Shiver those timbers

I’ve been sharing some examples of nautical slang over the last few days, and my friend David mentioned ‘shiver me timbers’! I didn’t know if it was an actual piece of sailor-speak or made up by Robert Louis Stevenson in his wonderful book, ‘Treasure Island’. The phrase was in the original, but I think it was brought into common parlance by the different actors who over the years have played the part of the most famous pirate of them all, Long John Silver.

So many different actors have taken on this role on radio, TV, film, including:

  • Wallace Beery
  • Robert Newton
  • Orson Welles
  • James Mason
  • Peter Jeffrey
  • Jack Shepherd
  • Brian Blessed
  • Charlton Heston
  • Eddie Izzard
  • Anthony Quinn
  • Bernard Miles
  • Peter Vaughan
  • Alfred Burke

Back to the shivering of timbers; these days the word shiver is nearly always used for something trembling or shaking, often with cold or fear. The timbers of a ship in a storm would shake or tremble – and also in a battle, or when coming into contact with rocks!

However, shivering could also mean splintering or shattering – and I guess the timber parts of old ships often did splinter and smash, thorough violent weather or contact with rocks and reefs. When cannon and guns began to be used, the damage inflicted by shattering wood was horrific; timbers would almost explode and splinters of flying debris could kill a sailor or maim him for life. Shivering, or splintering timbers were a most dreadful thing.

So did sailors actually say ‘shiver me/my timbers’? Yes, apparently they did! Stevenson was careful to be accurate with his language, and he used nautical language to add colour and realism to his stories and tales… you can find a list here of various terms – including seamen’s slang, here:

And here is a rather saucy cartoon using ‘shiver me topsails’ – other variations include ‘shiver my hulk’.

Off on another tack and feeling groggy

A couple of weeks ago, I shared some nautical terms I’ve come across which reflect our maritime heritage in everyday language. I still don’t know if other seagoing nations have a similar rich naval vocabulary!

Here is another selection:

  • Down the hatch
  • Edging forward
  • Fathom out
  • Feeling under the weather
  • Fend off
  • Field day
  • First-rate
  • From stem to stern:
  • Full to the gunwales
  • Get underway
  • Give a wide berth
  • Give leeway
  • Give/cut some slack
  • Go by the board
  • Go off on another tack
  • Go overboard:
  • Groggy
  • Ground swell
  • Hand over fist
  • Hard and fast
  • High and dry
  • Hit the deck
  • Hot pursuit
  • In the offing
  • Keel over/keep an even keel
  • Know the ropes
  • Loose cannon
  • Loose ends
  • Main stay
  • On the wrong tack:

Donkey’s years, steam donkey, donkey jacket…

Do young people still say ‘donkey’s years’ when they mean a long time? I’m not sure they do… I must ask some young people… if it’s a phrase unknown to them, they might ask where the saying originates.

It’s something I’ve never given much thought to, but now I’m wondering… do donkeys live a long time? It seems that they can live quite a long time in fact, many make it to over fifty, although it generally seems that thirty-ish is more common. The Guinness Book of Records gives the oldest ever donkey age as fifty-four, but there are stories of other donkeys living to be sixty – a Blackpool donkey named Lively Laddy was supposedly sixty-two when he went to the great green pasture in the sky.

So donkey’s years… it seems to have originated at the back-end of the nineteenth century, and to have come from rhyming slang; originally because of the length of their ears, it was donkey’s ears which rhymed with years – and I have heard people just say ‘donkeys’ for a long time, dropping the years part. (Thinking of back-ends, there is also the phrase ‘talking the hind legs off a donkey…)

Another explanation I saw was that it came from dockyard slang – a donkey being a winch which lifted things but did it very slowly, and took a long time, actually called a donkey engine, or steam donkey. A donkey puncher in the USA is not a cruel person who hits donkeys, but someone who operates a steam donkey.

Over here in Britain, a donkey jacket, originally a thick, hard-wearing, long-lasting, woollen three-quarters coat with waterproof reinforced shoulders of leather or some cheaper synthetic material, and five buttons down the front, was a donkey jacket. Originally worn by working men, it became fashionable for young people … in fact my  husband has one!

Donkeys are interesting animals; domesticated for over five thousand years, the name ‘donkey’ is only quite recent, and no-one really knows where it came from, except it replaced the word ‘ass’ about three hundred years ago. There are estimated there to be forty million in the world, including a few small groups of wild ones including onagers, and kiangs – also some feral animals.

Donkeys have bred with horses to produce mules and hinnies, and mules are renowned for their strength and endurance. While my dad was in the army as a paratrooper, he was in Italy at Monte Cassino – and at some point he was in charge of a mule called Moonlight who he was very fond of. 

So donkey’s years… maybe rhyming slang, maybe steam winches, who knows?!

Well, I’ve learned a new word today

I thought my vocabulary was pretty extensive – including lots of unusual, dialect and even obsolete words and phrases. I saw a word today which I thought was misspelled but then realised, no, it was an actual word.


  • to challenge  a legal person such as a judge or juror as unqualified to perform their legal duties because of a potential conflict of interest, or lack of impartiality; in other words, that a judge or juror should not be involved in a trial because they have a personal prejudice against a someone involved, or a particular interest in the result :
  • to recuse oneself – as a judge – to excuse oneself from a case because of a potential conflict of interest, bias or lack of impartiality.

Apparently, as you might guess from the sound of it, recuse comes from the French  recuser, which comes from Latin recusare,  which actually means “to refuse.” It was first used as an English word meaning “to refuse or reject” in the 1300’s and four hundred years later, it had acquired its legal connotation.  Over the last fifty years it has been revived – I think mainly in the USA as I have never ever come across it before, and I am quite widely read.

I’m guessing it will crop up a lot more now, I think people will be recusing themselves all over the place!!

I was not the only one to be puzzled by it – apparently there has been 100% increase in people looking it up  after this:

Something something something leather…

It’s the most annoying thing when you hear something when you haven’t got a way of jotting it down or noting it somewhere, something you want to write about maybe, or look up to find out more or to just find out what it means- and then you only  half-remember it, or forget it altogether, except as something you wanted to remember!

A few days ago I wrote about the expression ‘hell for leather‘ or ‘hell-bent for leather‘; yesterday morning, first thing, the radio alarm came on and I had not properly woken up when I caught someone use an expression I’d not heard of before but understood… something about ‘leather’ – ‘lay on the leather?’ ‘leave the leather’, ‘something something leather’ or ‘leather something something‘… I tried to really impress it into my mind, but somehow it slipped away. I understood it to mean to do it in a hurry or at top speed or without delay – not exactly the same as ‘hell for leather’, subtly different.

Well, I have been scouring, all my books, and the internet but cannot come up with the phrase I think I heard… maybe I misheard it? Maybe I was asleep and dreamed it?

All I could find was:

  • having leather lungs, leather-lunged – having a really strong or very loud voice
  • as ever trod leather/shoe-leather
  • as tough as old leather (also tough as an old boot – ie. an old leather boot)
  • leather or feather – chicken or beef
When I saw ‘leather-lunged’ it was at the end of a list arranged in alphabetical order and I read lunged as the past tense of lunge, not in possession of lungs…  it puzzled me for the moment!

A copper-bottomed couple of shakes

I’ve written before about the amount of words and phrases commonly used in English, every day English, which originated from nautical terms or slang. I think it really says something about our island heritage and our relationship with the sea-going back to when English first emerged as a language. I wonder if other seafaring nations have a similar volume of such words and phrases in their language, the Dutch for instance, or the Portuguese? The French and Spanish had great navies, great explorers, great sailors, but they also have a huge land mass given over to agriculture, with many of the population going back over many years having no connection with the sea at all.

here is just a selection I’ve come across:

  • A shot across the bows
  • All at sea
  • All hands on deck
  • All sewn up
  • Aloft
  • Aloof
  • Anchors aweigh
  • Any port in a storm
  • Armed to the teeth
  • As the crow flies
  • At a loose end
  • At a rate of knots
  • Athwart
  • Bale out
  • Batten down the hatches
  • Between the devil and the deep blue sea
  • Binge
  • Bitter end
  • Broad in the beam
  • By and large
  • Calm before the storm
  • Chock-a-block
  • Clean bill of health
  • Clear the deck
  • Close quarters
  • Cock up
  • Copper-bottomed
  • Couple of shakes
  • Cut and run
  • Dead in the water
  • Deliver a broadside

I shall have to ask my Dutch friends if it is similar in their language!

Hell bent for leather

I was thinking about nineteen to the dozen (not ten or thirteen or fifteen to the dozen, but nineteen) when my friend David asked about the expression ‘hell-bent for leather‘;  I’d never really thought about it before – but I understood ‘hell-bent‘ meaning a determination to get somewhere or to do something, even though it might not be wise, and ‘hell for leather‘ the same.

‘Bent’ is a tense of the verb ‘to bend’ (and apparently it has at least twenty-three definitions – well, I will look at them another time!) Here bend means to go in a particular direction, so hell-bent is going towards hell – although not literally! It can be a real determination – like me, I am hell-bent on finishing my next novel, ‘Earthquake’, or it can mean going somewhere without deviation or delay, probably at full speed and maybe not taking much care – ‘he was hell-bent on getting to the pub before closing time’.

There is a completely different expression, which also means going somewhere at full speed, without deviation or delay, and possibly without taking much care, and that is  ‘hell for leather‘ means at breakneck speed or very fast.

I’ve come across a couple of different explanations of the ‘hell for leather’ expression:

  • it originally referred to riding on horseback – so the leather was the saddle, or the horse, or the crop or whip used on the poor animal
  • it originally meant a long walk, tough on the shoe leather
  • it originally meant in the wild west that a stock animal, cow, bull, bullock, horse was being difficult
  • it originally meant as above but that the naughty creature would be slaughtered and turned into leather

I tend to think, for no reason that the first on is the true explanation.

I’ve also come across different origins for the ‘hell for leather’ expression:

  • Kipling – 1899 “The Valley of the Shadow.”
  • American slang from the Wild West – anytime in the late nineteenth century
  • I found an unsupported suggestion that it came from an archaic turn-of-the-nineteenth century phrase ‘hell for ladder/hell falladerly/hell faleero’ – I have never heard it and cannot find any substantiating evidence for it; I think it was one of those internet things which someone made up, a speculation on the phrase, and personally I think it is nonsense – however, I apologise and retract with pleasure if anyone can tell me that these phrases exist!

The ‘hell-bent‘ and ‘hell for leather‘ have been conflated (my new favourite word) to become ‘hell-bent for leather!

There were two films, ‘Hell Bent For Leather’ 1960 starring Audie Murphy, and ‘Hell For Leather’ 1998, ‘a frenzied leather and oil spectacular, a biker-opera’

You can also find Hell For Leather cricket bats (the balls are made of leather)

…and motorbikes (bikers’ gear is ‘leathers’)

… and if you want to catch up with my other novels before Earthquake is published, here is a link: