Everyone knows a sailor hat, the expression curse like a sailor, and the flirtatious greeting, “Hey, sailor.” But our seafaring friends have been part of a surprising number of old or obscure terms and expressions. Here’s a sampling of terms that went overboard. Be their lexical lifeboat.
1. SAILOR'S BLESSING
A sailor’s farewell is one of many understated and creative terms for a curse. Sailor’s blessing means the same and is the exact opposite of its literal sense. Since at least the 1800s, a sailor’s blessing might be something along the lines of “Ye scurvy bleepin’ dog, is that your real face?”
2. AND 3. SAILOR'S WIFE AND SAILOR MONGERING
Sailor’s wife is one of many slang terms for a prostitute. A related term, used in Reuters in 2004, is recorded on Grant Barrett’s Double-Tongued Dictionary: “Sailor mongering was rife in the 19th century when brothels sent prostitutes laden with booze onto ships as they made their way to harbor. The idea was to get the sailors so drunk they could be whisked to shore and held in bondage, and a law was passed against it in 1872. It has only been used in a court of law twice, the last time in 1890.”
4. SAILOR ON THE SEA
This is one of many examples of Cockney rhyming slang: It’s a term for tea that’s at least as old as 1972. The fact that a teabag is a little like a boat, adrift in some citizen’s cup, adds to the meaning, but likely had nothing to with the coining. Rhyming slang rhymes and that’s about it; the meaning tends to be oceans away from the term’s regular sense, like when a flight of stairs is called apples and pears.
5. SAILOR TOWN
According to the lovely and lecherous Green’s Dictionary of Slang, this is a term for “any area of a port city where sailors gather, drink, whore and take lodgings.” GDoS citations from the 1800s refer to sailor towns as “numerous hell-holes” and “boarding houses and places of carousal for sailors.”
There are oodles of old words for women doing jobs or tasks that were traditionally male, including this supremely silly word. An 1890 issue of a yachting magazine mentioned “The introduction of sailoresses on board racing yachts,” since apparently the very presence of a woman onboard was worth a mention and a word-coining. Similar words in the weird, sexist history of English include barbarianess, admiraless, legislatress, and dudess.
7. SAILOR PHRASE
This term would appear to be a transparent term for obscenity, much like sailor’s blessing. But sailor phrase is just a clunky way of referring to sailor lingo. As seen in a diary entry by Robert Thomas Wilson from 1812: “We are now entering the Archipelago, or, according to the sailor phrase, the Arches.”
8. BLUE SAILORS
Blue sailors are flowers, specifically, wild chicory. This term has been around since at least 1902, but it’s taken on some other meanings. A recent article from South Florida’s Sun Sentinel explains: “Swarms of jellyfish blanketed South Florida's beaches on Thursday, leaving wary beachgoers watching their step. But the Velella velella jellyfish—also known as Blue Sailors or By-the-Wind Sailors—aren't the stinging kind.”
9. TO BE A GOOD SAILOR
This term has very little to do with proper care of the jib. If you’re “being a good sailor,” you’re showing resistance to sea sickness. This expression has been around since the 1800s. OED examples of bad sailor and wretched sailor describe those poor folks who get a little funny in the tummy on the sea.
10. SAILOR'S WAITER
Though you might think a sailor’s waiter is another term for a lady of the night, it's actually the second mate. A use from Richard Henry Dana’s 1840 memoir Two Years Before the Mast explains: “The crew call him [the second mate] the ‘sailor's waiter’, as he has to furnish them with spun-yarn, marline, and all other stuffs that they need.”