Mar 9

Salty Talk

Wednesday, March 9, 2016 12:01 AM

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"Cat-o'-Nine-Tails"

A “Cat-o’-Nine-Tails”

How are you at keeping a secret, especially one you know will give pleasure to a loved one? Not so good? And when you do give it away, perhaps someone will observe that you “let the cat out of the bag.” That seemingly innocent little phrase has a grisly history.

A ship’s crew was a polyglot collection of men from many walks of life and even many more countries. Their reasons for going to sea were equally varied, and not all of them honorable. Keeping such a group under control in the restricted environment of a wooden ship for weeks or perhaps months on end, with no privacy, monotonous food, few creature comforts, and no women, demanded stringent measures. The principal means was the threat of flogging.

Flogging required that a malefactor be brought up before the entire crew, stripped to the waist, and lashed with his arms extended higher than his head. A boatswain’s mate would then “lay on” a stipulated number of lashes with a whip of nine strands, each of which would be knotted or have small pieces of lead pinched onto the ends. In the sailing Navy, 12 lashes was the standard punishment for a non-capital offense, so the recipient was left with a back permanently scarred as a reminder to himself and others of the merits of good conduct.

The whip used on these occasions was known as a “cat-o’-nine-tails,” and it was kept in a red bag made of a material called baize. Since the “cat” appeared only when someone was about to be flogged, “letting the cat out of the bag” was not something done lightly. Happily, when the phrase came ashore, it lost its foreboding definition. микрозайм

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