English is filled with all sorts of idioms and phrases where the original meaning is mostly lost on the general population. We’re not talking about actual eggs and chickens when we discuss nest eggs, just as we aren’t illuminating a dark space when we hold a candle to something. But in both these cases, it’s unlikely you’ll struggle with the spelling.
That’s because we still use the words “eggs” and “candle” in their non-idiomatic forms. Spelling becomes more of a challenge when you have a turn of phrase where the words aren’t so commonly used, at least among regular folk. Have you ever heard someone say that you should batten down the hatches? What does that even mean?
Spelling and Definition of Batten
As a noun, a “batten” typically refers to a long, flat, squared-off piece of wood (sometimes metal or other materials). It’s usually thin and narrow. This “batten” is then used to hold something in place or to secure it to the wall. In prototypical fashion, it might be the bar that goes across a door to prevent uninvited entry.
By extension, the verb “to batten” would then refer to using a batten (or battens) to strengthen or secure something. If you see that your treehouse isn’t looking so stable, you might batten down the structure by nailing some additional planks.
Into the Eye of the Storm
So, going back to our idiomatic phrase, the origin of “batten down the hatches” can be traced to sailing the open seas and encountering a bad storm.
When hit with tumultuous weather, a ship’s crew may literally batten down to hatches. That is to say that they will secure the hatch openings (“hatchways”) that are used to access the lower decks of the vessel. These hatches will be protected not only by the battens, but also by a heavy-duty waterproof cloth called a tarpaulin. That should help to minimize the amount of water that can get in. Normally these hatches on wooden ships would be open to allow for better airflow to the lower decks.
Outside of the nautical environment, today we use the phrase to mean preparing for imminent danger, difficulty or trouble. This is related to a similar idiom: to hunker down. In both instances, the usual connotation is not that you are going to fight the crisis, per se, as much as you are simply trying to protect yourself. You’re trying to “weather the storm,” as it were. This can be both a literal, physical threat (like an actual storm) or a figurative one (like losing your job).
More Nautical Inspiration
Many other everyday phrases can trace their origins back to mankind’s long seafaring history.
If you “know the ropes,” it means you know how to do something. As you might imagine, a sailor should know what rope is connected to what sail. He should know what knot to use for what purpose too. You might eat a small snack to “tide you over” until dinner, but on a boat, it meant to ride the tide in the absence of wind to fill the sails.
And with no wind, you probably don’t need to batten down the hatches.