Into the Wind: Sails and Sailing at Mystic Seaport

Sails play an important role in moving and steering a vessel. Knowing how and when to maneuver the sails is critical to getting where you want to go. And with a crew, communication is equally important. As a result, there are many sail-related terms and phrases that survive in our conversations today. You may not even realize it.

Here are a few terms in our everyday language that have derived from sailing a vessel:

Cut of One’s Jib
You don’t hear this one as much these days, but you might say it regarding someone’s appearance or personality. It comes from the age of sail, though, when a sailor could identify a faraway ship as friend or foe based on the shape of its sails.

Today this term means being carefree or noncommittal, and is usually connected back to the Kevin Bacon movie of the same name. In fact, footloose originally referred to a sail that was not attached properly to the boom (at its “foot”), making it difficult to control and sail

Learning the Ropes
Teaching a newcomer about any process or rules is called “learning the ropes” these days, but the term originates from sailors learning to navigate the rigging of their particular vessel, along with the knots required to sail effectively.

Three Sheets to the Wind
This phrase is similar to footloose, but usually nowadays involves an alcoholic beverage. “Three sheets to the wind” originates from a vessel losing hold of several sails or lines, causing them to be taken by the wind. As a result, the vessel was out of control, much like a person described in the same manner.