batten down the hatches

When you “batten down the hatches,” you’re preparing for trouble.

In this phrase, ‘hatch’ means the opening in the deck of a ship. More formally called hatchways, these openings were commonplace on sailing ships and were normally either open or covered with a wooden grating to allow for ventilation of the lower decks. When bad weather was forecast, the hatches were covered with tarps and the edges of the tarps were nailed down with wooden strips, known as battens, to prevent them from blowing off. This was called ‘battening down.’

The phrase appears in Admiral W. H. Smyth’s 1867 encyclopedia The Sailor’s Word Book. The earliest reference to this practice appears to be in William Falconer’s An Universal Dictionary of the Marine, 1769.

However, the story begins on land with the noun ‘baton,’ which meant a staff or stick used as a weapon. The English borrowed the term from the French around 1550. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a century later, an offshoot of ‘baton’ showed up in writing as the carpentry term ‘batten.’

In a few decades, the expression was appearing regularly in accounts of storms at sea.

Climate change may provide plenty of opportunity to reinforce our property against bad weather. The securing of property, especially the covering with protective sheeting, is still called ‘battening down.’

A modern example of the use of the phrase is from Woman in Levi’s, a 1967 memoir by Eulalia Bourne, a rancher and schoolteacher in Arizona: “I hurried my horse in an effort to get home, batten down the hatches, and give welcome to the rain. It outraced us.”

Since the phrase means literally ‘preparing for trouble,’ it can be used in many different circumstances. I’ve caught myself using it when I might be unable to get to the grocery store later in the week. If it looks like I’m going to run out of chocolate ice cream, I batten down the hatches by buying extra.

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