As the Brethren are well aware, sailors are a superstitious lot. Today’s word plays in to that mind set. And it also points up where and when a sailor is not afraid to let superstition go by the board to save his skin, or for an extra few minutes of blessed sleep.
The practice known at sea as cheating the Devil has everything to do with superstition. Bringing the Lord, or for that matter the Arch Fiend, into one’s speech was a sure way to court disaster aboard ship. This lead to what Admiral Smyth refers to as the “softening of very profane phrases” in The Sailor’s Word Book. Thus “God’s death” might come out as ‘od’s depth. Other epithets familiar to the seamen that would otherwise feature the word God might include ‘od’s blood, ‘od rot it, or for ‘od’s sake.
On the other hand, calling up the Devil would never do either, except as an absolute last resort. In such cases, a sailor might offer his hair to the Devil, throwing a lock into the water or up into the wind to please Old Scratch in desperate times. Help in a pinch is help, after all; the consequences can be dealt with later. All things being equal, however, sailors would rather not court Satan. Thus phrases like by gosh, be darned and dang you probably had a seagoing origin. More colorful terms such as deuce take you and see you blown first might also be overheard. Better safe than sorry after all.
The habit known as cheating, or flogging, the glass comes from a time when clocks were not a feature on a ship’s deck. The timing of bells and watches was kept by means of a half-hour glass which was usually hung near the binnacle. General understanding among seamen had it that the sand would run through the glass more quickly if exposed to vibration. A man might “cheat the glass” by jarring it surreptitiously. As Admiral Smyth aptly puts it:
… hence some weary soul towards the end of his watch was said to flog the glass.
Given that the average Jack got no more than four hours at a stretch of free time at sea, one can imagine a tired soul being desperate to hurry time along.
Happy Saturday, Brethren; watch your language – and the glass – out there.
Header: Sunset by Mykola Yaroshenko via Old Paint