We went to the Dolphin tonight, for no particular reason except we thought it would be nice to socialise and drink beer in congenial surroundings. The beer was very fine tonight and as we sat chatting to each other, pat came in. Pat is a great sailor, as so many people are round here, living next to the sea as we do.
We talked about all sorts of things, Pat’s sailing adventures, navigation, the importance of ships and boats in past times, being a river or sea pilot, and somehow or other we got onto the words and phrases we have in everyday English which come from our connection to the sea. No part of our country is further than 70 miles from the sea.
We were talking about Mark Twain the author,and how his nom-de-plume was derived from the cries of pilots measuring the depth of the water they were travelling through was two fathoms deep. We got onto talking about how they ‘sounded’ the depths, by dropping a line with a lead weight at the end; it had a hollowed out bottom which was filled with wax which, when it reached the bottom would pick up a sample of the river or sea bed. This would show whether it was sand or mud and give some indication f the channel they were following and maybe the dangers they might expect.
It must have been a really boring task; the weight had to be swung forward and so when the ship passed over it an accurate measurement could be taken, how many fathoms deep the water was ( a fathom is six foot), and a sailor who really couldn’t be bothered would ‘swing the lead’ backwards and forwards without letting it drop to the sea or river bed and pretend to take a sounding.
This eventually became a phrase meaning anyone who was pretending something, to be ill, to not be up to the task, whatever, but to avoid doing the actual job!