The Grammarphobia Blog

A mariner to the bitter end

Q: I am a professional mariner with two decades under traditional sail. Despite your doubts, I feel that the nautical use of “bitter end” must be the source of its common usage. In days of old, when a ship in danger of being blown ashore got to the bitter end, the holding power of the anchor could be increased no more. If the hook did not hold, one would likely be on the way to a watery grave.

A: We appreciate your belief that the nautical “bitter end” led to the everyday usage, but until further evidence turns up, we’ll stick with what we wrote in our posting last May.

There are two uses of the phrase, the nautical and the everyday, and it appears that the similarity between them is a matter of coincidence, or serendipity.

(1) Nautical use: As we said in our posting, a “bitter” is a single turn of the line around the bitts. And the “bitter end” is the end of the line that’s attached to the ship. In the 17th century, we quoted one seafarer as calling this “the bitters end,” meaning the line had reached the end of the bitters. It’s true, as you say, that a ship in this position might be in great peril and might indeed meet a bitter end in the everyday sense of the word.

(2) Everyday use: As the OED says, this sense of the phrase means “to the last and direst extremity” or “to death itself.” But it was first recorded IN THIS SENSE in the 19th century in other than nautical contexts, and might instead have been a reference to biblical citations. In the final analysis, the OED says the expression’s “history is doubtful.”

So, as we said, until further written evidence—from old books, diaries, letters, ship logs, or whatnot—surfaces, we can’t say more than this.

You may be right that the first use of the phrase led to the second, but unfortunately there’s no solid evidence at the moment.

Lexicographers take a very scientific approach in tracing etymological histories, and speculation or intuition has to give way to written evidence.

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