Bodies & Boats: Seafaring Etymology of Health Phrases

August 30, 2019
by Natalie Elder

Natalie Elder is the Curator of Cultural Properties at the Chesney Medical Archives for Johns Hopkins Medicine, Nursing, and Public Health. Fitting with our water programming for 2019–2020, she shares her knowledge of health idioms that originated at sea.


Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

There are a lot of phrases we use in conversation that to an outside observer would not make sense. Have you ever had a sudden cramp in your leg, often called a charley horse? Why on earth is it called that? Theories suggest it has an origin in baseball, but the jury is still out on how charley + horse came to stand in for a sudden, painful muscle cramp.

I keep a list of idioms regarding health, illness, and how we talk to each other about the way that we feel. I was looking over it and realized that quite a few of them relate to seafaring. Some of them seem obvious: a “clean bill of health” is an idiom that a non-native English speaker could probably figure out. But the story of this phrase has an interesting background. In previous centuries, the exact mechanism (bacteria and viruses) of the spread of contagious diseases was not understood. But ocean-going societies knew that disease spread quickly on a ship. If a ship called into port with sick passengers, soon people in the port city would also fall ill, even if they’d never been on that boat. To prevent this spread of disease, port officials required a clean bill of health from the ship. This bill, issued at the port of embarkation, attested that none of the passengers were ill when the ship began its journey. So if a doctor gives you a clean bill of health: it’s official; you’re healthy!

Image in public domain courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

What about when you’re not feeling your best? A common phrase for when you’re a little ill is “under the weather.” Why should this mean feeling lousy? This phrase comes to us from sailors who are far from land. Rough weather at sea often causes sea-sickness. One of the ways to prevent this is to go below decks, removing yourself from the stormy weather that causes you to feel sick. Going below to get “under the weather” became shorthand for feeling unwell. 

The next word is another for feeling not quite right. “I’m groggy” is something we say when we are a little tired and a little out of sorts. It sort of makes you think of being surrounded by fog. But its’ origins actually come from a sailor’s ration of watered rum, which sailors called “grog.” Seamen were entitled to a daily quantity of distilled spirits, which increased morale and served as a diversion from the regimented life on ship. Too much rum, whether imbibed on a ship or in a port of call, would produce a nasty hangover (a condition for which there are many funny idioms).  So it makes perfect sense that if you had too much grog, you’d be feeling tired and spacey—or groggy.

These are English words and phrases that communicate the state of the body and come to us from the things that people on ships felt and experienced. It’s not surprising that our language borrows so many idioms from sailing, as the British were a naval powerhouse over the last few centuries. The language of sailors is often colorful and efficient, which is what you would expect for close-quarters work under difficult conditions. Our every-day sayings have a rich history and these words and phrases tell us a lot about who we are and how our language is shaped.


Natalie was a recent guest on our Humanities Connection podcast. She talked about what items like a simple clothing accessory like these teach us about a person and organization’s past and how medical archives can help piece together someone’s story. Listen to her segment here.

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