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DrasticDreamer's avatar

Word etymology help?

Asked by DrasticDreamer (23983points) June 24th, 2015

I was trying to explain the word “reef” to someone I talk to from England, used in the context of “to reef on something” because he’d never heard it before.

I had no trouble explaining to him what it meant, but I couldn’t explain why it meant what it does. I’ve looked online, but that hasn’t helped much either. Is there anyone in the collective who might be able to shed more light on the etymology?

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24 Answers

SQUEEKY2's avatar

OMG NO ,I have always used that term “I really had to reef on that bolt to get it out”
People hat get all confused with sayings and terms drive me crazy, unless you explain it to them in perfect english ,perfectly punctuated they haven’t a clue but these same people have no problem with a text message?
How about “I laughed my ass off” how do explain that to these people?

dappled_leaves's avatar

“To reef on something”... do you mean this in the sense of beating or abusing something? I’d never heard this usage before looking it up just now. Sounds it is very localized.

If not that, what’s the meaning of the phrase as you know it?

Dutchess_III's avatar

I’ve never heard it used that way before, either. But this might help: http://etymonline.com/

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@dappled_leaves Reefing on something means that you use excessive force on something either by pushing, pulling, twisting (etc.) it, and it can also mean to beat someone. I’m from Oregon, but I know that people from all over America use it. I just have no idea where it comes from or why it’s used this way.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I’m not seeing it defined as anything but a reef, like underwater reefs.

dappled_leaves's avatar

Hmm… here is a discussion of this use of reef. You might find it helpful. Apparently, it is borrowed from sailing terminology.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@Dutchess_III Hm, interesting. When I search for the word at the website you linked, I can see that the word might come from ” ‘to take in, roll up’ (as one would a section of a sail on a ship)”, because I imagine that you probably have to work pretty hard to bring in a sail?

SQUEEKY2's avatar

To use more force than normal, it’s simply a saying such as “laughed my ass off” how about looking that one up as well.
Or “I worked my fingers to the bone” try looking that up.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@dappled_leaves Oh, awesome. Thank you! :)

DrasticDreamer's avatar

This is so strange to me. I’ve heard a lot of people say this, but apparently it’s just as uncommon. I didn’t know that using it this way wasn’t known to people.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I am familiar with those sayings @SQUEEKY2. I just hadn’t heard the word “reef” used as a verb before. Maybe I shall be the first in Kansas to adopt it!

DrasticDreamer's avatar

Another interesting thing to think about is where the word is mostly used. I’m seeing online that people in New England use it, but I’m all the way in Oregon. Portland, to be specific, which was the West Coast’s biggest and most active port, so I wonder if it’s more common here because of that? Interesting stuff to think about. Thank you guys for those links, they helped a lot. :)

Tropical_Willie's avatar

To reef a sail means you reduce the area of the sail by tieing off a portion of the lower sail.

syz's avatar

I’ve never heard that expression (Florida, North Carolina).

Zaku's avatar

I’ve also never heard that expression (Seattle).

JLeslie's avatar

I’ve never heard it. I’ve lived in MI, TN, FL, NC, NY, and MD.

Reefer was pot when I was a teen. That’s the closet I get to that word, and that’s not the same word, it’s just the only thing I thought of besides a reef in the ocean.

keobooks's avatar

Count me in as a Midwesterner that has never heard anyone use this term. But thanks to what @drasticdreamer posted I can see why they call it reefer. Indeed, you do roll it up and draw it in. And, if the stuff is really powerful you might say that it reefs you.

jaytkay's avatar

I grew up in Michigan and we used reef to mean mean forceful action, like “I had to really reef on the tire iron to get the wheel off.”

I also sailed, and we reefed the sails.

They’re separate terms to me, I never connected the two.

Dutchess_III's avatar

But it sounds like they are related, @jaytkay. Was reefing the sails a forceful action?

jaytkay's avatar

Reefing sails is not forceful on the little boats I’ve sailed. You lower the sail a bit, and tie down the flapping excess. Essentially it gives you a smaller sail.

You point the boat into the wind so the sail is lax (as opposed to sideways, which would fill the sail and make it difficult to pull down). It’s necessary in a big wind.

Maybe on a big ship that can’t turn fast, you had to reef full sails. Big sails, big wind, very tough to pull them down.

I’m guessing, though. No idea if this is the etymology.

Stinley's avatar

I’ve never heard that expression before but the sentence “I really had to reef on that bolt to get it out” makes it perfectly clear to me that reef in this context means to use some force. If you handed me a spanner and said ‘can you reef on that bolt please?’ I might struggle to know what you meant. Context is key…

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@jaytkay Yeah, exactly. That’s how I’ve used it and have heard it used, too. “Don’t reef on it so much, you might ruin it!”, etc.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Well, I’m reefing the hell out of privacy fence sections that I’m pulling the boards off of. And the idiot used nails.

shanahanmj's avatar

I believe the origin of the term “reefing” comes from horsemanship. It is when the horse jerks it’s head and pulls the reigns from the rider’s hands.

I am from Northern NY and the term “reefing” or “reefed” has been commonly used in my family for many generations. I know my great grandfather (b.1905) used the term.

We have always used it in the context of forcefully pulling on something.

Some time ago, we were made aware that this was not a term commonly used by others, which prompted me to research the origin.

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