I always thought that “the whole nine yards” was an American expression related somehow to American football but it’s actually a nautical term: A typical square rigger would have three masts each with three yards. When all sail was set it would be maximising its full potential – to use an American expression – flying sail on all nine yards.
Ships and the sea have brought us many handy expressions:
Hand over fist: Thought to have started out as “hand over hand”, this expression came from the practice of hoisting sail or climbing a rope as quickly as possible – a source of competition and pride to sailors.
Chock a block: We use it to mean fully loaded – it comes from the situation on board ship where two blocks in a rigging tackle are hard up against each other and can’t be tightened further.
Slush fund: Slush was the residue scraped from the salted meat storage barrels on board ship and sold by the cook to provide cash for himself and his cohorts.
Windfall is an interesting one. When a ship, trying to weather a headland or work off a lee shore, was assisted by a katabatic wind ‘falling’ of a high coastline it was said to have received a windfall.
Between the devil and the deep blue sea: To work this one out you have to know that the last seam on the deck before the scuppers is the devil seam, so if you slip on deck and end up in the scuppers you’re between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Pipe down: This last toot on the boson’s pipe each day meant lights out and keep quiet.
And there are many more nautical expressions that have swallowed the anchor, moving from a life at sea to one on land.