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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 4; Issue 3; May 02

Seth Column

Sailing expressions

Seth Lindstromberg

Linguists and psychologists who study figurative language commonly use the term metaphor to refer not to a particular word or phrase but to a way of thinking. Like this—

Metaphor:Particular metaphorical expressions:
'UP' IS MORE (& 'DOWN' IS LESS) high/rising/climbing/soaring prices, to up/raise prices, ascending values, etc.

Metaphors, in this sense, can be classified in a number of ways. For example, it seems that each can be positioned somewhere along the continuum 1 <--> 3 :

  1. Universal metaphors
    1. Metaphors which are common but not universal
      1. Metaphors which are language/culture specific

It has been suggested, for example, that the metaphor 'UP' IS MORE is universal. So cognitively basic is it in English that it may require a good deal of ingenuity to talk even briefly about changes in quantity without using an 'UP' IS MORE expression. Many of these expressions are so basic and common that their metaphorical nature generally goes quite unnoticed. But of course, 'high' prices are not really farther off the ground.

Expressions of universal metaphors are unlikely to present young and adult learners with any extraordinary problems. Things are likely to be different, however, with metaphors and other tropes that are relatively culture and language specific. English, for example, includes a sizeable set of expressions which derive from thinking of life situations, and changes in life, as if they were circumstances or events that a sailor might experience. Here is a partial list—

  1. The tide has turned. = There has been a major reversal. => "One team was winning for a while. Then the tide turned and the other team came out on top."

  2. in the offing => The 'offing' is the part of the sea just past the surf. If a ship is 'in the offing' that may mean that the crew are waiting to come ashore. => So, be in the offing means 'likely to happen in the near future'. => "There are several payments in the offing. When I get them, I'll have lots of money."

  3. learn the ropes = Learn the ropes of a sailing ship. => Learn how to do a new job. => "In every new job it takes a while to learn the ropes."

  4. in the doldrums => The doldrums is the region near the equator which is often windless. In the days of sail, ships often got stuck in the doldrums…making little or no progress for days and weeks on end. => "I've been in the doldrums lately." = 'I've been listless and lacking in purpose lately.

  5. take the helm => The 'helm' is the steering wheel of a ship. => So, take the helm means 'take control'. Be at the helm means 'be the boss'.

  6. under one's own steam = not pulled by another ship => making independent progress = "She needed lots of help while she was learning the ropes but now she's operating under her own steam."

  7. take the wind out of someone's sails => If sailing ship A passes sailing ship B on the windward side, the sails of ship A will catch most of the wind and cause shipe B to slow down. => "Our new product will take the wind out of our competitor's sails."

  8. sail through life => Compared to rowing, sailing is easy. => So, to sail through life means to make progress with little effort. => "She's always had brains, looks and luck. She has just sailed through life."

  9. give s'one a wide berth = to avoid => A 'berth' is a 'parking place' for a ship. => In the old days, if a ship was believed to be carrying disease, it would be given a wide berth so that other ships did not have to be too near it. => "I don't trust that guy. I'm going to give him a wide berth."

  10. to coast = to sail along the coast rather than out onto the deep blue sea. = Coasting was less dangerous than 'blue water' sailing. => So,to coast means 'to invest little effort'. Imagine, for example, a bright girl who is 'coasting' in school. That means she isn't studying. She manages to pass her/his courses but does not do as well as she could if she tried harder.

  11. deliver a broadside = Imagine a ship of war with cannons arranged along each side from one end of the ship to the other. If this ship fires all the guns on one side at the same time, that is a 'broadside'. [Broad = 'wide'. The side of a ship is wide.] => If you are arguing with someone and you 'deliver a broadside', that means you attack your opponent with a very strong argument—for example, with lots of facts at the same time. => "The Times delivered a broadside against government tax plans."

  12. keel over => The 'keel' is the bottom most part of a ship that runs from front to back. If a ship 'keels over', that means it turns over. => If people 'keel over', they faint or collapse and fall over. => "She turned pale and then just keeled over."

  13. fire a [warning] shot across his bow = The 'bow' /bau/ is the front of a ship. If a warship wants another ship to stop, it may fire a warning shot across its bow. This means, "If you don't stop, we will sink you!" => In everyday life, fire a shot across someone's bow means 'give him/her a clear warning'.

  14. Batten down the hatches! = a 'hatch' is a door in a floor or deck (of a ship). A 'batten' is a flat strip of wood. => If a storm is coming, all the hatches must be very tightly shut. In the old days, a way of keeping hatches tightly shut was to nail battens across them. => Batten down the hatches! means 'Prepare for an emergency, get ready for danger'.

  15. give s'one leeway => Imagine a sailing ship passing an island. Imagine that the wind is blowing the ship toward the island. The distance between the ship and the island is the 'leeway' = the amount of room the ship has before it hits the island. => The stronger the wind is, the more leeway the ship will need. If it doesn't have enough, the wind will push it against the island and the ship may be damaged. == In everyday life, 'having leeway' means having enough freedom of movement or, metaphorically, sufficient freedom to do what you want to do. => "I wish the boss would give me more leeway. I'm under such tight controls that I cannot take advantage of opportunities that come up quickly."

  16. try a different tack => A sailing ship can go in a completely straight line only if the wind is blowing directly from behind, which is not the norm. Ordinarily, in order to progress, a sailing ship has to go like this:
    /\/\/ . Each change of direction is called a 'tack'. => In everyday life, try a different tack means 'try a different method'. => "I tried to learn French by reading novels but it didn't work so well. So I tried a different tack. I went to a language school in France."

  17. run aground => If a ship goes into water that is too shallow, it 'runs aground'. [aground = on ground] This means the ship is stuck and cannot progress. The ship may even be damaged. => In everyday life, run aground means 'experience a difficulty which stops progress' => "Our plans ran aground on the fact that no one wanted to buy our product."

  18. be stranded => Strand is an old word for 'beach'. In the old days, if your ship sank and you got washed up on some beach hundreds or thousands of miles from home with no way to return, you were 'stranded'. => So now To be Stranded means to be stuck somewhere with no means of transport.

  19. Everything's shipshape => Be neat and tidy, in good order, as it should be.

  20. To leave someone high and dry. => This might sound good, but not to a sailor. Suppose the tide is high and your ship runs aground on a sandy shoal. Then the tide goes out. There you are, stuck 'high and dry' at least until the tide rises again. So, to leave someone high and dry means to leave them in a difficult situation, one which they might find it difficult to get out of. => "He ran off with another woman and left his wife and kids high and dry".

Not just learners of English but even native speakers who know little or nothing about sailing will find these expressions completely idiomatic. But to sailors--or to landlubbers who know quite a bit about sailing--these expressions may at times be vividly figurative; in other words, they may be associated in the mind with distinct non-verbal metaphorical or metonymic images. A learner of English who could gain this kind of understanding would find these expressions much richer and more interesting than otherwise, and certainly more memorable too. How might this be possible?

A really good dictionary could help one learn the background of figurative expressions of all sorts. (But I don't know of any which is quite good enough in this regard--even the best, newest dictionaries still being far better at clarifying the meanings of words than of phrases.)

Another possibility would be to take sailing lessons, in English. (Possibly a good idea anyway. And then one could learn to play poker in English to pick up poker expressions, learn about farming to learn farming expressions, and so on.)

A third would be to immerse oneself in key topics through reading. Patrick O'Brian novels would be just the thing for anyone wishing to become expert in sailing expressions. (And they come highly recommended anyway.)

A fourth option would be to find a book that sets out and explains figurativel expressions in topic sets—sailing expressions, cricket expressions, hunting and riding expressions, war expressions, and so on. (But I don't know if such a book exists.)

I'll finish with the observation that—since the world of sailing has little reality for the great majority of English speakers these days—most if not all of these expressions will slowly disappear from colloquial use. Certainly any vividness they now have will dwindle as their roots become less and less known. Too bad. Still, they'll no doubt be replaced with new expressions—perhaps including some which derive from quite new metaphors. I wonder which. SethL@hilderstone.ac.uk

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