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Speakeasy, shipshape, (tie up) loose ends, quarantine

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October 23rd, 2015

Speakeasy

During the prohibition era, the U.S. government tried to deprive taxpayers of alcohol. Despite a valiant effort, the dry movement was a bad, even absurd, idea and a failure. The fact was that most Americans liked their booze too much to give it up, regardless of the law. 

Indeed, entire establishments sprung up in cities throughout the country in response to prohibition. Those who wanted to go out for a drink and a good time could still do so, albeit discreetly. They went to nightclubs that secretly served liquor, often in conjunction with illegal gambling. 

If you knew of such a place and wanted to pass the word on to a friend, you were wise to “speak easy” (or whisper) about it, lest unwelcome ears overhear you.

In time, people dubbed these clubs “speakeasies.” 

“During prohibition, cities like Chicago were littered with speakeasies.”

Shipshape

When we call something “shipshape,” it means that it’s neat, clean, and organized. The term first appeared in the 1760s, used in the British Royal Navy to describe how sailors were to maintain their cabins. All of their belongings, from pillows to bags, were to be properly situated, secured, or stowed away so that they wouldn’t become a safety hazard in the event of heavy seas or worse.

Gradually, the word worked its way into the landlubber’s vocabulary.

“Your room had better be shipshape before you go out with your friends.”

(Tie up) loose ends

In the days of sail, the deck of a ship looked like a tangled web of ropes to the layperson. But this intricate rigging was a complex system by which mariners could control their sheets.

On a well-maintained (or shipshape) vessel, the ropes on deck had to be taut and securely tied. To ensure that this was the case, a captain would sometimes order a sailor to inspect the rigging for loose ends. If he found any, he was to tighten and retie the ropes.

Once again, landlubbers pilfered the term, which refers to the completion of unfinished business.

“I had to tie up some loose ends at work before I left for vacation.”

Quarantine

The plague that ravaged Europe in the fourteenth century was one of the worst epidemics in history, and it came by way of sea. Around 1347, ships carrying goods from Asia entered Italy’s ports. They were loaded with fabrics, spices, and rats bearing fleas infected with a bacterium called Yersinia pestis. 

A simple flea bite transmitted the infection to humans. Death swiftly followed. Physicians had no idea what was happening. To contain the plague’s rapid spread, the first step was to prevent the arrival of outside cases. Officials in Venice, for instance, required ships suspected of carrying infected passengers to stay outside the harbor for quarantina giorni (40 days) before they could enter the port to unload cargo.   

By the seventeenth century, the term was shortened to “quarantine,” which refers to periods of forced isolation.

“Health officials ordered quarantines in response to the recent Ebola outbreak.”

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