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Steerage, bow and scrape, pummel, knapsack

Created date

November 3rd, 2017
Picture of a knapsack.

Picture of a knapsack.


Watch James Cameron’s blockbuster film Titanic (1997), and you’ll hear the word “steerage” about a thousand times. No longer used in today’s luxury cruise industry, “steerage” was a staple term aboard nineteenth- and early twentieth-century ocean liners.

Those passengers who sailed “steerage” secured the cheapest accommodations available on the ship. These cabins were unadorned, cramped chambers that slept several people and had no private bathrooms.

But they were known as “steerage” accommodations because of their almost universal location, well below decks near the vessel’s stern. Historically, the steering tackle—ropes or cables that attached the ship’s rudder to its helm—ran directly through this area. 

“Most of the Titanic’s fatalities occurred among steerage passengers.”

Bow and scrape

At some point in our lives, all of us have been in a situation where we felt compelled to “bow and scrape” to someone else. Maybe it was your boss, your in-laws, or even your parents or your kids; regardless, the meaning of the phrase is the same.

To “bow and scrape” is to be submissive or overly deferential to another person. The phrase is a direct reference to the physical act of genuflection, wherein servants would “bow” to their masters on one knee, dragging or “scraping” their foot as they assumed the position. 

“I refuse to bow and scrape to someone simply because he has a lot of money.”

Pummel (pommel)

When we use the word “pummel” today, it’s used as a verb meaning to beat someone or something. Originally spelled “pommel,” however, the word was a noun and referred to the knob-like protuberance commonly found at the bottom of sword handles.

Meant to help balance the weapon and prevent the swordsman’s hand from slipping down the hilt, the “pommel” could also be used to deal your opponent a finishing blow to the head; hence, our usage of the word as a verb.

“Opposing protestors pummeled each other in the streets during yesterday’s demonstration.” 


The “knapsack” has long been an essential accoutrement for soldiers on the march. Worn on the back, these bags offer troops an efficient, hands-free means of carrying critical supplies, especially food, which is how it got its name.

Dating back to the early 1600s, “knapsack” is a combination of the German words “knappen,” roughly meaning to snap, bite, or eat, and “sack” or bag. The “knappsack,” as it was spelled in German, was literally a food bag.

“Along with a uniform, each soldier was issued a knapsack to carry food and supplies.”