Nov 4

Salty Talk

Wednesday, November 4, 2015 10:10 AM



Sailors, because they traveled to faraway places and mingled with many different people, probably were the first global society. These world travelers brought home to their communities words and phrases that gradually entered the native language. More than that, they developed their own lingo, and words and phrases of theirs were like-wise picked up by friends and family ashore.

In this series, we’ll highlight some of this “salty talk” and discover what it meant before it came ashore.

Every one of us has heard of being “in the doghouse.” It’s a favorite resting place for husbands unfortunate enough to displease their wives. Maybe so, but this phrase had its origins in the slave shipping trade.

By the time there was a United States, slave trading was looked upon by many governments as being illegal, even if they did little to stop it. An outbound slave ship usually played it safe and sailed outfitted as a normal merchant ship, with berthing accommodations for mates and crew below decks out of the weather. Once on the African coast, the slaver skipper prepared for his cargo by stripping out everything belowdecks, except his own small cabin, and installing shelves along the entire length of the ship on which he would chain a cargo of slaves, densely packed.

For the crew, it meant that they would have to sleep anywhere about the deck they could find space. For the mates, long, low, narrow huts about the size of deep coffins were erected aft on the upper deck near the helm, to be their sleeping accommodations for the westward journey.

A mate having the mid-watch at night, permitted to sleep during the day, would find his berthing space offered him some shade, but with broiling temperatures inside. It takes little imagination for someone spending two months or so in such conditions to equate his situation to being in a doghouse, and so these low structures were named.

The unpleasantness of trying to sleep in one led to the com­parison with other unpleasant situations and hence our phrase today about “being in the doghouse.”