What the Nautical Term ‘Avast’ Means

Daven Hiskey 7
pirate encyclopediaToday I found out what the nautical term ‘avast’ means, namely “stop” or “hold still”.

The word was originally derived from the Dutch phrase “houd vast”, which literally means “hold fast”.  The frequent usage of this phrase eventually got it slurred down to “hou’ vast” and later “avast”.

This became a common term among sea-folk around the late 17th century.

Other Fun Nautical Terms and Their Origins:

  • Coxswain: a boy servant (swain) in charge of a small cock.  This cock was for the captain’s use only (I can’t make this stuff up).  The cock was a small boat used to transport the captain to and from the ship; thus, the cock was a vessel used to deliver seamen to fertile shores.  This term has its origins all the way back in the 15th century.  It has since been replaced with “helmsman”; “helmsman” can also refer to the person currently in charge of controlling the actual ship itself and not just the small cock.
  • Scuttlebutt: a cask of drinking water aboard a ship.  A “butt” being the wooden cask and “scuttle” being the act of drilling a hole in the butt (tapping the butt).  Sailors would often gossip while they drank by the scuttlebutt.  This has since lead to the term becoming synonymous with “gossip” and “rumors”.
  • Duffle: the name of sailor’s personal effects along with the bag that carries them.  The term comes from the Flemish town “Duffel”, which popularly produced the rough woolen cloth these bags were often made of.
  • Bilge rat: a rat that lives in the worst place on the ship, namely the bilge.  The bilge is the lowest level of the ship and is loaded with ballast and often foul smelling water/muck.   Thus, a bilge rate is a stinking, muck covered rat.
  • Bung hole: as mentioned before, a cask was called a “butt”; a hole in the butt is then stoppered with a bung and thus is called a “bung hole”.  So sailors drank and ate out of butt’s bung holes.
  • Grog: typically rum diluted with water, but can also be used to refer to any alcoholic beverage other than beer.  The drink was common aboard ships due to the fact that the drinking water aboard ships often got pretty slimy and disgusting.  Thus, a little rum was mixed in to kill the putrid flavor (and hopefully the alcohol would kill some of the bacteria).
  • “Your true colors”: ships would often carry flags from many nations so that they could deceive nearby vessels into thinking they were allies.  The rules of engagement however required that all ships hoist their true nation’s colors before firing upon someone.  Thus, it was common to hoist an enemy ship’s colors and hail them; once near, show your true colors and fire upon them.
  • Clean Bill of Health: this common phrase has its origins as a nautical term.  Before the crew of ships were allowed to depart their ship, it was often required that the crew present a clean bill of health, which was a document issued from the port the ship had just sailed from showing that there was no epidemic or the like from that port at the time of the ship’s departure.
  • Mayday: distress signal still used to this day.  The term comes from the French “m’ aidez”, which means “help me”.
  • Keel hauling: a punishment aboard ships where the person being punished has weights attached to their legs and is then attached to a rope, which also runs under the ship.  The person is then hoisted up and dropped in the water.  The rope is then pulled to the other side of the ship so that the person goes under the ship, before ultimately being pulled out (assuming they remain attached to that rope and don’t ultimately sink due to the weights on their legs).  They are then given the chance to catch their breath, before this is repeated.  This isn’t supposed to be fatal, but accidents can happen, which made it all the more terrifying to the condemned.  It was also common to fire a cannon while the person being punished was under water, to further scare them (sounds like loud thunder under the water).  The Dutch were the first to use this as a common punishment, but it was later adopted with pirates and other navies of the world in the 15th and 16th century.
  • Port and Starboard: left and right side of the ship, respectively.  What’s more interesting is how these terms came about.  The starboard is actually the steering paddle or rudder, which in England was in the back-right of the ship, hence starboard = right.  Originally, Larboard referred to the left side of the ship (the side the ship was loaded/unloaded on).  These two words sounded too similar, particularly when shouted in a storm or battle, so larboard was abandoned and port began to be used, as referring to the side the port was on when loading/unloading cargo, hence the left side.

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Bonus Fact:

  • September 19th is international “talk like a pirate” day.

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  1. Jay Won May 19, 2010 at 1:36 pm - Reply

    ” the cock was a vessel used to deliver seamen to fertile shores.”

  2. Jarm May 20, 2010 at 11:28 am - Reply

    Keel hauling was horrible as well because ships at sea often had barnacles growing on the bottom of them. Anyone who has slipped on rocks and had their arm flayed by barnacles knows that they are razor sharp. So, not only are you being dragged under a ship that is moving, but you are being dragged over splintered wood covered in razor sharp calcium deposits…

  3. nardi May 20, 2010 at 2:19 pm - Reply

    “Houd vast” is the imperative form of “vasthouden”, which means “to hold” (as in, to hold something in your hands). It doesn’t mean “hold fast”.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven May 21, 2010 at 3:31 pm - Reply

      @nardi: That’s interesting. However, the etymology dictionary, oxford dictionary, and many others say that the “houd vast” means “hold fast”, not “hold” as in “hold something in your hands”. Hence why “avast” means “stop” and not “hold something in your hands”.

      It’s possible that the meaning of “houd vast” as changed slightly over time and this accounts for the discrepancy; so then before the 17th century, houd vast meant “hold fast” as in “stop”, but today means simply “hold” as in “hold something in your hands”. That would be interesting to know.

  4. frank May 22, 2010 at 9:18 am - Reply

    houd vast in nederlander language means keep still,hold firm .Regards…

  5. ChayD October 20, 2010 at 4:55 am - Reply

    Another boaty fact; the word ‘posh’ is an acronym stemming from the term ‘Port Outward, Starboard Homeward’ I believe referring to the location of the cabins of wealthy people on the oceangoing liners of yesteryear.

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