Common expressions with nautical origins

Maritime and seafaring is rich in oral tradition and has left its mark over the years in languages around the world.  Below are many common English expressions originating from nautical terms.

Above board – Anything on or above the open deck. If something is open and in plain view, it is above board.

All at sea – It dates from the days of sail when accurate navigational aids weren’t available. Any ship that was out of sight of land was in an uncertain position and in danger of becoming lost.

Aloof – From the Old Dutch word loef which meant “windward” and was used to describe a ship within a fleet which sailed higher to the wind and was thus drawn apart from the rest of the fleet.

Anchors aweigh – Preparing to leave.  An anchor that is aweigh is one that has just begun to put weight onto the rope or chain by which it is being hauled up as a ship prepares to sail away across the sea.

As the Crow Flies  – When lost or unsure of their position in coastal waters, ships would release a caged crow.  The crow would fly straight towards the nearest land thus giving the vessel some sort of a navigational fix.  The tallest lookout platform on a ship came to be know as the crow’s nest.

At Loggerheads – An iron ball attached to a long handle was a loggerhead.  When heated it was used to seal the pitch in deck seams.  It was sometimes a handy weapon for quarreling crewmen.

Back and Fill – A technique of tacking when the tide is with the ship but the wind is against it.

Batten down the hatches – Ships’ hatches, more formally called hatchways, 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 imminent, the hatches were covered with tarpaulin and the covering was edged with wooden strips, known as battens, to prevent it from blowing off. Not surprisingly, sailors called this “battening down”.

Bear Down – To sail downwind rapidly towards another ship or landmark.

Before the mast – Literally, the position of the crew whose living quarters on board were in the forecastle (the section of a ship forward of the foremast). The term is also used more generally to describe seamen as compared with officers, in phrases such as “he sailed before the mast.”

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea – The devil seam was the curved seam in the deck planking closest to the side of the ship and next to the scupper gutters.  If a sailor slipped on the deck, he could find himself between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Black book – From the 1300’s – a collection of maritime laws and conduct that became known as the Black Book of the Admiralty. The punishments for offenses was harsh, to say the least. Drowning, starvation, and marooning were punishments for serious offenses such as repeatedly sleeping on watch.

Blood money – Originally known as bounty money, it was the financial reward for sinking an enemy ship. The amount of the reward, however, was not based on the size or importance of the ship but on the number of crew members killed.

Booby Hatch – Aboard ship, a booby hatch is a sliding cover or hatch that must be pushed away to allow access or passage.

Boot camp – During the Spanish-American War, sailors wore leggings called boots, which came to mean a Navy (or Marine) recruit.  These recruits trained in boot camps.

Broad in the beam – A woman with wide hips or buttocks resembling the beam, the widest part of the ship.

Brought up short – A sailing ship underway could only be brought to an emergency standstill by dropping the anchors.  Not a pleasant experience.

Buoyed Up – Using a buoy to raise the bight of an anchor cable to prevent it from chafing on a rough bottom.

By and Large – Currently means in all cases or in any case.  From the nautical: by meaning into the wind and large meaning with the wind: as in, By and Large the ship handled very well.”

Carry on – In the days of sail, the officer of the deck kept a weather eye constantly on the slightest change in the wind so sail could be reefed or added as necessary to ensure the fastest headway.  Whenever a good breeze came along, the order to carry on would be given.  It meant to hoist every bit of canvas the yards could carry.

Chock-a-Block – Meaning something is filled to capacity or over loaded.  If two blocks of rigging tackle were so hard together they couldn’t be tightened further, it was said they were “Chock-a-Block”.

Clean bill of health – A certificate signed by a port authority attesting that no contagious disease existed in the port of departure and none of crew were infected with a disease at the time of sailing.  Shore-side, it means in good shape.

Clear the deck – One of the things done in preparation for battle.

Close quarters – In the 17th century the barriers that sailors laid across a ship’s deck in order to provide a safe haven from the enemy were called close-fights.  By the mid 18th century that confined defensive space became called close quarters, i.e. close dwellings.  “Close” in this case was a variation of “closed”, not “nearby”.  Nevertheless, the phrase came to mean “near enough to to be able to fight hand to hand”.

Cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey –  The brass triangles that supported stacks of iron cannon-balls on sailing ships were called monkeys and in cold weather the metal contracted, causing the balls to fall off.

Copper bottomed – Described ships that were fitted with copper plating on the underside of their hulls. The process was first used on ships of the British Navy in 1761 to defend their wooden planking against attack by Teredo worms a.k.a. Shipworms and to reduce infestations by barnacles. It figuratively to refers to anything that is certain and trustworthy.

Cut and Run – If a captain of a smaller ship encountered a larger enemy vessel, he might decide that discretion is the better part of valor, and so he would order the crew to cut the lashings on all the sails and run away before the wind.  Other sources indicate “Cut and Run” meant to cut the anchor cable and sail off in a hurry.

Cut of His Jib – Warships many times had their foresails or jib sails cut thinly so that they could maintain point and not be blown off course.  Upon sighting thin foresails on a distant ship a captain might not like the cut of his jib and would then have an opportunity to escape.

Deep six – A fathom, the unit of measurement in most maritime countries for the depth of the sea, is six feet. Sailors used the term to refer to throwing something overboard and it has come to mean getting rid of something.

Deliver a broadside – A broadside was the simultaneous firing of the guns and/or canons on one side of a war ship. Quite a blow, as can be imagined.

Down the hatch – When cargoes are lowered into the ship’s hold are going down the hatch.

Dressing Down – Thin and worn sails were often treated with oil or wax to renew their effectiveness.  This was called “dressing down”.   An officer or sailor who was reprimanded or scolded received a dressing down.

Dutch courage –  During the Anglo-Dutch wars it was British propaganda claiming that the Dutch troops were so cowardly they wouldn’t fight unless fortified with copious amounts of schnapps. The term has come to mean false courage induced by drink, or the drink itself.

Even keel, Keel over – A vessel that floats upright without list is said to be on an even keel and this term has come to mean calm and steady. A keel is like the backbone of the vessel, the lowest and principal center-line structural member running fore and aft. Keeled over (upside down) was a sailor’s term for death.

Fathom out – Fathom is a measuring unit by using the outstretched arms, approximately 6 feet, a usage that dates back to at least the 16th century.  Seamen used to measure the depth of water (reaching bottom) beneath a ship by use of a weight fixed to a rope marked out in fathoms.  To fathom out began to mean “getting to the bottom of things”.

Figurehead – An ornamental figure placed on the front of a ship, under the bowsprit. Originally a religious and/or protective emblem. The custom continued but for purely decorative purposes. Hence the term figurehead – a leader with no real power or function except to look good or appeal to a certain group.

Filibuster – Buccaneers were known in England as filibusters. From the Dutch for vrybuiter (freebooter) translated into French as flibustier. It is now used as a political term meaning to delay or obstruct the passage of legislation (as opposed to sailing vessels) by non-stop speech making.

First Rate – Implies excellence. From the 16th century on until steam powered ships took over, british naval ships were rated as to the number of heavy cannon they carried.  A ship of 100 or more guns was a First Rate line-of-battle ship.  Second rates carried 90 to 98 guns;  Third Rates, 64 to 89 guns;  Fourth Rates, 50 to 60 guns.  Frigates carrying 48 to 20 guns were fifth and sixth rated.

Fly-by-Night – An easily set extra sail used temporarily when running before the wind (wind coming from behind). Has come to mean ‘here today, gone tomorrow’, or a less-than-stellar reputation.

Fits the bill – A Bill of Lading was signed by the ship’s master acknowledging receipt of specified goods and the promise to deliver them to their destination in the same condition. Upon delivery, the goods were checked against the bill to see if all was in order. If so, they fit the bill.

Flotsam and Jetsam –  Flotsam is any part of the wreckage of a ship or her cargo that is lost by accident and found floating on the surface of the water. Jetsam are goods or equipment deliberately thrown overboard (jettisoned) to make the ship more stable in high winds or heavy seas. (Lagan are goods cast overboard with a rope attached so that they may be retrieved and sometimes refers to goods remaining inside a sunken ship or lying on the bottom.) The term flotsam and jetsam shore-side means odds and ends of no great value.

Footloose – The bottom portion of a sail is called the foot. If it is not secured, it is footloose and it dances randomly in the wind.

From stem to stern – From the front of a ship to the back. Now describes something in its entirety.

Full to the gunwales – The upper edge of the ship’s side was called the gun walls or gunwales.  A heavily loaded ship was up to the gunwales. 

Garbled – Garbling was the prohibited practice of mixing rubbish with the cargo.  A distorted, mixed up message was said to be garbled.

Get a word in edgeways (edgewise) – The methodical and slow advance of a ship by means of repeated small tacking movements is called edging.   To get a word in edgeways is to find small gaps in the conversation and proceed forward.

Get underway – Way is the forward progress of a ship though the water, or the wake that the ship leaves behind.  As sailing ships are literally under the sails when in motion, the were underway.

Give (someone) a wide berth – To anchor a ship far enough away from another ship so that they did not hit each other when they swung with the wind or tide.

Gone by the board – Anything seen to have gone overboard or spotted floating past the ship (by the board) was considered lost at sea.

Gripe – A sailing vessel gripes when, by poor design or imbalance of sail, it tends to end up with its bow into the wind when sailing close-hauled. The sails flap around, forward progress is halted and she is very hard to steer

Groggy – In 1740, British Admiral Vernon (whose nickname was “Old Grogram” for the cloak of grogram which he wore) ordered that the sailors’ daily ration of rum be diluted with water.  The men called the mixture “grog”.  A sailor who drank too much grog was “groggy”. 

Half seas over – A ship run aground on reef or rock with seas breaking over her. Not much can be done in this situation. The expression has come to mean a person so inebriated as to be incapable of steering a steady course.

Hand over fist – Hand over hand was a British term for the act of moving quickly up a rope or hoisting a sail, which was a matter of pride and competition among sailors. It is thought that American sailors changed this term to ‘hand over fist’, and the term now means to advance or accumulate rapidly.

Hard up – To put the helm hard over is to put it as far as it will go in that direction. Hard and fast describes a vessel firmly aground and unable to make progress and has come ashore to mean rigid. ‘Hard up in a clinch and no knife to cut the seizing’, the term from which hard up derives, was a sailor’s way of saying he had been overtaken by misfortune and saw no way of getting clear of it.

Haze – Hazing was the practice of keeping the crew working all hours of the day or night, whether necessary or not, in order to deprive them of sleep and to make them generally miserable. In the 19th century, many captains used this practice to assert their authority.

High and dry -High referred to ships that were beached. The dry implies that, not only were they out of the water, but had been for some time and could be expected to remain so.

Hit the deck – The prudent thing to do when subjected to a French broadside… Not that Captain Aubrey would dream of doing it.

Hodgepodge – Hotchpotch was a maritime term describing the method of equally dividing cargo and property damaged when two ships have collided and both are deemed to be responsible.  Current usage of hodgepodge means ‘a jumble’.

Hot pursuit – A principle of naval warfare, though without basis in law, that allowed a fleeing enemy to be followed into neutral waters and captured there if the chase had begun in international waters.

In the Offing – Currently means something is about to happen, as in – “There is a reorganization in the offing.”    From the 16th century usage meaning a good distance from shore, barely visible from land, as in – “We sighted a ship in the offing.”

Junk – Old rope no longer able to take a load, it was cut into shorter lengths and used to make mops and mats.

Jury rig – A temporary repair to keep a disabled ship sailing until it could make port, such as a jury sail erected when the mast was lost or a jury rudder as an emergency means of steering when the ship’s rudder was damaged.

Know the Ropes – Ships under sail required a great deal of rope to be properly controlled. These ropes held sails in place, moored the ship at port, and served many other critical roles as well.  The only way of keeping track of and knowing the function of all of these lines was to know where they were located.  It took an experienced seaman to know the ropes.  

Leeway – The weather side of a ship is the side from which the wind is blowing.  The Lee side is the side of the ship sheltered from the wind.  A lee shore is a shore that is downwind of a ship.  If a ship does not have enough “leeway” it is in danger of being driven onto the shore.

Let the Cat Out of the Bag – In the Royal Navy the punishment prescribed for most serious crimes was flogging.  This was administered by the Bosun’s Mate using a whip called a cat o’ nine tails.  The “cat” was kept in a leather or baize bag.  It was considered bad news indeed when the cat was let out of the bag.    Other sources attribute the expression to the old English market scam of selling someone a pig in a poke (bag) when the pig turned out to be a cat instead.

Listless – When a ship was listless, she was sitting still and upright in the water, with no wind to make her lean over (list) and drive ahead.

Long haul – Operation on  ship requiring the hauling of a lot of line. Also seen in short haul, an operation requiring little line.

Long shot –  In old warships, the muzzle-loading cannon were charged with black powder of uncertain potency that would propel the iron shot an equally uncertain distance with doubtful accuracy. A 24-pounder long gun, for instance, was considered to have a maximum effective range of 1200 yards, even though, under the right conditions, a ball might travel some 3000 yards. Similarly, a short, stubby 32-pounder carronade’s lethality faded fast beyond 400 yards. Thus, the odds were against a hit when one fired a long shot.

Loose cannon – From the 17th century to the 19th century, wooden warships carried cannon as their primary offensive weapons. In order to avoid damage from their enormous recoil when fired they were mounted on rollers and secured with rope. A loose cannon was one that had become free of its restraints and was rolling dangerously about the deck.

Mainstay – A stay that extends from the maintop to the foot of the foremast of a sailing ship. Currently, a thing upon which something is based or depends.

No Great Shakes – When casks became empty they were “shaken” (taken apart) so the pieces, called shakes, could be stored in a small space.  Shakes had very little value.

No Room to Swing a Cat – The entire ship’s company was required to witness flogging at close hand.  The crew might crowd around so that the Bosun’s Mate might not have enough room to swing his cat o’ nine tails.

On the beam ends – The beams are the horizontal transverse timbers of ships. When the beam ends were touching the water there was clear danger of imminent capsize.

Over the Barrel – The most common method of punishment aboard ship was flogging.  The unfortunate sailor was tied to a grating, a mast or over the barrel of a deck cannon.

Overbearing – To sail downwind directly at another ship thus “stealing” or diverting the wind from his sails.

Overhaul – To prevent the bunt-line ropes from chaffing the sails, crew were sent aloft to haul them over the sails. This was called overhauling.

Overreach – If a ship holds a tack course too long, it has overreached its turning point and the distance it must travel to reach it’s next tack point is increased.

Overwhelm – Old English for capsize or founder.

Pipe Down – Means stop talking and be quiet.  The Pipe Down was the last signal from the Bosun’s pipe each day which meant “lights out” and “silence”.

Plain (plane) sailing – Plane sailing is a simplified form of navigation, in which the surface of the sea is considered to be flat rather than curved.

Pooped – The poop is the stern section of a ship.  To be pooped is to be swamped by a high, following sea.

Press Into Service – The British navy filled their ships’ crew quotas by kidnapping men off the streets and forcing them into service.  This was called Impressment and was done by Press Gangs.

Rummage Sale – From the French “arrimage” meaning ship’s cargo. Damaged cargo was sold at a rummage sale.

Push the boat out – People have for centuries built boats that were too large for an individual to move.  Helping a seaman to push the boat out into the water was an act of generosity.

Scuttlebutt – A butt was a barrel. Scuttle meant to chop a hole in something. The scuttlebutt was a water barrel with a hole cut into it so that sailors could reach in and dip out drinking water.  The scuttlebutt was the place where the ship’s gossip was exchanged.

Shipshape and Bristol fashion – Bristol has been an important English seaport for more than a thousand years. The city is actually several miles from the sea and stands on the estuary of the River Avon. Bristol’s harbor has one of the most variable tidal flows anywhere in the world and the water level can vary by more than 30 feet between tides. Ships that were moored there were beached at each low tide. Consequently they had to be of sturdy construction and the goods in their holds needed to be securely stowed.

Shiver my timbers – One meaning of shiver, which originated at least as early as the 14th century, is “to break into pieces”.  A sailor’s oath shiver my timbers, is synonymous with “let my boat breaks into pieces”.

Shot across the bow – ‘The naval practice of firing a cannon shot across the bow of an opponent’s ship to show them that they are prepared to do battle.

Skyscraper – A small triangular sail set above the skysail in order to maximize effect in a light wind.

Slush Fund – A slushy slurry of fat was obtained by boiling or scraping the empty salted meat storage barrels.  This stuff called “slush” was often sold ashore by the ship’s cook for the benefit of himself or the crew.  The money so derived became known as a slush fund.

Square Meal – In good weather, crews’ mess was a warm meal served on square wooden platters.

Squared away – On square-rigged vessels, the state of the sails when properly trimmed. Currently, arranged or dealt with in a satisfactory manner.

Son of a Gun – When in port, and with the crew restricted to the ship for any extended period of time, wives and ladies of easy virtue often were allowed to live aboard along with the crew.  Infrequently, but not uncommonly, children were born aboard, and a convenient place for this was between guns on the gun deck.  If the child’s father was unknown, they were entered in the ship’s log as “son of a gun”.

Start Over with a Clean Slate – A slate tablet was kept near the helm on which the watch keeper would record the speeds, distances, headings and tacks during the watch.  If there were no problems during the watch, the slate would be wiped clean so that the new watch could start over with a clean slate.

Taken Aback – A dangerous situation where the wind is on the wrong side of the sails pressing them back against the mast and forcing the ship astern.  If the wind were to turn suddenly so that a sailing ship was facing unexpectedly into the wind, the ship was said to be taken aback.  Most often this was caused by an inattentive helmsman who had allowed the ship to head up into the wind.

Taking the wind out of his sails – Sailing in a manner so as to steal or divert wind from another ship’s sails.

Taking turns – Changing watches with the turn of the hour glass.

The Bitter End – The end of an anchor cable is fastened to the bitts at the ship’s bow.  If all of the anchor cable has been payed out you have come to the bitter end.

The Devil to Pay – To pay the deck seams meant to seal them with tar.  The devil seam was the most difficult to pay because it was curved and intersected with the straight deck planking.  Some sources define the “devil” as the below-the-waterline-seam between the keel and the the adjoining planking.  Paying the Devil was considered to be a most difficult and unpleasant task.

Three Sheets to the Wind – A sheet is a rope line which controls the tension on the downwind side of a square sail.  If, on a three masted fully rigged ship, the sheets of the three lower course sails are loose, the sails will flap and flutter and are said to be “in the wind”.  A ship in this condition would stagger and wander aimlessly downwind.

Toe the Line – When called to line up at attention, the ship’s crew would form up with their toes touching a seam in the deck planking.

Touch and Go – This referred to a ship’s keel touching the bottom and getting right off again.

True Colors, False Colors, Flying Colors – The flag flown by a vessel indicating its nationality was referred to as her colors. Long before radios, you can imagine how important this might have been, especially when engaged in battle. False colors were sometimes flown to avoid capture or to approach unsuspiciously.

Try a different tack – The direction in which a ship moves as determined by the position of its sails and regarded in terms of the direction of the wind (starboard tack). If one tack didn’t bring the ship up properly, one could always attempt another.

Turning a blind eye – In 1801, during the Battle of Copenhagen, Admiral Nelson deliberately held his telescope to his blind eye, in order not to see the flag signal from the commander to stop the bombardment. He won. Turning a blind eye means to ignore intentionally.

Under the Weather – If a crewman is standing watch on the weather side of the bow, he will be subject to the constant beating of the sea and the ocean spray.  He will be under the weather. 

Walk the plank – Walking the plank is as much a part of pirate folklore as eye-patches, peg-legs and squawking parrots.  It isn’t just a fiction; walking the plank was really used as a form of impromptu execution in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Windfall – A sudden unexpected rush of wind from a mountainous shore which allowed a ship more leeway.



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