Sailor Speak of the Week – Dead Horse

Definition

Noun

  • The period of time after a ship’s sailing where the crew was working off roughly a month of advanced wages.

Origin

Probably earlier than the 18th century.

Comments

When a sailor joined a merchant ship, he would receive a month’s worth of wages in advance which he invariably wasted on booze or women before leaving port. Since he was also legally bound to that vessel for the duration of the voyage, he would effectively end up working the first month without any pay. Thus, for the first month of the voyage, the sailor labored in a similar fashion to an overworked, “dead” farm horse. It was also pointless to force him to do additional work beyond was he was already paid for. Following the month of work, a straw effigy of a horse was made, hoisted aloft, lit on fire, and cut adrift to much celebration (Jeans, 2007, p. 100-101). This is also where the expression, “to beat/flog a dead horse” originates from.

References

Jeans, P.D. (2007). Seafaring Lore & Legend: A Miscellany of Maritime Myth, Superstition, Fable, and Fact. International Marine/McGraw-Hill.

Rogers, J.G. (1985). Origins of Sea Terms. Mystic Seaport Museum.

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