Tag Archives: navy

Show Your True Colors: Pirates & Warfare

Hello bologna readers! Happy Tuesday. This one’s a day late, so you have my apologies, but if it’s any concession, this one’s a good one.

Showing your true colors. You think you know someone, right? The phrase refers to someone who reveals their real intentions through some form of deceit. Why is it colors? Why don’t just use the word motive instead?

Well, as with many of these expressions, this one goes back to the high seas, so, let’s go along with it.

What do you think of when you hear the word Pirate? I’ll bet most of you are thinking the same thing: that peg-legged, eye-patched sailor who sails the seven seas with his swashbuckling friends, finds buried treasure & engages in heroic ocean battles while yelling, “Avast!” & “Arrrrrrr!”.

That’s the notion that Hollywood has put into our heads. Who doesn’t like a dramatic story, & if the leading character is a pirate, well, he has to be the good guy, right?

Not so fast. Pirates were a despicable bunch (think of the horrifying pirates of today, only with technology of the Seventeenth & Eighteenth Centuries). They were nasty & weren’t afraid to steal, kidnap, rape, capture ships, spread disease & any other awful thing you can think of. Don’t believe me? Just read this Cracked article by Eric Yosomono & Jean Flynn. One of the entries from this list of terrifying pirates is about a guy who took a bite of a human heart before shoving it into another prisoner’s face & threatening to do the same thing to him. So, needless to say, these guys were not people you wanted to mess with.


A pirate murdering the crap out of someone. (Image in Public Domain)

After hearing that, it might not surprise you to learn that dishonesty was a also common trait among pirates. Law abiding sailors, especially merchants & explorers, were always fearing pirate attacks. These ocean-going outlaws were much harder to detect & combat back then. This caused many ships to be tricked, & seized or sunk. This is due to one pirate battle tactic, which blatant flew in the face of contemporary rules of naval warfare.

In the days of sailing ships & cannon battles, “colors” was just another word for flag. Warships were required to display the flag of their respective nation.  A lowered flag meant a surrender (This is also where the phrase, “nailing your colors to the mast” comes from: if the ship had absolutely no intention of surrendering, a flag nailed to its mast would negate the chance of it accidentally being lowered). It was simply a way of identifying a ship’s allegiance & a way to distinguish it from its enemy. Here’s where the pirate’s tactic came in. They would fly the flag of the nation to which the ship they were ambushing belonged. Now that the outlaws had their prey believing they were friendly, they could sneak up really close. Just before attacking, they would lower the flag & replace it with some form of the Jolly Roger, showing their true colors, & therefore, true intentions.


The true colors of pirate ships: the Jolly Roger (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia user, WarX)

Pretty sneaky, huh?

Now you know; you’re welcome.


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Pipe Down: Whistling Audio Signals

Hello, everyone. I hope you had a good long weekend. I know I did.

The phrase we’re going to talk about today is another which can trace its roots back to life on the ocean, specifically to the job of boatswain, or bosun.

The word boatswain comes from the Old English word batswegen, meaning boat, & the Old Norse word, sveinn, meaning servant. The modern-day job of one of these sailors is to oversee maintenance the hull, deck equipment & the operations which use that equipment. Some of these maintenance tasks include painting the hull, keeping the integrity of the wooden deck & testing out machinery. It was a full plate to have, even without factoring in the other routine duties which were shared with crew members.


A boatswain oversees cargo operations on a U.S. freighter.
(Photo courtesy of Randy C. Bunney, Great Circle Photography)

Alright, let’s roll back the clock to before the days of electricity aboard ships.

Back then, boatswains & their mates had even more to do. Since ships were powered by the wind, the duties of these men were extended to taking care of the sails & masts.

Imagine you’re working up in the rigging, which can tower over two hundred feet above the water, on the biggest ships. It’s very windy up there, so all you can hear are the sails flapping, the rigging snapping & the masts creaking. If your ship is in the midst of battle, you can add the sound of cannons fire to that. You look down & catch a glimpse of your boatswain as he yells up his orders, but you can’t hear him. You only see is his mouth moving. It’s definitely a problem that needs to be addressed. What’s the remedy?

One of these:


Photo used courtesy of Wikipedia user ThoKay.

That’s a boatswain’s pipe, or as some sailors called it, a “pippity-dippity.” That last part isn’t a joke; battle hardened sailors actually used that term. Anyway, when the pipe is used, it produces an absurdly loud, shrill whistle, which can be heard over the noises of shipboard life. While it’s largely used  symbolically alongside PA systems & in ceremonies today, in the days before modern vocal amplification, a system of sound signals was used to alert sailors to different orders, tasks, mealtimes & bedtime. The term “pipe down” originally referred to the signal which told the sailors to get below decks. For example, in his 1798 book, Advice to Commanders & Officers: Serving in the West Indies, on the Preservation of the Health of Seamen (because all books had unnecessarily long & specific titles back then), Dr. Leonard Gillespie writes, “At four o’clock, P.M. the hammocks should regularly be piped down.”

A lithograph of a boatswain c. 1820. (Image in Public Domain)

A lithograph of an old timey boatswain c. 1820.
(Image in Public Domain)

How does this relate to being quiet? Well, as with so many other expressions, it’s not 100% clear, but we have some ideas.

The ttrusty Phrase Finder site proposes that it may have links to sending sailors below decks when trouble among the crew started to break out. The author of the site cites this quotation from an April 1850 article in The Gettysburg Star & Banner:

‘I don’t care what happens to me now!’ wept Peter, going among the crew, with blood-shot eyes, as he put on his shirt. ‘I have been flogged once, and they may do it again, if they will. ‘Let them look out for me now’. ‘Pipe down!’ cried the Captain, and the crew slowly dispersed.

Now we know it was spoken on ships before it came ashore. However, we’re not sure how long it was part of maritime jargon.

Though a boatswain’s pipe is loud, “Pipe down” may have actually dealt with a lack of sound. In his blog, Not Yet Published, Shahan Cheong abandons the notion that it was used for sending men below decks. He suggests that “pipe down” refers to the boatswain refraining from using the whistle, especially before an impending battle, as its shrill call would travel across the water, potentially giving the ship’s position away. The phrase itself might have quite literally meant, “Put the pipe down; you’re being too loud.”

Over the course of this blog, I’ve learned that the beginnings of many of the expressions we use today have fallen by the wayside. “Pipe down” is no different. We know it can be drawn back to the shipboard position of boatswain & his pipe & that it was spoken before 1850. It was written prior to 1798. Unfortunately after using that, it starts to become a little gray. Once again, it’s up to you to decide what you think is correct.

I will leave you all at that. I hope you all have a wonderful rest of the week & I will see you in the same place next Monday. Now you know; you’re welcome.

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Running Amok: A Coked out Rampage

When someone is acting crazy or panicking, we say that they’re running amok. The roots of this expression come from the peak of British colonization, during 18th & 19th centuries.

First, in order to give you an understanding of everything, I need to give you a brief history of the Opium Wars.

See, back in the day, the British Empire had colonies across almost the entire planet. They used to say, “The sun never sets on the British Empire,” & that was pretty much the truth. The Crown needed a way to keep a watchful eye on all its subjects, but had a tough time doing so because the military was thinly stretched out almost everywhere. In order to keep tabs, the British government was very ruthless & it stooped to some pretty dirty strategies.

One of these strategies was the distribution of what are now considered illegal drugs. One of the most famous instances (Note how I didn’t say, “first,” or, “only.”) of the British using drugs to get their way was when they wanted to monopolize the tea trade & China refused to let them.  See, the British government exported drugs, which were then legal, to the Chinese in exchange for the tea. When opium & cocaine started to become addictive problems for the Chinese, their government put heavy restrictions on the inflow of the substances.

Now, the British didn’t like this because, hey, they loved their tea & weren’t getting nearly as much of it. What did they do? They smuggled drugs illegally into Chinese ports, flooding the population with opium & cocaine.  The Chinese  knew what the British were up to & weren’t about to take it lying down, so they stopped the outflow of tea. The British then retaliated by blockading the port of Hong Kong, until the Chinese were forced to use their navy to try to stop it. Here’s where it gets messed up . This was the plan the whole time.  See, they correctly anticipated that a massive chunk of the Chinese population, including the sailors, would be hopeless addicts by the time the first shots were fired & that they, themselves wouldn’t be. They quickly defeated the Chinese navy (The sailors were too busy being jittery & paranoid, or slumped against a ship’s mast in a euphoric heap, to fight)  in the First Opium War & seized Hong Kong & by default, the tea trade. Messed up, huh?


This is pretty much what happened before the English took over Hong Kong. Note the one warship successfully taking on the 7 Chinese Junks full of opium loving sailors.
(This image is in the public domain in the U.S. The copyright has expired, because it was first published prior to January 1, 1923.)

Okay, so I know that was a long story & I also know it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the phrase “running amok”. I promise it does & that I told you that story to tell you this one:

About 50 years before all of that, the English military started to make a presence in Indonesia. Fast forward to the Opium Wars & they now have a smart, yet dirty way of controlling their colonies. Guess whose population quickly became drug addicts?

The addicts included one tribe in particular, which was already known for its warrior spirit (This warrior spirit is also known as regressing into a blind rage & indiscriminately butchering men, women & children from captured villages). Even on their home turf, members of this tribe would become possessed by the spirit without any warning whatsoever, buy a weapon from a local market, & flip out & kill everyone. They referred to this fighting spirit as mengamuk The rough translation is, “to make a furious and desperate charge.” People possessed by the spirit were called Amuco. As you can imagine, a tribe on insane amounts of uppers, which already poses a threat because of its ruthless brutality in combat & for random public killing sprees before getting their hands on cocaine, wound up scaring the crap out of the colonial soldiers. The English Regulars were understandably quite intimidated by the Amuco & rumors started flying about these super coked-out warriors. In true colonial fashion, they bastardized the actual word & replaced it with an Anglicized version that’s easier to say.

So, when you say someone is running amok, you’re actually implying that they’re an indiscriminately murderous drug using, spree killing warrior.
…I mean, I guess if you dropped the warrior part, you’d be kind of right, if you were talking about someone crazed out on bath salts, right?

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Bottom’s Up…. Or You’re Drafted

Bottoms up- It’s a fairly common expression used to kick off a round of drinks, but you probably didn’t need me to tell you that. This one has its roots in England.

Okay, so, imagine you’re part of a group of 18th century English sailors called a press gang. Your job is to go ashore & persuade (also known as beating the ever-loving snot out of) young men from town to join the navy. You have a quota of men to recruit or face a beating from your superior officer, yourself.
Even so, beatings, as common as they are, are a last resort & to avoid the trouble having to beat the piss out of someone until they say, “Yes,” you’ll have to come up with a way to outsmart a room full of obliterated 20 year-olds into enlisting.

"Would you like to join the Navy?” “No, thanks. It’s not for me.” *Wooden stick to the face* “Would you like to join the Navy?” “Yes.”

“Would you like to join the Navy?”
“No, thanks. It’s not for me.”
*Wooden stick to the face*
“Would you like to join the Navy?”

Here’s your plan: Find a drunk man, & when he isn’t looking, drop a shilling coin into his stone beer mug. It’s alright; he won’t see it until he’s finished because the stone mug isn’t clear & by that time, you can claim to have paid for his beer in exchange his service. Boom. New sailor to fill that spot manning the 12 pounder, that’s been vacant since the old guy took a foot long cannon ball splinter to his face.

After a little while, the pubs started catching on & fixed this by putting glass bottoms to their mugs. They’d always remind customers to put their bottoms up & check to see if there was a coin. If there was, they could find out who put it there & kick them out. Although, I can only assume this would end in a giant bar brawl, with both you & the drunk guy being dragged out by the press gang anyway.

Seriously, you didn’t mess with those guys.

There you have it. Now you know. You’re welcome.

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