If you’ve been around the waterways for some time you will have become familiar with the basic canal lingo such as windlass, gongoozlers, bridge hole, gunwale and paddles. Other words and phrases are less well-known, and some are just downright peculiar! Here are 10 of the lesser-known canal phrases that you might discover on the ‘Cut’.
1) Handcuff key. This is commonly used on locks in areas where vandalism is present, but the mention of a handcuff key can get some raised eyebrows!
2) Crack the Paddle. Cracking the paddle is another way of saying ‘open the paddles’, or ‘wind the paddles up’ on a lock gate when operating a lock.
3) Prop Drift. Prop drift is when the stern kind of creeps in the direction of the turning propeller.
4) Canal Time. Canal time is a lovely expression, meaning that there’s no hurry and that everything may take a little longer than usual. Travelling by canal is always relaxed and when you’re planning a journey you may need to be flexible about your estimated time of arrival.
5) Strapping In. Strapping in is stopping the boat on a post of some sort using a rope, and keeping something on a short strap is a short tow rope.
6) Cheesing the Ropes. This one is not exclusive to canal boating. My dad taught it to me and he’s a merchant seaman. It is a way of tidying your mooring rope at the end of the journey by winding it into a lovely spiral shape.
7) Furtling. This has to be one of my favourite words and one I’ve only just recently learned. I’m told it means grubbing around under the counter (at the stern of the boat) with a boat-hook for anything caught around the prop.
8) Tipcat. A tipcat is a type of banana shaped rope fender on the stern of a narrowboat. The rounded rope fender on the ‘sharp end’ of the boat is known as the bow button.
9) Turks head is a type of decorative ropework, often on the tiller. It may also surround a button. The rope is knotted with a variable number of interwoven strands, forming a closed loop. It is so called because of its vague resemblance to a turban.
10) Riddler. “I need a riddler for my Squirrel!” A riddler is the tool one uses to riddle the fire; shaking the coal ash out of the bottom. Some stoves have a multi-purpose tool that opens the doors when the handle is hot, pull out the ash tray, and adjust the air controls.
I asked around on Facebook for some more suggestions of strange canal terminology and someone came up with squirrel stew and squirrel soup. I’m assuming they’re referring to cooking on a solid fuel Squirrel stove, and not that the squirrel is a culinary ingredient? Some phrases just sound smutty; like ‘pump my bilge’, ‘black my bottom’ and ‘breasting up’. What are your favourite or weirdest canal words and phrases? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter.
If you want to improve your canal boating terminology and skills, or even become a professional skipper, have you considered volunteering with your local community canal boating project, or taking an NCBA training course?