Book of the Month
Not Enough Room to Swing a Cat
Naval slang and its everyday usage

Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Author: Martin Robson
ISBN 978-1-59114-627-8


One of the problems for learners of English is that sometimes one can understand every word in a sentence, and nothing of the meaning. For example, 'It was the bitter end. They had me over a barrel and there was no help in the offing. I had the devil to pay.' In fact every one of the expressions here comes from the long tradition of British involvement with the sea. An astonishing amount of the colloquial language of sailors has become part of the language. For example 'paying' here refers to the process of hammering old rope into cracks in a ship's deck.The part of the deck right next to the ship's side was particularly difficult, and was called the 'devil'. So a sailor caught in a misdeed might have the devil to pay as a punishment. Sometimes the job had to be done while hanging over the side of the ship - which is why someone in an uncomfortable situation is 'between the devil and the deep blue sea'. Understanding the origin of such expressions expression helps students to remember the modern meaning, and so get their English 'all shipshape and Bristol-fashion.'

Overall there are over a hundred expressions for the student to fathom (another naval expression), each arranged in ten loose categories. There's an appendix at the back so a student made groggy by too many colloquialisms can find a particular one quickly. ('Grog' was naval slang for alcohol. Having too much makes one 'groggy'). The writer begins each explanation with the modern usage of the word, and gives examples, which students will find useful. He then explains the origin of the word or phrase, which is often something that even native speakers might not know. For example when it is 'cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey' this has nothing to with either monkeys or their reproductive equipment.
The 'cat' in the title was a whip with several strands, the most infamous being the 'cat o'nine tails'. The strands left deep marks on the victim's back like scratches from a gigantic cat. Old sailing ships were very cramped, and an officer looking to punish a man had literally to find the space to swing a cat. This particular idiom, as with some of the others, is illustrated by a black-and-white line drawing. These only occur every few pages and if they do not add to the information, they at least help to break up the text. Few explanations are longer than a page, and many are just a paragraph long. This makes the book ideal for when one has a few minutes in hand to learn a new expression. However, the book does not say how common each expression is in modern English, so - as with all colloquialisms - it is better to become familiar with them before using them oneself.

Who is this book for? This book is not recommended for either beginners or young students. As might be expected of a book of naval expressions some of the phrases are, well, 'salty'. (The bad language of sailors is itself proverbial.) Also this book is meant for advanced students of English and native speakers, so the author uses a number of colloquial expressions and euphemisms as well as advanced vocabulary. However, a student who is told by his teacher to 'pipe down' will know from this book that 'piping down' was a signal given by a whistle (pipe) that no talking was allowed - something that the teacher probably won't know. Because learning the origin of an expression makes it easier to remember, anyone who has trouble with colloquialisms; or is simply interested in modern English will find this book highly informative.

Verdict: English idiom for advanced students
Assessment 7/10
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