Nautical Terms & Phrases Found in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary provides another fun quiz to test your knowledge of nautical terms and phrases you may encounter in your family history research—and provides examples from historical newspapers.

Sailing ships, steamships, and sea travel were a big part of our ancestors’ lives, something genealogists often encounter when searching their family history. This blog article provides a fun quiz to see how well you know old nautical terms and phrases, then defines the terminology using examples from historical newspapers.

When researching ancestral voyages in newspapers, you’ll find that maritime language varies vastly from that on land.

That is, unless you reside in a nautical community such as Nantucket, Massachusetts.

A newspaper article from the Idaho Register in 1916 reported that “Nantucket speech is a museum of nautical expression.” A departing guest might hear, “Well, a fair wind to you,” and “women’s work” was referred to as “tending the kettle halyards.” Unless you know maritime terminology, you might not realize that a halyard is a rope (known on a boat as a line) used to hoist items, such as sails.

So what is a kettle halyard? That stumps me, but I suspect it was a kettle attached to a halyard, either for hoisting fish aloft for drying purposes, or to assist in bringing newly caught fish into the boat.

In 1841, a Nantucket mariner wrote his will strewn with nautical language. Obed Gardner wrote that he had “cruised with wife Huldy Jane since 1811,” and he wanted her and son Jotham to be “captain and mate in bringin’ to port” whatever he left. His story was told in that 1916 Idaho Register newspaper article.

Made His Will in Sea Terms, Idaho Register newspaper article 19 September 1916

Idaho Register (Idaho Falls, Idaho), 19 September 1916, page 6

Perhaps you are an expert in the language of the sea? Test your nautical knowledge with this handy terminology quiz and review the definitions below. You are welcome to share the nautical terms quiz and this blog article, with proper credit to me and GenealogyBank.

quiz of nautical terms and phrases found in old newspapers

Nautical Locations and Directions: Sailors use different terms to refer to the front, middle or back of a boat or ship. Some common ship terms are:

  • Abeam: middle of the boat or ship
  • Aft, astern or stern: the back or toward the back
  • Bow or foreship: front or toward the front
  • Midship or amidship: middle or toward the middle (half way between the bow and the stern)
  • Port and starboard: the left & right sides, respectively, as you face forward
What's Your Answer? Repository newspaper article 27 December 1939

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 27 December 1939, page 18

Blunderbuss: A blunderbuss is a type of flared firearm (weapon); the term later came to describe a clumsy person. In 1720, a “Sale by Publick Vendue” described various appurtenances “lately belonging to the Ship Thomas and Benjamin” that had been shipwrecked off the coast of South Carolina, including blunderbusses. There were also references to hooks, spears, horns, compasses and a poop lanthorn, which is explained below

Sale by Publick Vendue, Boston Gazette newspaper article 23-30 May 1720

Boston Gazette (Boston, Massachusetts), 23-30 May 1720, page 3

Brig or Brigantine: Brigs were an early and popular ship design. Most brigantines were square-rigged with two masts, as seen in this Library of Congress photograph of Oliver Perry’s brig Niagara. An alternate term definition is a ship’s prison.

photo of Oliver Perry's flagship "Niagara," Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Old newspapers contain numerous references to sea voyages, including one from 1738 reporting that the brig Sally and the ship Constantine (a larger vessel) were bound for London.

notice about the departure of the ships "Constantine" and "Sally," American Weekly Mercury newspaper article 5-12 October 1738

American Weekly Mercury (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 5-12 October 1738, page 3

This 1917 newspaper article described the process of discipline on a ship. Insubordinate sailors were tried before a court called a “mast” and the worst punishment was to be sent to “the brig.”

notice of a ship's brig, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 2 November 1917

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 2 November 1917, page 3

Capsized or Capsizing: When a watercraft overturns, it is known as capsizing. In 1910, the sloop yacht Black Command, a type of one-masted sailboat, capsized off Solomon’s Island, forcing passengers into Chesapeake Bay.

Capsized off Solomon's Island, Baltimore American newspaper article 18 July 1910

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 18 July 1910, page 12

Deck and Poop Deck: A deck is a floor of a ship. Some of the more common decks are: the bridge (captain’s or navigational equipment deck), main, upper, lower, promenade (walking area), tween or between (empty deck between two others), flush (an open unobstructed deck), quarter (near the main mast), weather (exposed to the weather), and the poop deck.

The poop deck is located at the aft or rear of a ship and its placement is typically elevated. The term poop is derived from the Latin term puppis, or stern portion of a ship.

Japanese Ship after Crash off Capes, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 3 October 1922

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 3 October 1922, page 15

Galley, Mess & Mess Hall: The galley or ship’s kitchen is where food is prepared, and the mess is the food, as seen in the following description from a 1917 newspaper article. Dining halls for soldiers and sailors are often called mess halls. This old newspaper article mentions that an enlisted sailor might be called a “jackie” by his family, but was always referred to as a “bluejacket” on board the ship—a nautical term which comes from his blue jacket uniform.

notice about a ship's galley and mess, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 2 November 1917

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 2 November 1917, page 3

Keel: The keel is the structure on the bottom of a vessel’s hull (main body), which counterbalances the boat’s weight should it lean (known as listing) too far to one side. Without a keel, ships often capsize. In 1901, Commodore Perry’s brig Porcupine from the War of 1812 was located by Dr. Schuyler C. Graves. Not much was left, but he was able to secure the keel and put it on display.

All That Remains of Commodore Perry's Warship, Grand Rapids Press newspaper article 19 October 1901

Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 19 October 1901, page 13

Lanthorn and Poop Lanthorn: This nautical term refers to a portable lantern (lamp) or signaling device. In the above example for blunderbuss, there is a reference to the poop lanthorn which indicates a lamp secured on the poop deck. The below photo depicts an early American lanthorn from my family. A recently discovered family note indicates provenance relating to the Miesse family of Berks County, Pennsylvania.

photo of a ship's lanthorn

Photo: Harrell family lanthorn. Credit: from the author’s collection.

Mast: The mast is the pole that supports the sails on the ship, but it is also a term for the court that insubordinate sailors face while at sea. See the above example for brig.

Mizzen or Mizzenmast: The mizzen is a type of mast located behind or aft of the ship’s mainmast. The term also refers to the lowest sail on the mizzenmast.

In 1898, Miss Cowan, described as a “Yankee girl,” climbed the mizzen rigging (ropes and equipment supporting or attached to the mast). As she did not have her bicycle outfit with her, Captain Storer lent her one of his outfits.

Yankee Girl Went Aloft, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 2 March 1898

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 2 March 1898, page 3

For more information on rigging and sails, see the Wikipedia articles at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rigging and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sail.

Sloop: A sloop is a type of sailboat with one mast and two sails (known as the mainsail and jib), although the term can also refer to a small square-rigged sailing warship with more masts. See the above illustration for capsizing.

Sternchaser or Stern-chaser: The following nautical term definition comes from a 1939 newspaper article.

notice of a ship's sternchaser, Repository  newspaper article 27 December 1939

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 27 December 1939, page 18

There are many more nautical terms you’ll find in newspapers. Let us know if you encounter one that you do not understand. Also, please share any nautical term definitions you have come across in your genealogy research with us in the comments.

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Written by Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Mary Harrell-Sesniak, MBA, brings to the GenealogyBank Blog a blend of technical and genealogical research skills. In addition to having been a columnist with RootsWeb Review, she was president of a computer training/consulting firm for 15+ years, worked as an editor and has authored several genealogy books. You’ll find her an active contributor to a variety of online forums, RootsWeb’s WorldConnect, Findagrave.com and indexing projects.

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2 thoughts on “Nautical Terms & Phrases Found in Old Newspapers

  1. Avast! I discovered that the ancestor who may have been a Hessian convert to the colonies died in 1795 off the coast of New Jersey. He was married to a Connecticut woman whose first husband had died, leaving her with two young ones. Any ideas for finding info on the sea accident that took his life?

  2. Gloria,

    Please provide a few more details, and we can see if there were any newspaper notices.

    Mary

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