil and therefore executed.

The first written example of the idiom, as we use it today, can be found in Shakespeare’s play Henry IV : "If he fall in, goodnight! Or sink or swim!".

10

Scraping The Barrel

Credit: Benoît Deschasaux

In the 17th century, sailors would rub empty barrels used to store food to recover any remaining scraps and not waste anything. These leftovers were presumably of inferior quality, giving the expression the negative connotation it has today. This metaphorical usage, to be forced to use one’s last and weakest resource , might have originated in the US in the 1930s, but it certainly never gets old.

We’ve reached the end of this ranking but that doesn’t mean we are scraping the barrel! There are a lot more idioms and figures of speech of nautical origin that you can explore. Can you think of any other examples? Now that you have a snapshot of what nautical expressions look like, you won't stop finding them!


TALES FROM THE MYCELIUM

10 Weird Facts About The Strange World Of Mushrooms


Published on June 11, 2024


Credit: Andrew Ridley

Mushrooms might just be the most mysterious living organisms on our planet. In fact, they have always been so bewildering to scientists that they are classified in a different realm to animals and plants, the Fungi Kingdom , as quirky as it sounds. These incredible organisms hold a myriad of secrets and surprises, from medicinal applications to symbiotic relationships with other species.

Get ready to expand your fungi knowledge with these 10 curious facts!

1

Largest Organism on Earth

Credit: Olli Kilpi

Forget elephants and blue whales, the title of largest organism on Earth belongs to a fungus. A 2500-year-old specimen of Armillaria ostoyae , also known as the honey fungus, was discovered in Oregon's Malheur National Forest. Spanning over 2,240 acres and weighing around 35,000 tons, the "humongous fungus" - as it is endearingly called by Oregonians, proves that there is still a lot we don’t know about fungi.

2

A Secret Language

Credit: Mathew Schwartz

Amazingly, scientists have recently found out that fungi are capable of communicating with each other through their underground root-like structures called mycelium. This network of fungal threads allows fungi to absorb nutrients, transport water, and exchange information through electrical spikes. Some researchers even believe that this communication is done in word-like components.

3

Zombie Ants

Credit: Erich G. Vallery, USDA Forest Service

Cordyceps fungi have a chilling method of reproduction. In order to disperse its spores, first it infects ants and other insects, controlling their nervous systems and compelling them to climb to a higher vantage point. Eventually, the fungus bursts from the insect’s body, releasing its spores to reproduce and infect even more unsuspecting victims. Terrifying, eh?

4

Glowing Mushrooms

Credit: Igor Omilaev

Some fungi possess the extraordinary ability to produce their own light. While their bioluminescence is usually faint, these mushrooms’ otherworldly glow makes them visible in very dark places, like under the thick canopy of a forest. These luminescent species, such as the jack-o'-lantern mushroom , often use this trait to attract insects to ensure spore dispersal.

5

Medicinal Marvels

Credit: Irina Iacob

Fungi have been used in traditional medicine for centuries. Species like reishi , lion's mane , and chaga boast a myriad of health benefits, from boosting the immune system to improving cognitive function. Modern research continues to unveil the therapeutic potential of these fungi.

6

Fungal Sunscreen

Credit: Nyusha Svoboda

Did you know that certain fungi produce compounds that act as natural sunscreens? A set of compounds called Mycosporine-like amino acids (MAAs) shield organisms from harmful UV radiation and are found on a wide variety of fungal species as well as in lichens, algae, and even some marine animals. Currently, scientists are exploring these compounds for potential human applications, as they could represent a sustainable alternative to conventional sunscreen.

7

Mycelial Intelligence

Credit: Michael Schiffer

Despite lacking a centralized nervous system, fungi display a peculiar form of intelligence. They can adapt to changing environmental conditions, navigate complex networks to find resources, and even solve puzzles in laboratory experiments. Amazingly, fungi may even be capable of learning and remembering spatial information.

8

Beyond Earth’s Boundaries

Credit: NASA

Fungi can survive in the harshest environments, so it should come as no surprise that it can certainly thrive beyond Earth’s atmosphere. In 1988, the Russian space station Mir was almost completely colonized by an "aggressive space fungus," endangering both the crew and the station’s integrity. Apparently, fungi flourish in the absence of gravity - as their mechanism for spore dispersal is greatly enhanced without any force to bring them down.

9

Biological Partnerships

Credit: PerytonMango, CC BY-SA 4.0

Fungi form intricate partnerships with other organisms, from plants to insects. In particular, mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with plant roots, aiding in the nutrient uptake process in exchange for sugars. Meanwhile, lichens represent a partnership between fungi and algae or cyanobacteria, which allows them to photosynthesize and thrive in diverse environments from barren deserts to polar regions.

10

Biofuel Potential

Credit: Maarten van den Heuvel

With the quest for sustainable energy sources intensifying, these complex organisms offer a promising solution. Certain fungi, like Trichoderma reesei , produce enzymes capable of breaking down plant cellulose into sugars, which can then be fermented into biofuels such as ethanol. Who knows, fungi might just be the answer to many of our modern problems!

Looking for an extra scoop of literary fun?

Learn more with our Word of the day

infrangible

/ɪnˈfrændʒəbəl/