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British Expat Newsletter: August 2011

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In this issue

This month

Regardless of how long you have left until retirement age (and thanks to government legislation in the last few years, that may be longer than you think!), it’s never too early to start planning for your pension. But is the state pension worth the nuisance of paying voluntary contributions while overseas? Ross Naylor’s written an excellent outline of the basics of the National Insurance-funded pension, and how to find out whether it’s worth topping up.

While in Bangkok a couple of weeks ago we did something we’d probably never have bothered to do while living in London – we visited Madame Tussauds. To our pleasant surprise, it was much more interesting and more fun than we’d imagined. You can see how we got on in a three-part illustrated article.

Our latest Pic of the Week is of a beautiful wilderness landscape in the middle of the Canadian Rockies in British Columbia, courtesy of Richard Kershaw.

And Australia is the subject of our latest Quick Quiz – find out how much you know about our Antipodean cousins.

Editorial: Barrels, cats and devils

Dave and I have been reading a lot of nautical literature recently – Patrick O’Brian’s excellent series of novels about the Napoleonic wars, featuring Captain “Lucky Jack” Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin (and popularised by the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany). Reading them, we’ve been surprised to see how many naval expressions have made their way into everyday English. By and large, they’re fairly obviously of naval origin – but not always.

Take the following imaginary conversation:

“My boss hasn’t got a clue. He was three sheets to the wind in his office the other day, and I think I’ve got him over a barrel.”

“Careful! If you let the cat out of the bag, there could be the devil to pay.”

I suppose that most of us are aware by now that the phrase “not enough room to swing a cat” isn’t a reference to more robust attitudes towards domestic animals in bygone times. The “cat” involved is the cat-o’-nine-tails, the nine-corded rope whip used in the Royal Navy to lash seamen as a formal punishment. It’s the same cat as the one that’s let out of the bag whenever someone gives away a guilty secret – the cat-o’-nine-tails was kept in a red baize bag ready for use.

As for the sheets, they’re not sails, but the ropes used to either secure or adjust a sail, depending on the ship and its rigging. In ye olden days, sailors used to describe a person’s level of drunkenness by a number of sheets in (rather than “to”) the wind. A sheet in the wind was one that had come loose, leaving the corner of the sail unsecured; so someone who was three sheets to the wind was pretty much out of it.

What about the devil in “the devil to pay”? Well, wooden ships were inclined to leak to varying degrees. The seams between the planks would grow and shrink as the planks themselves swelled or dried out, depending on the weather. So the seams would need to be caulked (stuffed with a mixture of pitch and oakum – unpicked old rope), and then “paid” (sealed) with heated pitch or tar to make them watertight. (Hence the expression about “spoiling the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar” – losing a bigger benefit by scrimping on mundane but necessary expenditures.)

The devil was the longest seam in the ship, running from stem to stern deep down, and the most awkward seam to reach from the inside. (Someone “between the devil and the deep blue sea” was hung over the side of the ship to pay that particular seam – a very dangerous position indeed.) But if the devil couldn’t be paid, then clearly you were in serious trouble. The original full expression was “the devil to pay and no pitch hot”.

“Having someone over a barrel” is another allusion to punishment. Young midshipmen were often punished with birchings, which took place in the captain’s cabin so as not to humiliate them before the ratings. They would be made to lean over the barrel of a gun (known jocosely as “kissing the gunner’s daughter”) to receive punishment – so to “have someone over a barrel” came to mean to have someone in your power with no prospect of escape.

Which leaves the clue. There’s a change of spelling involved here. The original word was “clew” – the bottom corner of a sail where a brass ring would allow a rope to be passed through it, to secure it against the wind. If that bottom corner was torn off, the sail would flap about ineffectually.

Incidentally, we sneaked another naval expression into the first paragraph – “by and large”. Ships might exhibit different handling characteristics depending on whether they were sailing “by” the wind (ie into it, or nearly so), or sailing “large” (ie with the wind behind, or nearly so). So ships that handled similarly in all circumstances did so both “by and large”.

As Jack Aubrey might have said: “Did you smoke it?” (spot it)

Do you have any other examples of naval slang that have made it into landsmen’s speak? Or perhaps you’d like to talk about other professional or trade jargon that’s become commonplace. We’d love to hear from you, so please post on our forum discussion.

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Write for British Expat

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We’ve started doing some quick trivia quizzes – five questions about any subject. So, if you’d like to write for us but don’t feel like producing a literary masterpiece, then why not try writing a quickie quiz about your city, country, or even your hobby? Please use our contact form to get in touch.

British Expat Amazon Shopping

Amazon don’t just do books, you know. We’ve teamed up with them to bring you the ultimate in online shopping – from a micro SD card to a garden shed! A great way to do your shopping online, especially if the shops aren’t up to much in your part of the world.
BE Amazon Shop: UK & EU | BE Amazon Shop: non-EU

Bizarre searches

We’ve brought back Bizarre Searches this month and will give it an airing every so often. Here’s a list of some of the offbeat, weird and crazy search terms that have brought people to BE this month:

  • shemale on female forum
  • hitler about malta
  • benladen internal memo
  • the smurfs role introduce
  • will there be hummers in heaven
  • if or is
  • like dogville
  • doric love poems
  • cottaging treacle
  • glen mcgrath girlfriend biscuits

So there’s a round-up of all that’s been going on. Come on over and see for yourself! Don’t forget…
Visit the BE website and join in with our lively community!

Till next time…

Happy surfing!

Kay & Dave
Editor & Deputy Editor
British Expat – the definitive home for British expats

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