Batten Down the Hatches

Where does the saying “batten down the hatches” come from?
By Linda Browne

It’s February here in Newfoundland and Labrador, which means it’s time to pull up your woolly socks, cozy up with your loved one in the depths of winter, and start “battening down the hatches” because there’s bound to be a winter storm on the way soon. It’s a phrase that you’ve probably used hundreds of times when talking about preparing for bad weather or, in a more figurative sense, bracing yourself for trouble (e.g., “I forgot to give the missus a Valentine’s Day card – better batten down the hatches!”). Haven’t you ever been curious about where this saying comes from? For this one, we must turn our attention to the sea.
In his book Hair of the Dog to Paint the Town Red, which looks at the origins of some 400 popular sayings and phrases, Andrew Thompson explains the nautical roots of the term, which dates back to the early 1800s.
“Most sailing ships at the time had cargo holds that opened to the deck via hatches, sometimes called hatchways,” he writes, which were “normally left open or simply covered with a grate that allowed for ventilation.”
With rough seas or bad weather on the horizon, he continues, “the ship’s captain would call to batten down the hatches to protect the cargo and prevent the hold from getting filled with rain or seawater. The hatches would be covered with canvas tarpaulins that would be held down with strips of wood, known as battens, to stop them from blowing off.”
The earliest reference to this phrase appears to come from William Falconer’s An Universal Dictionary of the Marine from 1769, where he references “Battens of the hatches,” which are “nailed along the edges of tarpaulings, which are pieces of tarred canvas, of sufficient breadth and length to cover the hatches at sea.”
Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman of the “Grammarphobia” blog note that the phrase started to be used in a figurative sense in the mid-20th century. They reference an article about hurricane forecasts published in New York in 1955, in the Bulletin of the General Contractors Association, as an early example.
Speaking of the word “hatch,” the duo also mention “that nautical meaning, used figuratively, gave us the 20th-century drinking expression ‘down the hatch’ (that is, down the throat).”
A word to the wise: If you ever find yourself having to “batten down the hatches” as you sail on choppy seas, and you’re already prone to turning green, going “down the hatch” in this way is something you might want to avoid.

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