Saturday, December 23, 2000

Expressions from seas

MANY expressions begin life as a part of a special register, the register of navy, for instance. After some time, these reach other areas as well and become a part of the language as a whole, not remaining restricted to a group of language users. There are many such expressions which come from naval life.

Showing your true colours is one such instance. During the early days of warships, ships often carried on board flags from many countries in order to elude or deceive the enemy. The rules of civilised warfare called for all ships to hoist their national ensigns before firing a single shot. A person who shows ‘his or her true colours’ acts like a warship which hails another ship while flying one flag, but on getting within firing range, hoists its own real flag. One ‘square meal’ may be a problem at times, but never as much of a problem as it was for the sailor of the eighteenth century. On British warships those days, a sailor’s breakfast and lunch were sparse meals, just bread and a beverage. The third meal of the day was a substantial one, including meat. Since it was large in volume, it required a tray to carry it on. The tray being square, a square meal became a substantial meal.

Time capsule of words
December 16,2000
New words
December 2,2000
Words from myths
November 11,2000
The Olympics
October 14,2000
More metaphors
September 30, 2000
Metaphorical colour
September 16, 2000
Broader vistas
September 2, 2000
August 19, 2000
August 5, 2000
Partial twins
July 22, 2000
Language growth
July 8, 2000
June 24, 2000
The law and Latin
June 10, 2000
Vague words
May 27, 2000
Words from war
May 13, 2000

Every person does not like to ‘toe the line’ these days. But for the sailor, to toe the line was a part of the daily routine. The expression was literal, not metaphorical, when it took birth. On the deck of a ship, the space between each pair of planks was filled with a packing material sealed with pitch and tar. The result was a series of parallel lines on the deck, half a foot apart. Once a week or once a day, as per the custom on board, the crew of sailors had to line up in formation. Divided into groups as per duties, each group was given a specific line which they had to touch with the toe while standing for inspection. Toe the line thus began as a means of standing in formation during inspection but by and by became an expression meaning ‘living up to exacting standards’.

If a business is ‘in the doldrums’, it means it is floundering. If a person is in the doldrums, he or she is depressed. This expression also harks back to the days of rugged navigation. The seas around the equator are known for unstable trade winds. In the days of primitive sailing, often a ship would be forced to a standstill by the doldrums around the equator. From the naval to everyday life, the doldrums had a short distance to travel.


Many idioms in Hindi were a part of the register of a particular profession but came to be used by all speakers. Some common examples are Kolhu ka bail (from the oil-press), a drudge; halla bolna (from the military), to attack; and maidan maarna (from the battlefield), to win.