Say What?

And we’re back! I hope you enjoyed your final weeks of summer. Today on Museum Bites we’re continuing our tour through the Great Lakes freighter, Valley Camp with a look at sailing slang. These colorful phrases add a dash of spice to our banter and went viral long before we had emojis and memes to express our state of mind. Join me for a brief look at a few expressions linked to our seafaring past. We begin with the sweet life…

Sweet Life:  Our first colorful phrase, life of Reilly (aka Riley) means living an easy, carefree, often luxurious life. For sailors, the life of Reilly meant liberty came early, reveille came late, and “good chow” and smooth sailing were savored throughout.

The expression first appeared in the early 1900s and was popular among American troops during World War I. It resurfaced in the 1940s when World War II soldiers and sailors wrote letters to family and friends waxing on about their desire to one day live the life of Reilly. And the phrase went viral. The Life of Reilly (or Riley), was the title of a Broadway play (1942), radio show (1944-1951), movie (1949), and not one, but two sitcoms (1949-1950 & 1953-1958). All were comedies featuring madcap tales about living the good life. The radio show and television sitcom, Life of Riley featured skits about lovable doofus Charlie Riley and his saccharine-sweet family. Sink your teeth into this quintessential 1950s sitcom by clicking on this Life of Riley (1953-1958) link courtesy of YouTube.

Wild & Weighty Abandon:  The term loose cannon is a colorful phrase used to describe someone who is unpredictable and rash. Warships as far back as the 17th century used cannons mounted on wheels for defense. Lashed in place with rope, these weighty guns sometimes broke free of their restraints. A loose cannon careening around on a rolling deck was a swift and sure way to snap everybody to attention.

A cannon that breaks loose from its fastenings is suddenly transformed into a supernatural beast…The mad mass leaps like a panther; it has the weight of an elephant, the agility of a mouse, the obstinacy of the axe…The dreadful cannon rushes about, advances, recedes, strikes to right and to left, flies here and there, baffles their attempts at capture, sweeps away obstacles, crushing men like flies.
– Excerpt from Ninety-Three (1874) by Victor Hugo (1802-1885)

Theodore Roosevelt, Wikimedia Commons
Theodore Roosevelt, Wikimedia Commons

Teddy Roosevelt (1858-1919) first used the expression loose cannon to describe himself. While discussing his post-presidential political life with his good friend, William Allen White (1868-1944), he lamented…

I don’t want to be the old cannon loose on the deck in the storm.
~Theodore Roosevelt

Today, the phrase loose cannon is used to describe a volatile person or personality type, and is often used to denigrate one’s political opponents. Brace yourself for a slew of loose-cannon talk in the run-up to our next election.

Monkeying Around:  Our final phrase is the most colorful of the lot. Freeze the balls off a brass monkey (aka brass monkey weather), means it’s pretty damn cold outside. There is a common misconception this expression originated with cannonballs that were held in place by a brass tray. When the temperature dropped the brass would contract and cause the cannonballs to roll around on deck.

However, linguists claim the phrase is just a playful expression used to describe frigid weather. It was also preceded by the saying freeze the tail off a brass monkey. It’s not clear who came up with this colorful phrase, but it paints a vivid picture and gets the point across. Put on a coat cause it’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey!

That wraps up our look at colorful sailor slang. Next week we’ll wrap up our tour of the mighty Valley Camp with a look at artifacts from the Edmund Fitzgerald. Until then, have a wonderful week!

Sea Gulls, Photo by Michael Schwarzenberger, Pixabay-100px Cover photo by Michael Schwarzenberger, courtesy of Pixabay.


Broadway Plays & Musicals: Descriptions & Essential Facts of More than 14,000 Shows through 2007, by Thomas S. Hischak (2009)

Cambridge Dictionary


IMDb: Life of Riley


Merriam-Webster: Life of Reilly

Merriam-Webster: Loose Cannon

Navy General Board


Sault Sainte Marie Historic Sites: Valley Camp

The Project Gutenberg

Valley Camp

Wikimedia Commons

YouTube: Life of Riley (1953-1958)


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