Q: We’re having a big storm in Grand Rapids and I’ve battened down the hatches. I assume this originated as a nautical expression. When did it come ashore?
A: Yes, “batten down the hatches” does indeed come from seafaring lingo. The nautical expression showed up at the turn of the 19th century, and took on a figurative sense for landlubbers in the mid-20th century.
However, the story begins on land with the noun “baton,” which meant a staff or stick used as a weapon when English borrowed the term from the French bâton around 1550.
A century later, an offshoot of “baton” showed up in writing as the carpentry term “batten,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
When “batten” appeared in 1658, it meant a small beam or piece of wood used to strengthen, support, or fasten. And to “batten” (1675) was to strengthen or fasten with battens.
In the 18th century, to “batten down” took on the nautical sense of to nail strips of wood (“battens”) around the edges of a tarp placed over the hatch to keep water out.
The noun appeared first. The earliest written example in the OED is from An Universal Dictionary of the Marine (1769), by William Falconer:
“The battens serve to confine the edges of the tarpaulings close down to the sides of the hatches.”
The earliest example we’ve found for the expression “batten down the hatches” is from Vocabulaire des Termes de Marine, a 1799 French-English dictionary of sailing terms published in Paris.
The dictionary translates “to batten down the hatches” as “mettre des listeaux aux panneaux des écoutilles.”
The identical translation appeared soon afterward in a general French-English dictionary published in London, Abel Boyer’s Royal College Dictionary (20th ed., 1802).
In a few decades, the expression was appearing regularly in accounts of storms at sea.
Here’s an example from A Brief Narrative of an Unsuccessful Attempt to Reach Repulse Bay, an 1824 account of the voyage by Capt. George F. Lyon of the Royal Navy:
“These soon wetted every one thoroughly, and the lower deck was flooded before we could batten down the hatches.”
The OED hasn’t yet updated its entry for “batten down the hatches.” The dictionary’s earliest example is from One False, Both Fair, an 1883 novel by John B. Harwood:
“Batten down the hatches—quick, men.” (Serialized in Chambers’s Journal, London. The quotation appeared in the Jan. 13, 1883, issue.)
We haven’t discussed “hatch,” a very old word that the OED says was “inherited from Germanic.” In Old English, it meant a half-door or gate, or part of a divided door. Since then, “hatch” has had many meanings associated with openings or entries.
The first nautical use came along in the middle to late 1300s, when “hatches” were movable planks forming the floor of a ship, above the hold.
Soon afterward, the OED says, a “hatch” in a ship came to mean “a trapdoor or grated framework covering an opening on a deck.”
The earliest OED citation is “brystis the hetches” (the Middle English can be translated as “break open the hatches”). It’s found in a translation, dated around 1440 and perhaps earlier, of the poem Morte Arthure.
The noun “hatch” has been used this way on boats ever since. And that nautical meaning, used figuratively, gave us the 20th-century drinking expression “down the hatch” (that is, down the throat).
Getting back to your question, the OED doesn’t discuss the figurative use of “batten down the hatches,” though it has one recent example in a discussion of “lock up your daughters,” a humorous reference to the arrival of a sexy man:
“Batten down the hatches, lock up your daughters, tie down the bassbins: this is a monster of a drum’n’bass affair” (from the Aug. 25, 2004, issue of Time Out).
The earliest figurative example we’ve found is from an article about hurricane forecasts, in the February 1955 issue of the Bulletin of the General Contractors Association, published in New York:
“ ‘Batten down the hatches!’ will be a general cry next summer and many summers to come, and it will be only a part of the new verbiage that contractors will add to their vocabulary.”
And here’s an example 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.”