11 Expressions Used by Nelson’s Navy That Shaped the English Language | History Hit

11 Expressions Used by Nelson’s Navy That Shaped the English Language

Dan Snow

07 Oct 2021
J. M. W. Turner's depiction of The Battle of Trafalgar, 1822, oil on canvas.
Image Credit: National Maritime Museum / Public Domain

The Royal Navy in the 18th and early 19th Centuries had a giant impact on Britain and the world.

The navy was a huge engine of the industrial revolution, the navy defended and then suppressed the trade in enslaved humans from West Africa to the Caribbean and the battles won and lost by the navy shaped the course of wars and the fate of nations.

Millions of men and women served aboard naval vessels and merchant navy ships, meaning that the language, slang and customs of sailors entered the English language. I have picked out some of my favourite phrases that we still commonly use today, but have their roots aboard the ships of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s navy.

1. Knowing the ropes

A ship of HMS Victory’s size had an astonishing 30 miles of rope aboard. More than 20 sails were hauled up and down, reefed and controlled by rope. Ropes held up the mast, ropes secured the cannon, ropes winched barrels out of the ship’s hold.

Often a third of the ship’s crew were inexperienced new recruits who had to be shown the ropes – which to pull, which to release and when. When a sailor knew the ropes he was made an ‘able seaman’ and given a pay rise.

On 21 October 1805 the British Royal Navy defeated the combined battle fleets of the French and Spanish empires 20 miles northwest of a promontory of rock and sand in southern Spain. This is the story of the Battle of Trafalgar.
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2. The bitter end

A ship dropped an anchor to hold it fast to the seabed and stop it drifting off. The anchor was connected to the ship by a long, thick rope known as a cable. At the very end of the anchor cable were smaller ribbon-like ties which were tied to the ship, to fastening points in the deck called bitts.

So if they let down the entire length of anchor cable, they would reach the bitter end.

3. Clean slate

Every 24-hour period at sea was divided into a strict rota system which ensured that half the crew were on duty at any one time. Nelson’s crews were divided into 2 watches, who took it in turns to keep the ship safe and sailing in the right direction.

The officers in charge of a watch would write down any important information, such as their course and the wind direction, with chalk on a slate. At the change of the watch, the slate was wiped clean ready for the next shift.

They began with a clean slate.

4. Taken aback

Nelson’s ships had big, mostly square sails, which hung from wooden spars mounted at various points up the mast. They were pretty efficient if the wind was blowing from behind.

HMS Victory had around an acre of canvas catching the wind and pushing the huge ship forward. If the wind changed, however, the breeze might catch the sails on the wrong side, taking them aback. The sails were now pushing the ship backwards. Chaos ensued.

HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship vessel, docked in Portsmouth.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

5. Slush fund

The ship’s cook was usually an old veteran, perhaps one who had lost a limb or two over years of hard service in the Royal Navy.

Cooking was one of the easier jobs onboard, and it was a good way of looking after a loyal sailor who could no longer scramble aloft to handle the sails or manhandle the heavy guns.

There were perks to cooking onboard. Slush, the fatty waste grease created by cooking salt meat, could be sold at port to candle makers. This business left the crew with a ‘slush fund’ to be spent however they pleased.

6. Groggy

Grog was watered down rum. It was served to the sailors, particularly in the Caribbean where rum was plentiful and did not spoil when stored in barrels for long periods of time.

Sailors would hoard their daily rum ration so they could drink days’ worth in one go and get drunk. Alternatively, sailors were experts in smuggling booze aboard. One witness compared a naval ship to a gin shop.

The morning after a big session the crew might well be groggy.

For the 214th anniversary of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson's decisive victory at Trafalgar, Andrew Baines, curator of HMS Victory, talks Dan through the events of 21 October 1805: the ship, the man, the battle.
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7. Pipe down

Communication to the nearly 1,000 people aboard a ship like HMS Victory was via drums, bells and the infamous boatswain’s pipe or whistle which gave an unmistakable high-pitched shrill. These signals were known as pipes, and at 8 pm the crew was piped down – told to gather their hammocks and go below decks to sleep.

8. Bamboozle

An acceptable ruse of war was flying a false flag, pretending you were from a different nation. British ships could hoist a French or Spanish flag to trick the enemy. If they did that they were said to bamboozle the enemy.

John Paul Jones, one of the founders of the American navy, flew a British flag and even wore a British uniform in late 1780 when a hostile British ship approached.

9. Scupper

When waves crashed over the decks in heavy seas, the decks might be awash with water. To drain this water back into the sea there were holes or drains left at regular intervals in the ship’s superstructure called scuppers.

Anything that drained through these holes – seawater, rum or even blood spilled in battle – may have been described as being ‘scuppered’ overboard.

10. Deliver a broadside

The guns on Nelson’s ships were pointed through windows or gun ports along the sides of the ship. This meant the cannonballs travelled at 90 degrees to the ship’s direction of travel.

Cannons on the HMS Victory, Portsmouth, UK.

Image Credit: David Muscroft / Shutterstock

Firing all the guns along on side of the ship was referred to as a broadside: it was a gigantic explosion of dozens of heavy guns all at the same time, sending tons of iron cannonballs tearing into an enemy ship.

11. Close to the wind

Sailing ships harness wind power to move through the water, angling their sails to catch the wind as efficiently as possible. Even today, sailing boats cannot sail directly into the wind, and Nelson’s big ships certainly couldn’t. Instead, they sailed as ‘close to the wind’ as they could, meaning they minimised the angle between their course and the direction the wind was coming from.

This type of sailing puts great pressure on the ships, rigging and sails. And if they sailed too close to the wind, their sails would flap violently, the rigging might get damaged, the ships would slow down and the crew might well lose control of the ship.

Recently there has been considerable interest in Nelson's views on the slave trade and the plantation economy of the West Indies. A letter of Nelson's written months before his death in 1805 to the infamous Jamaican slave owner Simon Taylor, was published years after his death in attempt to stop the abolition of the slave trade as the matter was before Parliament. Martyn Downer joined me on the podcast to discuss key phrases in the letter that were forged before publication to make Nelson appear even more virulently opposed to the abolition of the slave trade.
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Tags: Horatio Nelson

Dan Snow