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The Nautical Roots of 11 Common Phrases

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Even if you're a landlubber who hasn't even set foot on a paddleboat, you most likely sprinkle your everyday conversation with nautical-inspired phrases. Here are some terms you can thank a sailor for.

1. To be taken aback

Aback” is what sailors say when the wind changes suddenly and flattens the sails against the mast. Strong gusts of wind can even blow the ship backward—thus, “taken aback.”

2. Cut and run 

It’s believed that this phrase originates from sailors who were in such a hurry that they cut the anchor rather than hauling it up, then “ran” with the wind.

3. Pass with flying colors

When the English Navy would sail back London with their colorful flags flying, citizens knew the latest battle had been successful.

4. Hand over fist

Although we typically use this phrase to refer to making money, it really just means to make fast and steady progress, like when you quickly haul something up with a rope, hand over fist.

5. Left high and dry

No support? No resources? Then you just might be high and dry, like a ship that’s been grounded because the tide went back out.

6. Three sheets to the wind

The ropes that control the tension in the sails are called “sheets.” There are four of them, but if one of the ropes isn’t under control, it will send the other three—and both sails—“to the wind,” making the boat lurch around like Captain Jack Sparrow after a rum binge.

7. Under the weather

Ailing sailors were sent to recover below deck away from the wind and rain—or “under the weather.”

8. By and large

Both “by” and “large” are nautical terms. To sail “by” means to sail a ship very close to the line of the wind, and to sail “large” means the wind is on the quarter. Sailing “by and large” made it easier for the crew to keep the ship on course, even in difficult conditions.

9. Slush fund

When ship cooks finished making meals and had a sludgey mix of grease and fat left over, they would take the slush and store it until they got to port. Once they got there, the cooks sold the fat to candle makers for some extra cash.

10. Hard and fast

A ship that's been beached so firmly that it's stuck probably got jammed in the sand hard and fast. Now it's immovable and unchangeable—just like hard and fast rules.

11. Run a tight ship

An orderly ship is one with tight ropes and secure rigging.

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language
How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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Big Questions
What’s the Difference Between a Gift and a Present?
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It’s that time again when we’re busy buying, wrapping, and giving them. Sometimes we call them gifts, sometimes presents. Is there a difference?

The words come to us from different language families. Gift comes from the old Germanic root for “to give.” It referred to an act of giving, and then, to the thing being given. In Old English it meant the dowry given to a bride’s parents. Present comes from the French for "to present." A present is the thing presented or bestowed. They were both in use for the idea of something undergoing a transfer of possession without expectation of payment from the 13th century onward.

The words gift and present are well-matched synonyms that mean essentially the same thing, but even well-matched synonyms have their own connotations and distinctive patterns of use. Gift applies to a wider range of situations. Gifts can be talents. You can have the gift of gab, or a musical gift. Gifts can be intangibles. There is the gift of understanding or the gift of a quiet day. We generally don’t use present for things like this. Presents are more concrete. A bit more, well, present. If your whole family gave donations to your college fund for your birthday would you say “I got a lot of presents”? It doesn’t exactly sound wrong, but since you never hold these donations in your hand, gifts seems to fit better.

Gift can also be an attributive noun, acting like an adjective to modify another noun. What do you call the type of shop where you can buy presents for people? A gift shop. What do you call the basket of presents that you can have sent to all your employees? A gift basket. Present doesn’t work well in this role of describing other nouns. We have gift boxes, gift cards, and gift wrap, not present boxes, present cards, and present wrap.

Gift appears to be more frequent than present, though it is difficult to get accurate counts, because if you compare occurrences of the noun present with the noun gift, you include that other noun present, meaning the here and now. However, the plural noun presents captures only the word we want. Gifts outnumbers presents in the Corpus of Contemporary American English by four to one.

Still, according to my personal sense of the words, present—though it may not be as common—is more casual sounding than gift. I expect a child to ask Santa for lots and lots of presents, not many, many gifts. But whether it’s gifts or presents you prefer, I wish you many and lots this year, of both the tangible and intangible kind.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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