Maritime Terms

Terms found in Maritime-Themed Songs

Curated by Dean Calin

The ship’s clock strikes in a half-hour sequence based on the four-hour ship’s watch system. the end of the first half hour is marked by 1 bell, the end of the first hour is 2 bells, the end of the first 1-1/2 hours is 3 bells, etc. the end of a four-hour watch is marked by 8 bells. eight bells are struck six times in a 24-hour period: at noon, 4 p.m., 8 p.m., midnight, 4 a.m. and 8 a.m.

(In square-rigged sailing ships) a rope that controls the movement of a yard and thus the position of a sail.

By and Large
By and large is nautical in origin, originally referring to the sailing qualities of a vessel. To sail by the wind is to sail directly into the wind (or as close into the wind as is possible). A large wind is one that comes from the stern quarter (on a square-rigged vessel, if the wind is directly astern only the rear sails catch it, therefore the most favorable wind comes from slightly off one side where it will fill all the sails). Therefore, a ship that sails well by and large sails well in all directions. The phrase dates to the mid-17th century.

1. a machine with a drum that rotates round a vertical spindle and is turned by a motor or lever, used for hauling in heavy ropes, etc.
2. any similar device, such as the rotating shaft in a tape recorder that pulls the tape past the head.
[from Old Provencal cabestan, from Latin capistrum a halter, from capere to seize]

capstan bar
a lever, often wooden, for turning a capstan

[1] A Candle maker or candle seller.
[2] A grocer or provisioner.
[3] Usually associated with provisioning ships but also applied to any dealer of a specific trade.

Peru’s primary guano islands.

A shipwright or carpenter.

Chippers Laborer
An assistant to a shipwright or ships carpenter.

Nefarious freelance recruiter of ship’s crews, the occupation which flourished c. 1800-1915. Often given to underhanded methods he would receive $25 to $50 a head, sometimes going as high as $150.

probably from derry down, a refrain in some folk songs, alluding to the phrase, “have a down on.”

n. Nautical.
1. the part of a bolt rope to which the foot of a sail is stitched.
2. a rope fixed so as to hang below a yard to serve as a foothold.

1. diluted spirit, usually rum, as an alcoholic drink
2. (informal) (chiefly Austral. and N.Z.) alcoholic drink in general, esp. spirits. [ETYMOLOGY: 18th Century: from Old Grog, nickname of Edward Vernon (1684-1757), British admiral, who in 1740 issued naval rum diluted with water; his nickname arose from his grogram cloak]

n. a variant spelling of {halyard}.
halyard or halliard [haljad]
n. Nautical. a line for hoisting or lowering a sail, flag, or spar.

− To pull on a line, such as a halyard

To pull on a line. Also to throw a line.

[Note that the above two terms are used to define either pushing (capstan bars or windlass handles) or pulling (lines) interchangeably.

Jack Tar
Now chiefly literary, a sailor

knacker’s yard
1. originally a slaughterhouse for horses, later a pejorative term for a breaker’s yard where ships past their useful life are disassembled
2. (informal)
destruction because of being beyond all usefulness (esp. in the phrase ready for the knacker’s yard)

A person who has never served at sea; also a seaman on his first voyage

1. Also called: packet boat. a boat that transports mail, passengers, goods, etc.. on a fixed short route.
[from Old French pacquet, from pacquer to pack, from Old Dutch pak a pack]

1. the part gathered in when sail area is reduced. as in a high wind.
2. to reduce the area of (sail) by taking in a reef.
3. (tr.) to shorten or bring inboard (a spar).
[ from Middle Dutch rif; related to Old Norse rif reef, {rib}, German reffen to reef]

1. a mean or despicable person.
2. Archaic. a servant employed to do rough household work in a kitchen.
[from Old French escouillon cleaning cloth, from escouve a broom, from Latin scopa a broom]

St. Erasmus (St. Elmo)
Feast day: June 2
Erasmus was also known as Elmo. He was the bishop of Formiae, Campagna, Italy, and suffered martyrdom during Diocletian’s persecution of the Christians. He once fled to Mount Lebanon during the persecution and lived a life of solitude there for some time, being fed by a raven. After the emperor discovered his whereabouts, he was tortured and thrown in prison. Legend claims that an angel released him and he departed for Illyricum, eventually suffered a martyr’s death and was one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers. Legend records that when a blue light appears at mastheads before and after a storm, the seamen took it as a sign of Erasmus’s protection. This was known as “St. Elmo’s fire”. The blue electrical discharges under certain atmospheric conditions have also been seen on the masks or riggings of ships. Erasmus is also invoked against stomach cramps and colic. This came about because at one time he had hot iron hooks stuck into his intestines by persecutors under Emperor Diocletian. These wounds he miraculously endured.

Act I, Scene 2, of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In the scene, the sprite Ariel describes playing havoc with a crew of unlucky sailors while disguised as the strange phenomenon [St. Elmo’s Fire]:

I boarded the Kings’ ship; now in the beak,
Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
I flamed amazement; sometime I’d divide
And burn in many places; on the topmast
The yards and bowsprit, would I flame distinctly
Then meet and join.

1. a rail at the stern or above the transom of a vessel.
2. the upper part of the transom of a vessel, esp. a sailing vessel, often ornately decorated.

Tight, with no slack.

A typical British mispronunciation of Valparaiso.

1. a machine for raising weights by winding a rope or chain upon a barrel or drum driven by a crank, motor. etc.