200 Nautical Terms and Sailing Phrases That Have Enriched The English Language

This article is all about sailing terms that found new meaning. We have adopted numerous sailing terms in our modern-day language as idioms. Here is a list of these sayings and expressions that are of nautical origin. The below collection lists the meaning of nautical terms both literally as well as figuratively and describes the etymology behind them… 

“At this point, I have to disclose that the accuracy of the information below may have been construed with some poetic licence, based on the information from others and some assumptions that are not verifiable. You have an opportunity to tell me so at the end of the list…”

Click on the idiom in the table of contents for more details or just scroll through the list…

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    1. Feeling blue

    Feeling blue is an idiom we use a lot when we are feeling down or depressed but where did it come from? There are some schools of thought that argue that the term “feeling blue” came from a maritime custom of raising a blue flag after the ship’s captain died. On return to the home port, the blue flag was raised notifying the authorities in advance about the demise of the captain. A negative connotation is associated with the fact that the crew either were feeling generally sad about the loss of their leader or perhaps more a feeling of apprehension as they had a bit of explaining to do as to the death of their master to avoid any accusations of mutiny.

    If you are feeling blue then why not contact Beyond Blue

    2. Down in the doldrums

    Being stuck at sea without the prospect of wind is an unenviable situation particularly when the wind was the only mode of propulsion. The Doldrums is an actual area of low pressure which you find just north of the equator. It is known for extremely light winds or no wind and spans several hundred miles. The area is known as the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone or simply “itch“.

    Today we use the idiom to express that we are not in a good (mental) space…

    If you feel that you are down in the doldrums then you can contact the Black Dog Institute

    3. Pipe down

    Shut up! Pipe down… It is time for a bit of quiet! You heard the expression enough times but where did it come from? Well, the Bosun’s whistle is referred to as a pipe because when you blow on it you “pipe” a command rather than whistle one. It is a rudimentary high-pitched instrument that was used to communicate orders and commands over the noise of the sea or battle. It was also used to order the crew to “pipe down” and move into their nightly routine. Shortly thereafter most sailors would bunk down and go to sleep. Hence the connection between the old pipe down command and the modern “be quiet” idiom.

    Today, the Bosun’s pipe is still used to welcome high ranking officers or honoured guest onboard a ship.

    Boatswain's Pipe
    The Bosun's whistle

    4. By and large

    Today we use “by and large” to mean on the whole; everything considered. However, the expression has a nautical origin. It used to refer to a sailing vessel’s ability to sail well close to the wind (by) as well as the ability to sail well with the wind behind you (large).

    5. Aloof

    If you are aloof you are acting in a way that can be seen as unfriendly or not very forthcoming. But did you know that its origin can be found in sailing? In essence, keeping or staying aloof referred to steering the sailing vessel away from a lee shore or obstacle usually as much into the wind as the ship was capable of. The “moving away” is now interpreted as keeping your distance in both a physical and emotional sense.

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    6. Dutch Courage

    The Anglo-Dutch wars between England (now Great Britain) and the Dutch Republic (now Holland) was predominantly fought at sea. The expression “Dutch courage” arguably came from the English soldiers that noticed that there was a direct correlation between the consumption of Jenever (a Dutch gin) and the courage displayed by the consumers of the beverage. Today, however, we use the expression “Dutch courage” where a drunk is displaying a level of bravery that is clearly fully contributable to his inebriation.

    7. As the crow flies

    As the crow flies denotes the shortest route between two points. Ie, a straight line on the map. In the days before sophisticated navigational aids, Vikings use to deploy crows as a last resort to find land. It is said that the crows would fly instinctively directly to the nearest land. Naturally, if the crow came back no land was in reach. A simple calculation of flight time and speed would tell the sailors that land was at least that distance or more away on that specific bearing. However, if the crow didn’t return it was assumed it found land and the sailors would set a course on the same bearing as the crow took.

    8. Son of a gun

    So you thought a son of a gun was just a tough fellow. Perhaps its origin somewhere in the mid-west in them gun slinging days. Perhaps, but originally, it is a nautical term for a child of uncertain parenting. When women where onboard ships they were often there for extended periods of time due to the long voyages and slow pace of the square-riggers. Naturally, some of these women gave birth during their voyage. This was often facilitated between two of the guns as it offered some limited privacy. If none of the sailors owned up to being the father, the captain would enter the birth into the ship’s log and denote that the child was a “son of a gun”. Ie, father unknown…

    9. Loose cannon

    So this guy I know is a bit of a loose cannon… In another words, he is unpredictable or hard to control. Yes, another maritime expression. Cannons on the old ships were heavy and in rough seas could do unspeakable damage to ship and crew if not secured properly. At least 1,000 kilos each, it was common practice not to have loose cannons on the gun deck…

    10. To the bitter end

    Let’s follow this through to the bitter end at which point we realise that the “bitter end” is the end of a rode (for example an anchor chain) located at the opposite side of the anchor. The bitter end is usually attached to the “bitt” which is a strong point on a boat such as a cleat…

    11. Give it a wide berth

    No surprise there. Sailors needed to anchor in harbours all the time and were provided with a berth; space where they were allowed to anchor. Other boats never really knew how long their anchor rode was so to be safe, these sailors gave the anchored boat a wide berth so not to cause problems.

    12. Through thick and thin

    No matter how difficult the situation, we can always hoist a sail, right. The expression “through thick and thin” finds its origin in sailors simply running both thick and thin ropes through blocks and pulleys to hoist sails no matter what the circumstances…

    13. Hand over fist

    To do something quickly is to do it “hand over fist”. It finds its origin in sailors having to adjust sails very quickly to respond to adverse wind changes. This was often done by several men pulling on the same sheet and literally putting their hand over their fist repeatedly until the sheet was adjusted correctly…

    14. Keeled over

    He was okay but then suddenly keeled over and died… The connection is pretty clear. When a boat’s keel is sticking out of the water it is upside down and something it severely wrong.

    15. Tapping the Admiral

    Okay, this one is a bit obscure and to be honest, rather disturbing. So in modern-day language, if you are “tapping the Admiral” you are stealing booze often by using a straw or any such acts that falls within a broader scope.

    Now, remember Lord Nelson and his glorious demise at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 where his fleet defeated the Frenchies and Spainyards off the coast of Spain? So he died during the battle and the rest of the fleet wanted to bring their hero back to England but they were a long way from home and corpses do not last very long in the sun so a solution needed to be found. “I have an idea, let’s double him over and stuff him in one of the barrels of brandy so the alcohol will preserve him and all will be okay.” “Smithy, that is a great idea: make it happen.” Up to now, the story is a bit bizarre but it was 1805 after all so what the heck, let’s just accept it…

    But then the story becomes a bit creepy because when they arrived in Gibraltar to take a still fine-looking Horatio out of the barrel, they discovered that the brandy was gone. Looking around for answers to solve this mystical disappearance of alcohol, they found most of the crew looking relatively happy with themself with rather glazed over eyes. Okay, they were drunk. So to cut a long story short, the brandy was in all likelihood sucked out of the barrel during the trip by the crew and that is simply too disgusting to ever forget!

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    16. Bottoms up

    Bottoms up! A cheerful gesture in today’s language encouraging your mate to finish his drink already so you can order another one…

    However, the origin of “bottoms up” is much more sinister. It is called shanghaiing or crimping and was a common practice to combat an enormous labour shortage in the navies around the world. In essence, you would be tricked (at best as some were just kidnapped) into contracting with the Navy for your services. It was most likely called “shanghaiing” because at the time a lot of ships simply sailed to Shanghai. The unscrupulous individuals engaged in shanghaiing were called crimps hence crimping is synonymous with shanghaiing. So with this background out of the way, where did “bottoms up” originate from? Well in torts (judge-made law), contracts require some basic elements for a contract to be legal. Consideration is one of these elements. Ie, some payment for services rendered. So here is what the Crimp got up to…

    “So Smithy, (yes, by an extreme coincidence it was the same Smithy as above), you look like you can use a beer. Have one on me…” “Gee, thanks glug, glug, glug, glug ahaaaa… Hey, what is this penny doing in the bottom of my glass?” “Well Smithy, that my man, is the payment you just accepted to serve in Her Majesty’s Navy. All legal: done and dusted. We sail tomorrow at high tide and these 6 large rough-looking gentlemen will escort you right now to your new home for the next 6 years.” “Whaaaaaat!”

    After some time, the unsuspecting citizens of coastal towns and villages caught on to this legal but despicable practice and became a bit more cautious. “So gents, you all look like you can use a beer.” “Sure mate, and end up like my brother Smithy! Before we accept your beer, we would like to see if there isn’t something hidden at the bottom of the glasses. So hold those bottoms up so we can check.”

    Okay, we got there in the end…

    17. Showing her true colours

    “So captain, that looks like a commercial vessel flying the French flag so I guess it is time for some killing and plundering?” “You bet Smithy… We hate the French as much as the Spanish so let’s go…”. However, within reach of her guns, the “commercial vessel” opened her gun ports and raised her true colours: the Spanish Naval flag. Smithy had seen better days….

    This practice was ripe with pirates as well. Whilst pretending to be commercial vessels loaded with goodies from the continents, they raise the Jolly Roger at the last moment to overwhelm the privateers or small naval ships. 

    As an aside note, a ship “wears” the flag whereas the owner of the ship “flies” the flag. Also, rather than saying “raising the colours” one says the colours are “made”.

    See also “Bamboozle“.

    18. He turned the corner

    We turn the corner after we go from something bad to something better. The first usage of the phrase was arguably spoken by sailors on their way home from India whilst going around the Cape of Good Hope at the most southern part of Africa.

    19. Everything is hunky-dory

    Everything is going well and without frustration. That may well ring true for the US sailor visiting Japan. There are 2 theories here…

    1. The Japanese honcho dori freely translate into “main street”. When sailors enjoyed their R&R in the little back streets of Japanese ports, it was important for them to find their way back to their ship before the ship sets sail. As most main streets lead to the docks, it is believed that finding honcho dori (the main street) made everything okay as the street would lead them to the ship and hence everything would be honky-dory…
    2. There is another school of thought that argues among similar lines with the main street (honcho dori) at the centre of the story. However, this second possible origin of the idiom differs from the first by arguing that in many of Japanese ports, the main street accommodates a certain adult entertainment industry popular with the sailors. So getting to honcho dori made everything honky-dory.

    20. All hands on deck

    When we need to get things done we say “all hands on deck” denoting that everyone needs to assist in the task ahead. This is not so different in nautical terms. The order “all hands” or the longer version “all hands on deck” was given to all crew and officers of all ranks to assemble on the deck for a task, a briefing or any other activity that required all ship’s personnel to be involved.

    21. He is dead in the water

    When something is neither moving forward nor backwards without any progress it is said to be dead in the water. Similar to down in the doldrums​, it denotes stagnation. A ship dead in the water is simply a ship that lost all propulsion and is positioned in the same spot for a prolonged duration.

    22. He is sailing close to the wind

    Sailing close to the wind refers to taking risks. As in “he sailed pretty close to the wind when he flew his drone further with only 5% battery life left”. In sailing terms, you are sailing close to the wind when you are close-hauled. We are trying to achieve a bearing that is as close into the wind as our boat and physics allow us which is around 30 degrees from having the wind dead on the nose. When we are close-hauled, we run the risk of entering into the “dead zone” and where we said to be “in irons”. The boat loses momentum and eventually stalls and moves backwards. 

    Sailing directions close to the wind
    Sailing close to the wind

    23. A square meal

    That was an excellent meal that filled me up to the brim. The origin of the idiom “square meal” dates back to mid-16th century Royal Navy practices where sailors were served their main meal on a square wooden plate.

    Although some argue that the etymology is simpler and stems from the word “square” as in “right”. This has a lot of merit as the words square means right in the context of “right angle”, ie, square. This is further supported by the fact that we use sayings like “fair and square” and to “square things away”. However, this is a list of nautical idioms so we need to cling to the former much more romantic explanation. That’s what Smithy would have liked…

    Square navy plate square meal
    Square wooden plate

    24. Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey

    That seems very cold to me and I guess that is precisely what the idiom is trying to say. It finds its origin (arguably not) in maritime folklore where the iron cannonballs where stacked in a pyramid next to the cannon for ready use when the need arose. We have all seen it at the movies, where one cannonball sits on 4, sit on 6 sits on 9 sit on 25 cannonballs. (An interesting mathematical conundrum but that is a different story). This pyramid was constructed on a brass plate which was called the brass monkey. It had the appropriate number of indentations to hold the bottom layer of cannonballs. In freezing conditions, the brass plate contracted at a quicker and at a more pronounced rate compared to the iron cannonballs positioned on the plate. The brass monkey became too small to contain the bottom layer of cannonballs and hence, the cannonballs would roll-off; freezing the balls of a brass monkey… 

    In any case, a nice well-circulating folk tale. Personally, stacking cannonballs in this manner on a ship on the open sea seems challenging at best but let’s not have facts stand in the way of a great idiom…

    Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey

    25. I don't like the cut of his jib

    In the early 16th century, the way the headsail or jib was shaped could give a good indication as to the nationality of a ship. So the conversation may have gone something like this: “What is up Smithy?” “Sir, I do not like the cut of her jib. Although she looks dead in the water and is displaying the English flag I think she is not showing her true colours. It seems like a Spanish ship to me…”

    By the 17th century, non-maritime folk started using the expression simply to say that they didn’t like a person’s general demeanour.

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    26. Three sheets to the wind

    Last night he was three sheets to the wind so I don’t think he is having any drinks tonight… So if you are three sheets to the wind you are out-of-control drunk.

    There are 2 very credible pathways for getting to the origin of the idiom. One finds the origin in sailing and another is windmills. You make up your own mind if we can claim this one…

    The windmill theory

    The miller referred to his sails on his mill as sheets. The size and the number of sheets he used depended on the wind conditions with one constant. The number of sheets was always an even number (2 or 4) and the sheets were always opposite each other. Deploying the third sheet without an opposite would create severe instability and cause wobbles and vibrations to the point where the mill could collapse. From there, it is easy to see the connection to the use of the idiom in modern-day language…

    Opposite side and equal sheets

    The sailing theory

    Sheets in a sailing context refer to ropes that control the sails. When a sheet fails, the sail starts to luff and flap about. One could argue that if you lose control of 3 sheets, the situation would be rather chaotic as the ship would potentially stop dead in the water and starts to respond more viciously to the swell and waves almost emulating the uncontrolled stagger of a drunk person.  

    A laffing sail

    27. Posh people

    So we all heard posh used to denote a person with style and money. The origin of the adjective may stem from the anecdotal tale of P.O.S.H. or “Port Out, Starboard Home”.

    From the mid 17th to the mid 18th century, the Oriental Steam Navigation Company ferried passengers from England to India. On the way to India, the port side cabins were favoured because of the setting sun and the swell conditions. Returning home, naturally, the starboard cabins we in higher demand because of the same reason. So as a clever marketing ploy, the company offered Port Out, Starboard Home tickets where passengers had the best cabins on both the Indian leg as well as the home leg of their journey. So those passengers with a ticket stamped P.O.S.H. were often the wealthy and trendsetters of their day and were later known to be posh people…

    Unfortunately, there is no evidence to date of any documentation that shows P.O.S.H. in printed form within the context just described. If you visit your grandmother next, ask her if she has any old voyage tickets laying about. We need this story to be true…

    P and O
    Britain to India

    28. Swinging the lead

    Perhaps a bit more obscure and less used in modern language but still a good example of an idiom finding its origin in the nautical realms… It is used to denote a lazy person that doesn’t do his job or shirks his responsibility.

    In actual fact, swinging the lead is the forerunner of our depth sounder. A tapered cylinder-shaped piece of lead attached to a rope was thrown as far forward of the ship as possible and let sink to the seabed. The lead was then retrieved by pulling up the rope which had knots every 6 feet or 1 fathom. The knots were counted up and told the sailor the depth at that specific location. Often the leads had hollow basis so some of the seabed would come up to the surface lodged in the hollow which provided even more information about the seabed’s makeup. There is only one issue with this explanation which is that there is no evidence that any sailor in those days used the phrase “swinging the lead”.

    Related: “sound off

    29. Another day, another dollar...

    When we do tedious work, we say “another day, another dollar” letting ourselves know that we at least are getting paid for what we are doing. Originally used by US sailors in the 19th century it had a rather literal meaning as most sailors were actually paid 1 dollar per day. This coupled with the fact that one day at sea could be very much like the next makes this a credible story…

    30. Between the Devil and the deep blue sea

    You are between a rock and a hard place is one interpretation of the idiom “between the Devil and the deep blue sea”. In that context, the devil is just that, the devil and the deep blue sea doesn’t hold much more promise either. In this interpretation, we say that we have 2 choices and neither of them is good.

    But this is a nautical idiom list so here we go with the “real” origin. The “devil” is described as the outer plank on the deck of a ship. It is often thicker than the other deck planks to add strength so it is somewhat more problematic to caulk (waterproof) particularly at the outer edge where sailors needed to be on the outer side of the railing. “Smithy, today you are re-caulking the devil’s outer edge.” “That sounds like a fantastic job Sir. I just love working between the devil and the deep blue sea.” The captain noticed some level of sarcasm but let it go…

    The devil and the deep blue sea

    31. Get underway

    We begin a journey or a project and say that we are underway. The well documented nautical term “way” means moving as it makes reference to the “way” created by the bow moving through the water. These small bow waves can only by definition be created when the ship moves forward.

    The “under” part of underway may stem from the fact that under sail and underway were for some time interchangeable and so were combined. 

    Further evidence can be found by looking at the Dutch word “onderweg” which means that you have started your journey. Because a large number of Dutch sailing terms entered the English language in the 1700s, it seems a credible explanation of the origin of “getting underway”.

    32. Hard and fast

    When someone is said to be hard and fast asleep it means that person will not wake up in a hurry.

    It is 100% clear that this is a nautical expression as it has been used for centuries. Its literal meaning means simply a beached ship. We know it is an old idiom because folks were already using “hard and fast” figuratively in the early 1800s… “Hard and Fast” is synonymous with “High and Dry”

    Hard and fast
    A ship laid up on the beach hard and fast

    33. High and dry

    See “Hard and Fast”

    34. Knowing the ropes

    When you know the ropes you possess enough experience and knowledge to get the job done. Seeing the connection to a nautical origin is too easy here; or is it. Sailors need to know rope terminology and practical application of the numerous ropes on a ship. Lines, sheets, cunningham, top lift, halyards the list is endless. So it is a credible and likely origin and is definitely documented. But here come the Italians claiming that knowing the ropes is an expression that has it origin in the theatre. Fair enough, there are tons of ropes behind the scenes but I think we can claim this one without blushing…

    Knowing the ropes

    Did you know that there are actually very few ropes on a ship that are called ropes? 

    1. The bell-rope – the small often ornate rope attached to the clapper.
    2. A common rope on sailing vessels is the bold-rope on the leech of the sail and can be used to “shape” the sail.
    3. Tow-rope simply for towing.
    4. A foot-rope uses to stand on whilst taking in sail on the old square-riggers.
    5. Man-ropes which you often find on either side of rope-ladders used to board ships.

    35. Slush fund

    Today we associate a slush fund with money set aside for unethical purpose such as bribery. However, the origin is very different and less dishonest but equally dubious. Sailors used to get rations of beef which contained some level of fat. Fat in those days was in high demand and a consumable that was easily sold on the open market. So the sailors may have collectively carefully separated the fat from their meat and stored this to be sold at the next port. The “pot” in which the fat was temporarily stored was called the slush fund. 

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    36. Tell it to the marines

    “Tell it to the marines” means “pull the other one” Ie, I do not believe you.

    In the mid-1600s, the idea of bringing marines on naval ships took hold. Naturally, there was a great rivalry between the sailors and these marines, both having a different skill set. Sailors argued that the marines were a bit “thick” and hence the expression “tell that to the marines” was born suggesting that the marines were stupid enough to believe it. I’m sure there must be an idiom returning the favour but I could not find it…

    Tell it to the marines 1664 - 1748

    37. Batten down the hatches

    Batten down the hatches is clearly a nautical expression meaning that we need to prepare for troubled times ahead. Literally, the old sailing ships had hatches which had open grate like coverings.

    When bad weather was imminent, the hatches were covered with canvas. However, this would just blow away if not fixed to the hatch which was done with battens.

    Batten down the hatches

    38. Taken aback

    When we are surprised enough to take a little jump backwards either literally or figuratively we are “taken aback”. The origin of “taken aback” can be found in sailing. The sails of a vessel are said to be “aback” when the wind pushes them against the masts and spars from which they are suspended. Also, a ship is said to be “taken aback” when is pointed into the wind and being pushed backwards. Both these events would have had to occur unexpectedly hence the connection surprise.

    39. Tow rag

    Today a tow rag or toerag means a person with no credibility, social standing or respect. The bottom of the barrel if you like. You can understand the negative connotation when we talk about the origin of the idiom.

    In the glory days of sail, the British Royal Naval often had the ship’s ablutions at the rear or side of the ship. It basically consisted of a plank in the shape of what we now refer to as a toilet seat. It hangs over the water and the sailor would do his business on it. What was needed was a method of cleaning oneself after the deed was done. The solution was a rope that was frayed at the end. The frayed bit was just submerged and towed behind or next to the ship but in reach of the sailor in question. He would lift the rope (the tow rag) out of the water and rather rudimentary clean himself with the frayed end after which the tow rag was lowered back in the water for itself to be cleaned and therefore ready itself for the next sailor. 

    Tow rag toerag
    The tow rag

    40. To turn a blind eye

    To turn a blind eye we refuse to acknowledge something that you know is true. This expression possibly came from  Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronté, He was known for his brilliant tactics and strategy but was also blind in one eye. In the first Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. Admiral Sir Hyde Parker ordered a retreat and had the order signalled by flags to Nelson’s ship. However, Nelson ignored the signals. An account from one of his fellow officers states that Nelson put the telescope to his blind eye and reported not to have seen any signals, shortly after which they won the battle.

    41. Under the weather

    Being under the weather means you are feeling sick. The term is definitely nautical because, since the 1600s, sailors that were feeling sick (I would imagine that the threshold for being sick would be a bit harsher than today’s standards) would be sent below deck to seek some protection from the weather.

    42. Full to the gunwales

    The expression filled up to the gunwales suggests that there is not a lot of space left: choc-a-block if you like. The word gunwales is pronounced “gunnels” which is also how most people (wrongly) spell the word. “Gunwales” comes from the words “gun” + “walls” and use to describe the top outside of the ship above the gun ports. In modern day sailing we talk about the outermost top edge of a boat hull, usually where the deck and hull come together. On smaller boats we also think of gunwales as the rubber moulded strip that protects the outer edges of our boat.

    43. Chock-a-block

    Similar to “full to the gunwales”, chock-a-block also denotes that there is no more room left.

    The expression came most likely from sailors hoisting something like sails or cargo with a blog and tackle pulley system. When the two opposing blocks came together they were said to be chocked. Ie, the block were choked: chock-a-block…


    44. Dire straits

    Finding yourself in dire straits means you are in danger. The connection to a nautical beginning is relatively uncomplicated or far fetched. Dire is derived from Latin. Latin words often have an array of meanings depending on the context but in essence it means terrible, dreadful, fearful etc…

    Couple this with the conditions we can encounter at sea sailing through “troubled waters” and we can quickly see that sailors would refer to channels that are heavily affected by tide, wind, current and swell as dire straits.

    45. Take a different tack

    Figuratively, if you take a different tack you are trying an alternative approach to solve a problem. In sailing, this is no less true. Tacking is a sailing manoeuvre were a sailboat wants to sail as much into the wind as the boat and physics allow it. The sailboat turns its bow toward the wind so that the direction from which the wind blows changes from one side to the other and does this repeatedly to achieve its desired bearing. For example, sailing up a narrow channel against the prevailing wind. However, the connection to the figurative meaning really is found in racing where a technician on a sailboat reads the weather conditions and potentially spots more favourable conditions on different parts of the course. He or she would advise the skipper who may have to tack to realise the advantage.

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    46. Shipshape

    The word shipshape is obviously of nautical origin. Because of the limited space available on ships, sailors were obligated to maintain their quarters in a neat and orderly fashion so avoid things rolling about on heavy seas. In today’s language, we simply are saying the keep things neat, clean and organised. The sparsely used idiom “shipshape and Bristol fashion” refers to the port of Bristol which was an exemplary port in its days and has a similar meaning.

    47. Broad in the beam

    Sorry to those who may be offended, but broad in the beam refers to the hips and often highlights hips of a generous diameter.

    First used by Captain John Smith, it denotes the widest part of a ship.

    There is little imagination required to link the nautical term with the modern-day idiom… 

    Broad in the beam etymology and origin

    48. Run a tight ship

    To run a tight ship means to run a well-controlled operation or a disciplined business. The expression “run a tight ship” dates only from the mid-1900s and denotes a ship that is in good condition and well managed.

    49. At the helm

    When you are “at the helm” you are in charge and in command. For example, after George took the helm, the company never looked back… We all know the helm is the steering mechanism of a boat and can include a simple handle or tiller or the wheel in large boats. The phrase is therefore synonymous with taking the wheel.

    50. Don't rock the boat

    It requires little research to understand that rocking the boat means to disturb the situation. The idiom “rock the boat” was phrased by William Bryan, a US politician. He said: “The man who rocks the boat ought to be stoned when he gets back onshore.” It is clear that he was talking about those that agitated and were rebelling against his ideas. And who can forget Hues Corporation – Rock the Boat…

    Who can forget Hues Corporation – Rock the Boat…

    51. Walking the plank

    If you have to “walk the plank” your boss has just given you an ultimatum to resign. As in “After John showed up late again he left for good. He wasn’t fired but I think he was forced to walk the plank. 

    A metaphoric idiom that goes back to the ultimate punishment used in the 1600s where the accused sailor was forced to walk off the end of a plank placed on the side of the ship. This custom was mainly used among pirates and resulted simply in the accused drowning at sea.

    52. Keelhaul

    Today we still use the term “keelhauled” if someone received a severe verbal chastising. As in “as John finished his speech he knew he failed as the crowd keelhauled him”.

    Yes, another rather cruel practice was to keelhaul the accused. It finds its origin in maritime practice from as early as the 1600s and comes from the Dutch word “kielhalen”, which freely translates to “to haul someone under the keel of a ship”.

    The process was rather rudimentary where a rope was deployed under the ship from port to starboard and then broad back on board. The accused bound hands were tied to the end of this rope. The other end of the rope was then attached to the accused bound feet so forming a  loop around the hull of the ship. The accused was then thrown overboard whilst the crew hauled in the rope on the opposite side of the ship forcing the accused to be dragged underwater and under the hull. It was up to the captain to introduce a pause or not depending on the severity of the crime or the cruelty of the captain. Eventually, the accused would surface on the other side of the ship and be hauled back on board.

    It must be noted that the ships from that era were most likely covered with barnacles so the injuries of the accused were often severe with cuts and abrasions if they did not drown in the first place. The practice fell out of favour in the 1800s.

    53. Down the hatch

    Bottoms up and down the hatch are both drinking expressions that find their origin in the maritime industry. When cargo is loaded onto ships it disappears through the hatch of the ship. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the ship consuming the cargo and perhaps hence the analogy.

    54. Shove off

    Shove off is a nautical term that describes a boat moving away from the shore. In today’s language, we use it to tell someone to go away in an unflattering manner. Ie, get on your bike. 

    55. Hang tight

    To hang tight is is to remain in the same position either physically or figuratively. The ambulance is on its way so hang tight…. The stock price will recover so hang tight…

    Naturally, we need to bring this back to a nautical origin otherwise, what is the point of being in this list. In 1854 in Bentley’s Miscellany “hang tight” is relevant to a rope that controls the jib boom. He encourages the rope to “hang tight” and not fail so as to sail away from his enemy. Is this the origin of “hang tight”?

    hang tight
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    56. I'll take that on board

    “Your business requires more cash-flow to succeed.” “Okay, thanks for that advice: I’ll take it on board.” A common idiom which is certainly derived from shipping meaning that you will consider an idea. Literally, you may take something on board a vessel to be stowed and taken on a journey.


    57. Welcome on board

    “Welcome on board John. I hope you will enjoy your first day at work…” A variation of the “on board” series with a different meaning but with a similar origin meaning. In essence a welcoming gesture to an organisation or group.


    58. Go by the board

    “Go by the board” means abandoned or rejected something you previously supported. As in: “Now that granny died, will her birthday party go by the board?”

    It was used in nautical terms when someone falls overboard when working in the rigging and cleared the deck into the water.

    59. Get on board

    The last of the “board” variants is “Get on board” which in nautical terms simply means to get onto the ship. The idiom and figurative meaning simply means that you 

    Agree and partake with a concept or plan. For example: First, I didn’t like John’s idea for an additional shop but after he explained the benefits I got on board and fully supported the concept.

    60. Davy Jones' Locker

    Davy Jones’ Locker is a metaphor for the bottom of the sea. It signifies the demise of sailors and ships that drowned and sunk respectively. As an idiom, it is used to denote a very bad place at best.

    Allegedly, Davy Jones was the proprietor of a pub in London where unsuspecting sailors were drugged and put in boxes (lockers) and then awoke aboard ship to realise they were now in the Navy. See pressed into service.

    61. A shot across the bow

    In modern-day language, “a shot across the bow” means you give someone a warning. As in, “This is the second time you are late so consider this as a shot across the bow. Next time you will lose your job.”

    In the navies around the world, a shot across the bow was often used to change the actions of another ship. For example, if a ship was ordered to stop using international signals and it refused to do so, a shot was fired just in front of the ship (across the bow). This was a warning and clearly communicated to the other ship that it was in range of the cannons and if they did not comply the cannons would fire next at the ship itself.

    62. Making waves

    This expression stems from the 1900s where you can argue that it is more comfortable to have your boat in still waters. Waves created by other boats would make it less comfortable or with heavily laden boats even dangerous.

    So today we use the expression to point out that someone is actively and intentionally is causing trouble. For example, “After John had a negative performance review, he started making waves to undermine management.”

    63. Plain Sailing

    This very old idiom derives its origin from early navigation where there was an assumption by sailors that the earth was flat. Consequently, all navigation techniques were based on this flat earth theory and hence they based their navigation calculations on a “plane surface” rather than a spherical surface. In the 1600s, scholars made no distinction between “plain” meaning “simple” and “plane” meaning “flat” and those two words were used interchangeably.

    So today plain sailing simply means without incident or complications. As in: “It was plain sailing for John on his first day at work as he used the IT systems in his previous job.”

    64. Copper-bottomed

    Since the 1700s, shipbuilder applied copper sheets to the bottom of their ships to mitigate the issue of marine growth. Marine growth on the hull of a ship slows the ship down and as we know “time is money” or in Navy terms the increase in speed and manoeuvrability could win the battle.

    Today, when we say that something is copper-bottomed we refer to the quality and trustworthiness of the thing, be it an idea, a person or anything else… For example, “That idea of John is shipshape and copper-bottomed. I can’t see it fail…”


    65. Making up leeway

    Making up leeway is a simple idiom that means that you are falling behind and waisting time. You can say, “We made the wrong decision and now we are so far behind that I don’t think we can make up the leeway on our competitors.” A nautical term from the 1600s, it refers to a ship drifting off its course towards the downwind side.
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    66. Give me some leeway

    The expression “give me some leeway” means to ask for some freedom, some latitude if you like. As stated above, leeway in nautical context the sideways drift of a ship to leeward of the desired course

    67. Limey

    “She won gold in the Olympics in the Laser Radial class. I swear that girl was born a limey.” Meaning that we think that this girl was born a sailor, or is, a born-sailor…

    The term Limey was given to sailors in the British Royal Navy in the 1800s because it was common practice to issue limes to avoid scurvy on their long voyages… The vitamins within the lime we said to have a beneficial effect.

    Limey and scurvy
    Limey or sailor

    68. Give me some latitude

    To give someone some latitude is to give them a bit of space and freedom to achieve their goals rather than micro-manage them.

    It is a nautical idiom in as far as ships were able to navigate using latitude and longitude to pinpoint their location on the map.

    Lines of latitude measure the north-south position of a ship between the poles. Lines of longitude, or meridians, run between the North and South Poles. They measure a ship’s east-west position. Note that meridians are related to time-zones whereas latitude is more related to temperature as you move closer to, or further from, the equator.

    Give me some latitude

    69. Abandon ship

    “Abandon Ship” is an official command ordered in the face of disaster which usually translates into the ship’s imminent sinking. It is a bit like the fire alarm in an office building where each and every crew member had specific jobs to do as part of the evacuation plan. However, in the early days of sailing, and in the face of battle it would mean a quick jump overboard before the powder blows.

    In today’s speak, we simply refer to a hopeless situation that we are retracting from. For example, “The CEO stopped short of ordering Abandon Ship, but the latest sales figures suggest the ship is sinking…”

    Abandon ship
    Abandon ship

    70. Rats deserting a sinking ship

    Rats deserting a sinking ship is a saying among sailors explaining that before the ship sinks, the rats will abandon her.  It is believed that the rats knew something the crew didn’t so although rats could pose a major problem on ships, deserting rats were seen as a very bad omen.

    When we use the phrase now, we often see the rats as neglectful individuals that profited off a failed enterprise.

    Rats deserting the sinking ship
    Rats deserting the sinking ship

    71. Knock seven bells out of someone

    The idiom “Knock seven bells out of someone” is predominantly used in Great Britain and indicates that someone was beaten up (either physically or metaphorically) to an inch of their life.

    The ship’s bell was used to communicate a lot of stuff but one thing sailors paid extra attention to was the amount of time left on their watch. Often, sailors operated on a “4 hours on – 4 hours off” roster. Each half-hour, the bell would indicate that the shift was a little closer to concluding. So at the seventh bell, there was not a lot of time left to work. Therefore the idiom focusses on this division to denote that if you knock seven bells out of someone, you nearly finished him off.

    Knock seven bells out of someone
    Knock seven bells out of someone

    72. Landlubber

    Landlubber comes from a late 17th-century combination of “land” and “”lubber”, the latter meaning a clumsy and/or stupid person. Sailors used the word in a denigrating manner to describe people who prefer being on land rather than be on the sea.

    Today we use landlubber in a less denigrating manner. For example, “John hung over the railing 50% of the passage. He is definitely a landlubber.”

    73. Facing a strong headwind

    The restaurants reopened last week but because of the border restrictions and the ongoing Coronavirus situation, they are facing strong headwinds…

    Originating from the years of sails, a strong headwind meant the ship needed to alter course or wait it out for better conditions. Either was costing time and money and therefore synonymous with hard times ahead…

    74. Jack Tar

    Jack Tar is often used to describe a sailor below the rank of officer in the 1700s. It originated because tar was a common substance used in the waterproofing and preserving of just about anything on the old sailing ships. For example, hemp ropes were treated with tar and even the clothing the sailors were wearing was often tarred to improve the resistance against water. It doesn’t take much to realise that the smell of tar was extremely prevalent at best. 

    So we can still use the idiom today. For example, “She is marrying a Jack Tar so she better deal with the  absence of her new husband when he is out at sea…” 

    Jack Tar
    Jack Tar

    75. Letting the cat out of the bag

    If we let the cat out of the bag we mean to say that we revealed a secret carelessly and often by mistake. However, in the early days in the British Royal Navy, the cat was something different altogether and referred to the “cat of nine tails” (Cat-O’-Nine-Tails), a whip consisting of nine pieces of rope each containing several small knots. Sailors were tied up and whipped on their bare backs for relatively trivial matters to preserve discipline on the ship.  Some argue that is got its name from the scratch wound it left on the sailor’s backs…

    Cat-O'-Nine-Tails Letting the cat out of the bag
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    76. Not enough room to swing a cat

    There is not enough room to swing a cat in this kitchen! We now clearly mean that the kitchen is cramped and too small. Again, the cat we are referring to is the Cat-O’-Nine-Tails. Ie, it literally refers to a space so small, that the bosun was unable to swing his whip effectively to inflict the punishment ordered by the captain.

    77. Running the gauntlet

    In modern language, running the gauntlet simply means that you are under heavy criticism by your colleagues or the wider community.

    It originated from naval practices where a sailor was punished for stealing from his peers. When caught and proven guilty, the thief had to walk the length of the deck between two rows of his fellow sailors beating him with knotted ropes.

    The practice was widely adopted throughout most of the military as a form of peer punishment.

    Running the gauntlet
    Running the gauntlet

    78. Ships that pass in the night

    The saying dates back at least 150 years. It appears in Tales of a Wayside Inn, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow –   1863, 

    “Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.”

    No need to elaborate…

    Ships that pass in the night
    Ships that pass in the night

    79. We are all in the same boat

    He is always complaining about the weather but we are all in the same boat. So we all endure the same hardship…

    It originates from risk assessment perhaps by insurance companies in the 17 century. As passengers were all in the same boat, the risk was seen to be equal amongst all passengers.


    We are all in the same boat
    We are all in the same boat

    80. Welcome aboard

    Welcome aboard. We are happy to have you on the team. 

    It is a well-used idiom that finds its origin in the 1500s where passengers or VIP were greeted aboard a ship. Most likely from the France “à bord” meaning the same thing.

    Closely related to “All Aboard” which was seen as a warning that the ship (and later trains) were about to depart…

    Welcome aboard
    Welcome aboard

    81. At close quarters

    1722, Originally a nautical term stemming from “close-fights”. It refers to the confined spaces in a ship between bulkheads where sailors could make their last stand and engage the enemy boarders. Not to be confused with closing on the enemy, it simply refers to close combat in confined spaces.

    Today we use it to denote a situation where a fight takes place in a cramped space or position. After entering the house, the police exchanged gunfire at close quarters…

    At close quarters

    82. To cut and run

    If you cut and run, you are getting away in a hurry. “When the robbers could hear the sirens, they cut and run, leaving some of their loot behind…”

    Cut and run is most likely a nautical term literally referring to sailing away in such a hurry as to cut the anchor rode and leaving the anchor behind (cut) then sail with the angle of the wind most favourable to achieve maximum speed (run).

    Cut and run
    Cut and run

    83. Edging your way forward

    “He was edging his way forward to a promotion. It will take many years before he gets there.”

    Edging forward refers literally to moving in a direction more sideways than forward and denotes slow progress.

    It finds its origin in sailing where early sailing ships were notoriously bad at sailing close to the wind (close hauling) and had to tack constantly to achieve some progress on a specific bearing.

    Edging your way forward
    Edging your way forward

    84. Feeling groggy

    Most people associate grog with alcohol and feeling groggy is subsequently feeling a bit befuddled often due to the festivities “enjoyed” the previous night.

    The origin of grog and feeling groggy are a bit more complex and it takes a rather long path towards an explanation. Let’s have a go anyway… Meet the Old Grog: Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757) who was a well-decorated sailor in the Royal Navy and known for his prudent attitude towards the rationing of rum. In order to get the sailors under his command less intoxicated and perhaps to help the budget, Vernon watered down the ship’s rum to the dismay of his men. Working further backwards from here you may ask why they called him “Old grog”? In essence, he loved to wear clothing made from coarsely woven material referred to as grogram or grosgrain or coarse-grained or simply grog.

    So the connection is clear. A guy wearing coarsely woven jackets made of grog deserves the nickname “Old Grog” who then dares to water down the sailor’s rum. Grog – rum – feeling groggy; you get the idea…

    Feeling groggy - the grog tub
    Feeling groggy - the grog tub

    Grog tubs were located on almost all navy vessels and contained the men’s rum rations. Stealing from it was punished by having to run the gauntlet.

    85. I can’t fathom it

    I had the strangest maths question on my exams this morning. I just couldn’t fathom it.

    We are all familiar with this idiom and the fact it uses the word “fathom” leads us directly to a nautical origin.

    Literally, a fathom is a measurement of 6 feet, used when referring to the depth of water. Sailors use to “swing the lead” (see idiom 28 above) to figure out the depth of the waters under the keel of their ships. The fathom is, in essence, the arms-length of a person. As not all arms are the same, the fathom had different meanings depending on the size of the ship ranging from 5 to 6 feet.

    So over the years, it’s morphed into something that denotes that you can’t get to the bottom if it – get a full understanding. 

    I can't fathom it out
    I just can't fathom mathematics
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    86. In the offing

    Meaning that it is not happening in the next few moments but imminent nonetheless. “There are several tax hikes in the offing if the opposition were to get in…”

    Used to describe that part of the sea that could be seen from shore. Ie, that part of the sea visible from beyond the breakers to the horizon. It gets its nautical meaning from the fact that ships often had to delay entering a harbour because of tidal conditions. The ships waited off-shore in the area called the offing until they could “take-off” or “be off” towards their anchorage or mooring within the harbour.

    In the offing
    In the offing

    87. Mal de mer

    There is nothing like mal de mer. The first 4 hours you are afraid you are going to die; the next four hours you are hoping you will die soon…

    Mal de mer is of French origin and simply translates to seasickness. Nautical? I guess so…

    Mal de mer - seasickness

    88. Shiver my timbers

    To look at the meaning of “shiver my timbers” (Shiver me timbers if you want to sound like a proper pirate), it is useful to look at the old use of “shiver” which denotes something falling apart or disintegrating.

    So when you hear someone say: “I promise I will look after your cat. Shiver my timbers, I will”, then you are witnessing an oath similar to something like “on my mother’s grave”.

    This makes sense as sailors use this oath because breaking it would cast upon themselves the prospect of their ship disintegrating and sinking.

    Shiver my timbers
    Shiver my timbers

    89. Tiding over

    Tiding over refers to making limited supplies last for the foreseeable time where supplies may be limited. “The six-pack of beer will need to tide us over until Smithies arrives with the carton…”

    Originally, “tide over” simply referred to sailing ships that found themselves without wind and used a combination of anchors and the tidal movements to try to navigate into harbours.

    Tide over
    Tide over

    90. On your beam ends

    When you are on your beam ends it means that you are in imminent danger. “Two months after he was diagnosed with leukaemia, Smithies was on his beam ends. Luckily, he is in remission now…”

    On a large square-rigged sailing ship, the beams are the horizontal timbers from which the sails are suspended. Naturally, when the ends of these beams are close to or touching the water, the ship is heeling dangerously and is in danger of capsizing and sinking. 

    On your beam ends

    91. Clean bill of health

    The saying “a clean bill of health” originated from the 1800s where the crew of a ship was examined by a health official and the ship was given a clean bill of health if no infectious disease were found. The ship then had to submit this “bill” before docking at the next port.

    Today we associate it with both medical as well as economic wellbeing. “The treasurer gave the budget a clean bill of health as it moves towards the first surplus in decades.”

    Clean bill of health
    Clean bill of health

    92. Anchors aweigh

    Aweigh: not away. In nautical terms, it signifies the moment where the anchor is free from the seabed.

    The idiom now just means that we are getting on our way; departing.

    Similarly “chucks away” means the blocks in front and behind the plane’s wheels holding the plane in place are pulled from under the plane so the plane can take off; an expression originating from the battle of Britain.

    Anchors aweigh

    93. All at Sea

    If you find yourself in a state of confusion you may say that you are all at sea.

    The term has its beginnings in early navigation. Ships that found themselves out of sight from land, had some difficulty in accurately navigating.

    It is easy to see how the idiom found traction in modern language…

    All at Sea
    All at Sea

    94. On the right tack

    On the right tack or on the right track means that your reasoning is leading to the correct conclusion or outcome. As in: “He argues that the house prices are going to rise after we have another drop in interest rates. He might be on the right tack…”.

    In sailing, we often have to sail on a bearing that is directly into the wind. Bearing off will deliver more speed but causes the distance we need to covered to increase. The technician on a sailboat will advise the skipper on the best route to take and advises if the boat is on the right tack…

    On the right tack
    On the right tack

    95. Stem the tide

    When you stem the tide you stop the course of a trend or tendency. As in “Border closures has stemmed the tide and seen COVID numbers drop significantly.”

    “Stem” refers to stopping or restraining which finds its origin in the Norse language “stemma” meaning “to dam”.

    Stem the tide
    Stem the tide
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    96. Push the boat out

    If you push the boat out then you act lavishly in your spending or celebrations. Smithies really pushed the boat out when he ordered French Champagne last night…

    In a literal sense, you would help a boat owner to push his boat out into the water as it may be too heavy for the sailor to achieve on his own. An old act of generosity not unlike giving someone with a flat battery a push to start their car.

    Push the boat out

    97. Show a leg

    In order to rouse a sailor, he was asked to show a leg. One of his legs would protrude from his hammock to indicate that he understood the fact that it was time to get up and that he was awake.

    So in today’s language, we say “show a leg” for the same reason. We need someone to get up and out of bed…

    Show a leg

    98. Touch and go

    Things are “touch and go” when the successful outcome of things hang in the balance and could go either way. Collingwood was 4 points behind with 1 minute left on the clock. Although they ended up winning, it was touch and go for a while…

    The idiom is connected to sailing because of Admiral Smyth in his Sailor’s Word-book where the idiom was first printed.

    “Touch-and-go, said of anything within an ace of ruin; as in rounding a ship very narrowly to escape rocks, or when, under sail, she rubs against the ground with her keel, without much diminution of her velocity.”

    Touch and go
    Touch and go

    99. When someone's ship comes in

    When your ship comes in means what someone will do if they become rich and successful.

    Smithies will pay all his gambling debts as soon as his ship comes in.

    Literally, ship owners would have invested a lot of capital in the ship, its crew and the voyage all in pursuit of a profit. When the merchant’s ship arrived, he would have the means to sell the merchandise and realise his profit.

    100. At loggerheads

    “Those two have been at loggerheads for many years.” Meaning that they had some serious disagreements that are still not settled.

    The etymology of loggerhead is a bit fluid and has changed over the years many times with new meaning added over time ranging from a blockhead (dumb person)  to a type of turtle. But what we are interested in is a type of tool used in the late 1500s that was used to seal tar in seams on a deck. The tool would best be described as a “hot poker” as we know it today. It was, in essence, a steel bar which may have been picked up in anger once or twice as it presents itself as a formidable weapon for close combat or for settling gambling debt disputes.

    In any case, it follows that being at loggerheads draws its meaning from the use of this nautical tool as a weapon.


    Other than a tool, the “loggerhead” was also used as a cannon shot. A steel bar was attached to a cannonball which when fired, would spin violently during its trajectory towards the enemy causing destruction and mayhem on impact.

    Now used to heat rum-based cocktails… Those Navy boys know how to party…

    101. A dressing down

    “Smithies received a proper dressing down from the captain after he failed to secure the bowline properly.” We use this idiom to tell people in no uncertain terms that their performance was inadequate or inappropriate often with aggression and belligerence.

    Originally, a “dressing down” referred to a process where old and worn sails we rejuvenated with a bit of TLC, oil and wax in order to increase their performance. Likewise, a sailor underperforming receive a similar, although verbal, “dressing down” in order to increase his performance.

    See also “delivering a broadside”.

    A dressing down
    A dressing down

    102. Figurehead

    A figurehead is found near the prow of many old sailing vessels. It is often a very ornate wooden carved bust or a full-length figure. It is mostly there for aesthetic purposes and has no real bearing on the performance of the ship.

    In today’s language, we refer to someone in charge without real power as a figurehead. For example, a monarch in a democracy or a CEO of a company controlled by the board or the Governor-General.


    The origin of the ship’s figurehead was not purely aesthetical but also used as a religious symbol to protect the ship and all that sailed on her. Sailors believed that the ship was an entity on itself and that it would guide them through troubled seas. The ship therefore needed eyes in order to perform this rather wishful notion…

    103. Fall foul

    If you fall foul of something, then you would have failed in meeting some requirement. For example, falling foul of the law.

    There are several nautical examples where fall foul is used, including but not exclusively:

    • Ships need anti-fouling to have a clean hull.
    • When the anchor rode becomes entangled it is said to be fouled.
    • When one ship hinders the advancement of another ship; it falls foul of it.
    Falling foul meaning and etymology
    Fall foul

    104. Pooped

    It is not known when pooped was used for the first time under its modern meaning: exhausted.

    It is used as a verb. For example, “After running for 3 kilometres, Smithies was pooped and couldn’t take another step.”

    The origin of pooped is less ambiguous. It comes from the noun “poop deck” which was situated at the back of the ship and in turn, derives its meaning from the French word “la poupe” (stern) or/and from the Latin “puppis”.

    It was in many cases the roof of the captain’s cabin and was often the highest deck on the ship. In early naval times. pooped mend that the poop deck was swamped by a wave from a following sea.

    Sorry to disappoint…

    Poop deck meaning and etymology

    105. Footloose and fancy-free

    The bottom of a sail is called the “foot” as opposed to the luff and the leech. The foot runs between the clew and the tack.

    When the sheets are released or the boat is pointed too far into the wind, the sail will in essence become a large flag and will luff. This holds true for both sails that are tensioned over a boom via an outhaul as well as headsails which do not have a boom but where the clew is directly tensioned by the sheets.

    In the latter example, when this tension is released for whatever reason, (for example, the sheet is released from its cleat or the sheet fails), the sail will start to luff and can be referred to as footloose.


    Footloose meaning and etymology
    Footloose and fancy-free

    Today, we call someone “footloose and fancy-free” if they are not constrained by being in a relationship. “Smithies was again footloose and fancy-free after he broke up with his girlfriend.”

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    106. Gripe

    In sailing terms, gripe describes when a sailing vessel shows a tendency to turn into the wind whilst close-hauling and where the vessel starts to point into the “dead zone” in which forward movement is halted. This is often caused by an imbalance in sail choice and is also referred to as weather helm. It results in the person on the helm having to work hard trying to compensate for this lack of natural balance.

    We use “gripe” to discripe someone who complains, grumbles, moans and groans a lot: not unlike the person on a weather helm…

    Gripe meaning and etymology

    107. Go overboard

    If you “go overboard” then you are acting in an enthusiastic or immoderate manner. For example: “Smithies clearly went overboard when he bought 1000 toilet rolls in response to COVID.”

    Overboard stems from the meaning of “board” which were wooden planks on the side of a ship constituting what we would now see as a railing. 

    Go overboard meaning and etymology
    Go overboard

    108. Groundswell

    Today, we use the word groundswell to denote a political or social agitation or movement. It is often a change in public opinion for the better. For example: “There is a groundswell of support to raise unemployment benefits so people looking for a job can do so with dignity.”

    Originally, sailors used to use groundswell to indicate a sudden rise in water which could have been caused by a far-away storm or earthquake. This swell was gradual and slow-moving but imminent and persistent.

    109. Windfall

    Windfall is one of those idioms that draws its origin from several schools of thought. The general consensus is that fruit that falls to the ground due to a windy day was free for anyone to collect. Others may argue that it is a wind coming down a hill towards the shore providing a sailing ship more leeway. Also, there are some that argue that during the hight of the British Navy oak trees could only be sold to the Navy for a price considered below market value. However, the law allowed a fallen tree uprooted by a heavy wind could be sold to anyone and therefore fetch a better price.

    In any case, a windfall is a good unexpected financial suprice. “Smithies found a gold coin on the docks. This windfall didn’t come soon enough as he owed Brutus a debt that he has to pay by tomorrow.”

    Windfall meaning and etymology

    110. Taking turns

    Take turns means that we all have a go at something sequentially to lighten the individual burden of the task.

    It stems from “the watch” where sailors had watchkeeping duty aboard ships so that the ship could sail 24 hours per day.

    Each watchkeeping period was normally 1 hour. This one hour was measured with an hour-glass. When the watchkeeper was relieved by the next, the hour-glass was turned over in order to start the next watchkeeping period.

    Taking turns

    111. First-rate

    First-rate ships were ships with a minimum of 100 cannons. There was a scale that rated ships from first-rate (100+ cannons) to sixth-rate (20 to 28 cannons).

    Coming back to first-rate ships, they were referred to a ship-of-the-line. They were used to engage with the enemy broadside and in essence produced more firepower than average country’s artillery corps.

    So when we refer to a first-rate item, we mean to say that there is none better…

    First rate

    112. Jury rig

    Jury rigging is synonymous with a makeshift repair with materials that are at hand. You may say it is the same as MacGyverism for those that remember the MacGyver TV series.

    For example, “Smithies jury-rigged a phone charger by using a potato and a lemon.”

    Originally, a “jury” is a temporary mast that is rigged to replace a damaged or lost mast.

    Jury rig

    113. Junk

    In the age of sailing, there were numerous ropes on a ship. These ropes would deteriorate over time but still provided some value after some repurposing (I do not think this term was used in those days…).

    Old ropes could be used again as caulking material to waterproof decks and hulls or to make into boat mops and all sorts of other tools. However, junk was synonymous with a rope that was useless for its original purpose.

    Today, junk means simply old or discarded articles that are considered useless or of little value.


    114. Skyscraper

    In the late 1600s, sailing ships use to rig a skyscraper or skysail which is a sail on the very top of the masts in order to sail the ship in light winds.

    It needed to be controlled like any other sail on the ship and deploying it needed someone that didn’t easily shy away from heights…

    The etymology of skyscraper is not 100% confirmed but the above origin sounds good enough for at least consideration…


    Skyscraper meaning and etymology

    115. Scuttlebutt

    The scuttlebutt was a barrel that contained the drinking water for sailors on a sailing ship. The scuttle was the opening so sailors could ladle out the water for consumption.

    Sailors used to prolong the time around the scuttlebutt because it was easier to stand around and drink some water compared to scrubbing the decks. It followed that it became the main place on a ship where they could talk to each other about rumour or gossip.

    The watercooler: has anything changed in 300 years?

    Related: Take someone down a peg or two…

    Scuttlebutt meaning and etymology
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    116. Idle

    Ship’s crew had several duties, some of which needed to perform during the night such as watchkeeping etc…

    However, some crew professions were seen as idle which mend that they did not require to work during the night. For example, cooks.

    These crew members were called “idles”. It had nothing to do with the current meaning which refers to idle as not having enough work but rather having plenty of work, just not during the night.

    Idle meaning and etymology

    117. Clear the deck

    Clear the deck is a Naval command which is given before imminent enemy engagements. Any loose items were stowed away to prevent them from damage or becoming flying objects in the heat of battle.

    Today we just mean to make some room or prepare for a course of action by dealing with anything that might hinder your progress. “After the merger, the deck was cleared for major expansion.”

    Clear the deck meaning and etymology

    118. On an even keel

    A vessel that is sailing smoothly and level is said to be on an even keel. We now use it simply to say that a situation is under control, well balanced and running smoothly.

    119. Hulk

    A hulk can be either a large ship that is of dubious construction and less than seaworthy. It can also be an old ship that has been stripped of all its valuable assets and is now just moored permanently for purposes such as storage, accommodation or even a prison.

    A hulk in today’s language is someone that is very large, awkward, and clumsy. Think of “The Incredible Hulk” or “Hulk Hogan”.

    Hulk meaning and etymology

    120. Overreach

    In sailing, you overreach if you stay on a specific tack for too long. This means that you have gone further than the most efficient route. Perhaps you are now hindered in reaching your next mark in the most efficient manner.

    We can also overreach where we take on too much or go beyond what is wise or reasonable.

    “When I saw Smithies on the ladder trying to paint the hull of the ship I shouted: don’t overreach, just move the ladder…”

    Overreach meaning and etymology

    121. Toe the line

    Today we “toe the line” when we accept the authority, policies, or principles of a particular entity, especially if we do not want to. For example, “Although Smithies did not agree with the current policy of reduced rum rations, he eventually toed the line in order to maintain a good relationship with the captain.

    Literally, when bare feet sailors in the 16/1700s Royal Navy had to stand at attention for inspection or other more formal occasions, they were lined up in neat ranks and files. To achieve this, the deck was marked with distinct lines which were often based on the caulking lines between deck planks. The sailors used these lines fo form an orderly rank by touching the line with their toes thus lining up very straight.

    Toe the line meaning and etymology
    Toe the line

    122. Delivering a broadside

    Ships-of-the-line were specially designed to come broadside of an enemy ship and deliver as much firepower in the shortest time possible. This strategy was based on the fact that size does matter and particularly the number of guns. Due to the nature of the ship’s shape. all larger guns were deployed to the side of the ship (broadside) and hence this was why the ship needed to come broadside to do apply maximum devastation to the enemy. See also “a dressing down”.

    Today, receiving a broadside very much follows the same principle although the cannons are replaced with verbal ammunition… 

    Deliver a broadside meaning and etymology
    Toe the line

    123. Fits the bill

    This is about a Bill of Lading. It is a contract between the seller and the shipper that the goods are in receipt of the shipper and it specifies the goods, the quantity and their condition. It also stipulates the delivery time and other details. On delivery, the buyer would check the goods against his order and against the bill of lading. If all was okay, the goods were said to “fit the bill”.

    Nothing much changed in today’s shipping process. The bill of lading is as relevant now as it ever was… The term is an idiom because we now use it to denote that all is good.

    Fits the bill meaning and etymology
    Fits the bill

    124. Press into service

    Due to a shortage of crew, the British Navy found new crew by deception or plain kidnapping. This and was referred to as impressment and was executed by press gangs. It is synonymous with shanghaiing or crimping. See “Buttons Up” above…

    It is now used to say that something that was obsolete is now again required. For example: “The old black and white TV was pressed into service after the new colour TV stopped working.”

    125. Filibuster

    The Caribbean Sea in the 17th and 18th centuries was full of buccaneers. They were a type of privateer who prayed on the Spanish merchants and delivered a service that was no different to piracy other than that the British Navy condoned their business model.

    The Dutch pioneered the practice. Someone involved was called a “Vrybuiter” and subsequently translated into French as Flibustier.

    Today, a Filibuster is a politician that delays or obstructs legislation or policy by perpetually debating the issue.

    Filibuster meaning and etymology
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    126. Over a barrel

    When sailors were punished they were often tied to a mast, railing or over a barrel.

    Today, we find ourselves “over a barrel” or “over the barrel” if we are in a bad situation and are not in a position to better it.

    For example: “The offer on my cafe was extremely low but the COVID situation has me over a barrel…”

    Over a barrel meaning and etymology
    Over the barrel

    127. Flotsam and jetsam

    When we say, “flotsam and jetsam” we refer to bits and pieces without much value or use.

    The expression originates from maritime law and is a legal differentiation between goods discarded from ships.

    Flotsam refers to any items that were not deliberately set overboard. For example, where a ship is shipwrecked and debris floats to the closest shore. If you find flotsam then you own it.

    Jetsam on the other hand refers to any items that were deliberately set overboard. Ownership of the items will stay with the original owner. This could happen, for example where the captain may discard some cargo to reduce weight and to safe the ship in a heavy storm.

    128. Mainstay

    The mast is held up by stays and shrouds. This is also known as the standing rigging. The shrouds also serve as rope ladders to allow the crew to climb. A stay that runs from the top of the mainmast to the bottom of the mainmast is called the mainstay. 

    The idiom is used to denote a person or thing on which something else is based or depends on. For example: “Tourism is the mainstay of Cairns…”

    mainstay meaning and etymology

    129. From stem to stern

    Literally, it means from the front of a ship to the back. It can also be used to describe something in its entirety, from front to back, from one end to the other end, fully.

    “He painted the house from stem to stern…”

    130. Long shot

    A long shot means that there is little chance of success but if achieved will reap great rewards. “He put his last 100 dollar bill on 21 hoping this roulette long shot would get him back in the game…”

    In Nelson’s days, the cannons used we notoriously inaccurate. Although not helped by the lack of steadiness of the ship itself, the range and bearing were an educated guess at best. To fire at close range means you are also in close range of the enemy. It was, therefore, advantageous to fire a long shot that had little chance of success but great payoff if it did.

    131. Hard-up

    When you are hard-up you are in need. This could be financially or any other situation where your needs are not met. For example, “Smithies was hard-up after he lost his job…”

    Sailors use to use hard-up to express that they were overwhelmed with ill fortunes and had no way of bettering their lives.

    Hard up meaning and etymology
    Hard up

    132. Hot chase

    A hot chase finds it’s origin in naval warfare. Ships of nations that were not at war couldn’t challenge each other in international waters. Similarly, suspected smugglers could not be challenged when showing the colour of a foreign nation. However, ships that ventured into territorial waters could be challenged and even when chased into international waters were still fair game.

    Today, the saying “hot pursuit” is used more often but still stems from the time of sailing ships…

    Hot chase meaning and etymology
    Hot chase

    133. Hazing

    Hazing is a very old sailor’s tradition and can be best described as an initiation ceremony of such a kind you may expect at a fraternity at university. These initiations were sometimes brutal particularly a specific ceremony when a new sailor first crosses the equator.

    “When Smithies joined the company, the boys from the second floor organised a hazing from which he still to recover…”

    Hazing is outlawed in most jurisdictions around the world but still happens regularly.

    Hazing meaning and etymology

    From our friends at the Department:

    “Hazing is defined as any conduct whereby a military member or members, regardless of service or rank, without proper authority causes another military member or members, regardless of service or rank, to suffer or be exposed to any activity which is cruel, abusive, humiliating, oppressive, demeaning, or harmful.”wKE

    133. In his wake

    “Smithies’ love life was rather fluid leaving a trail of broken hearts in his wake…” In his wake, meaning things left behind by someone or something. It may also indicate that you are ahead of the pack. For example: “During the 2000 summer Olympics 400 meters, Cathy Freeman left her competitors in her wake…”

    Literally, a wake is a wave pattern produced by a ship caused by the ship’s hull as it moves through the water and displaces volumes of water.

    In his wake meaning and etymology
    Leaving something in your wake
    Ship wake meaning and etymology

    134. Whistle for the wind

    Sailors of old had lots of superstitious ideas and whistling for the wind was one of them. Sailors believed that when they were down in the doldrums (without wind or the prospect of wind – see above) they could whistle for the wind in the hope of creating wind. Following on from that idea, you will never hear a sailor whistle when there is a storm brewing.

    The idiom morphed somewhat to say “whistle in the wind” meaning that we wish for something we can’t have. For example: “When Smithies applied for the post of the first mate he was whistling in the wind…”

    135. Sling one's hook

    When you sling your hook, you are getting on your way. You can say: “After an argument, Smithies girlfriend told him to sling his hook…”

    One can argue that the origin of this idiom is nautical because sailing ships sling their hook (another word for anchor) just before the ship sets off…

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    136. Log book

    The “common log” was used to measure the speed of a sailing vessel. A wooden piece of wood attached to a rope that had several knots in it a specific measured interval was let out behind the ship. A combination of time and the number of knots let out was recorded as the ship travelling at X amount of knots and was subsequently recorded in the ship’s logbook.

    You can read more about why we use knots in sailing in this article: Why use nautical miles and knots in sailing

    Why use nautical miles and knots
    Log book

    137. Jump ship

    There are 2 schools of thought behind the idiom “jump ship” or “to jump ship”.

    When a ship is in danger of sinking, the command “abandon ship” may be given after which the sailors jumped ship.

    A more likely explanation is that sailors jumping off the ship simply to escape from it. This was specifically the case where sailors were shanghaied or pressed into service involuntarily.

    Today, jumping ship means that you give up on, or leave something often suddenly and without warning. For example, “The company’s CEO jumped ship after the royal commission pointed to severe breaches of the law…”

    Jump ship meaning and etymology
    Jumping ship

    138. Shanghaied

    To Shanghai someone means that you force someone to do something they have not willingly signed up to.

    The expression finds it’s origin in the practice of recruiting crew into the Royal Navy (press into service) to join a ship lacking a full crew by unconscionable conduct ranging from drugging the potential sailor to deceit or violence.

    However, Shanghaiing was specifically referred to when commercial ship owners adopted the same practice. The term “Shanghaiing was probably adopted because a lot of the ship’s destinations were Shanghai (or thereabouts…)

    Today, it means simply to coerce or trick (someone) into a place or position or into doing something. For example: “Smithies was Shanghaied into volunteering to organise John’s farewell party…”

    139. That ship has sailed

    When we say: “That ship has sailed.” we mean to say that some opportunity has passed. You can use it in a sentence like: “Smithies refused 100,000 shares in Google when the company floated but now that ship has sailed.”

    It’s origin stems from the fact that sailing ships once cast off where almost impossible to turn around and re-dock due to tide and wind conditions. So when the ship sailed off, there was no more opportunity to board it.

    That ship has sailed meaning and etymology
    That ship has sailed

    140. Enough to sink a ship

    Sinking a ship by overloading it is not that easy to do. So if something is said to be enough to sink a ship it is enormous or very large or in any case more than enough. Also, the alternative, “enough to sink a battleship” is used for the same reason. For example: “Smithies brought enough food to the BBQ to sink a ship…”

    141. A sinking ship

    The literal meaning of a sinking ship requires no explanation. 

    Idiomatically, we refer to a sinking ship as stopping your involvement in an enterprise or business which is on a path to imminent failure. Ie, “The CEO of Vidio Easy resigned as the business was driven out of the market by Netflix…”

    A sinking ship

    142. Bail out

    Bailing out the water was a common practice in the age of sailing as the ships were notoriously leaky. In essence, it kept ships afloat. Bailing pumps are still used for this purpose today.

    Figuratively, if you bail someone out it means you help them get out of a sticky situation. For example: “After the financial crisis, the government bailed out several banks despite that extravagant bonuses given to executives…”

    bail out meaning and etymology
    A sinking ship

    143. Reef the sails

    If you reef the sails you most likely do so to slow your boat down and make it less responsive to the wind. This is often done to reduce sail area and thus prepare for more stormy situations.

    Outside sailing, it means to slow down or prepare for harder times. For example: “After the election was over, Smithies reefed the sails and relaxed for a bit..”

    Reef the sails
    Reef the sails

    144. To hit rock bottom

    When you hit rock bottom then you are finding yourself in a situation that can simply not get any worse.

    “When Smithies shares were declared worthless he hit rock bottom…”

    A ship would hit rock bottom where it got stuck on rocks on a high tide. The situation was therefore pretty grim with little chance of recovering the ship.

    To hit rock bottom

    145. Off to a flying start

    The beginning of a yacht race is a flying start as opposed to a start of the 100-meter sprint which starts with the competitors in a stationary position. Although there are many sports that have a flying start like harness racing, yacht racing is said to be the origin of the idiom. It is extremely important to position yourself well and have impeccable timing in order to cross the start line as close to the starting time as possible.

    We can use “off to a flying start” when we experience an auspicious beginning of something. For example: ” Collingwood was off to a flying start but still managed to lose the final…”

    Off to a flying start meaning and etymology
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    146. Deep-six someone

    To receive a deep-six mend that you would get a burial at sea. Because of the long voyages in the age of sail and the lack of refrigeration, sailors were almost always buried at sea.

    As an idiom, we are saying that we want to dispose of someone or something. For example: “After a public backlash, the Minister was advised to deep-six his new policy…”

    Deep-six someone meaning and etymology
    Deep-six someone

    147. Lower the boom

    “Smithies lowered the boom on John when he delivered the knock-out punch…” So, lowering the boom means to stop someone by physical force or verbal chastising.

    In sailing terms, the boom is arguable from the Dutch “boom” (tree), and is used to extend the foot of a sail. Lowering the boom will effectively stop the ship.

    Lower the boom

    148. Ride out the storm

    To ride out the storm means to manage not to be destroyed, harmed, or permanently affected by the difficult situation you experience. For example: “The Labor Party is doing badly in the polls but all they can do is ride out the storm until COVID is under control…”

    Riding out a storm is a nautical expression that signifies that the vessel’s captain has chosen not to seek shelter but to persist with his current course of action irrespective of the risk.

    Ride out the storm meaning and etymology
    Ride out the storm

    149. Let her rip

    The meaning of “let her rip” is less ambiguous than the origin. It means to go as fast as physics allows. As in: “Going around the last corner towards the finish line, Smithies let her rip and won the race…”

    Most likely derived from destroying the steam boiler of American steamboats conducting racing activities and putting too much pressure on their machines resulting in the boiler blowing up or ripping.

    150. Full sails

    Someone who has “full sails” is going quickly. For example: “Cathy was running full sails when she won the 400-meters…”

    In nautical terms, it means the sailing ships had all their sails up to achieve maximum speed to reduce the time of the voyage.

    Full sails

    151. A1 condition

    If something is “A1” it is in excellent condition. For example: “Smithies bought a new apartment which was in A1 condition…”

    It stems from 1760 when Lloyd’s of London inspected merchant’s vessels in order to rate them in terms of their seaworthiness and general condition. Naturally, A1 was the highest rating…

    152. Zig-Zag

    A sailing vessel needs to tack into the prevailing winds in order to make headway. This is synonymous with zig-zagging. Now use more broadly we can say that “The skier zig-zagged down the mountain.

    153. Canteen medals

    Canteen medals is an old Naval term for having stains down the front of your shirt which was caused by spilling food or drink. Today we can say that “After feeding, the baby was wearing a fair amount of canteen medals which were quickly cleaned by mom…”

    154. He hasn't got a clue

    There are normally three ends od a sail being the head, the tack and the clew. The clew is attached to the sheets that control the sail so if it fails the sail will not only be useless, it will also become uncontrollable and dangerous: clueless. In order to rectify this situation, the sheets need to be “clued up: again.

    In today’s language, if someone “hasn’t got a clue” then they are ignorant about something. You can  “get clued up” to rectify this ignorance.

    155. That's a balls up

    That project was a total balls up. Ie, a disaster. A well-used idiom in today’s language.

    It originates from the day of sailing ships where “balls” (and other shapes) were hoisted into the rigging to communicate all types of issues. Even today under the Colregs 3 balls up means the vessel is aground.

    Balls Up
    Balls Up
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    156. Give me some slack

    The meaning has not changed much over the years but started where sailors were tasked to hoist cargo on board sailing ships. This was done with pullies and ropes and often by 2 or more sailors. They would alternate the effort and when requiring a break would ask for some slack (on their rope) with the weight of the cargo held by the other. Today, it means exactly that: give me a break.

    157. Loose lips sink ships

    During WWII, the War Advertising Council put out posters to make people aware that their general conversations could be overheard by German sympathisers. A simple discussion about your husband returning on a specific day and time gave spies the intelligence that was then passed on to the Germans who would act by laying in wait for the ship’s arrival for the purpose of sinking it.

    Today we mean to say that anything you say may be used against you.

    Loose lips sink ships

    158. Please mind your P's and Q's

    Today we use this idiom to make sure that someone behaves in a manner acceptable for the occasion.

    However, “mind your P’s and Q’s” was originally used to record sailor’s beer tabs. Pints and quart were recorded by the bartender until such time the sailor got paid. It was therefore easy to overspend so sailors needed to mind their P’s and Q’s…

    159. Round robin

    In sport, we have round robins meaning that all participants will play all other participants and the one with the most points wins the competition. (As opposed to a sudden dead type competition such as the Australian Tennis Open.)

    It stems from mariners that were extremely unhappy with the ship’s captain and served him with a piece of paper called a round robin which had on it all the names of the crew that supported the complaint. However, the names were written in a circle so the captain could not determine who the leader was.

    160. Drifting through life

    Being adrift in maritime terms means that you are at the mercy of the wind and currents.

    Today we may describe someone without any purpose in life to be a drifter: someone without a permenent home or steady job.

    161. To bear down

    During naval battles, an attacking ship will try to bear down on an enemy ship meaning it had the wind behind her resulting in the ship increasing speed and therefore manoeuvrability. It gave her a better opportunity to come alongside the enemy ship and deliver her firepower.

    Today, when we “bear down” we exert a concentrated effort on a person using authority and swift action.

    162. Blood Money

    When we think of today’s meaning of blood money we may refer to a financial gain at the expense of someone. It could be a price paid to a hired killer. Compensation paid to the family of the victim of a murder or perhaps the most famous example of blood money the thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas…

    It stems from maritime origin but there are 2 schools of thought about where exactly it originated from.

    1. The money received by those recruiting crew for the navies of the world were said to be paid in blood money. This was because most of the recruiting techniques were unconscionable at best. (See “Shanghaing“, press into service and “bottoms up“.)
    2. Others claim it to be the reward privateers received for the capture or sinking of enemy ships.
    Blood money idiom etymology origin
    Blood money - betrayed with a kiss for 30 pieces of silver

    163. All sewn up

    Today we use this idiom to express that something is all done and completed.

    In the age of sailing ships, there was no refrigeration and therefore sailors that died on the voyage needed to receive their burial at sea. The crew would roll the dead sailor in his hammock which was weighted down by some heavy objects so it would sink. The hammock was then sewn closed (all sewn up) and the body committed to the sea.

    Interestingly, the last stitch when sewing up the hammock was through the nose of the dead sailor: just to ensure he was indeed dead…

    All sewn up idiom etymology and origin
    All sewn up and ready to be committed to the sea...

    164. Putting a new slant on things

    In sailing the slant is the angle of the vessel or pitch. Most vessels have an optimal slant which becomes important when racing. There are also arguably different slants for different conditions so we can see that sailors would try to put a different slant on the vessel in the prevailing conditions to improve her speed.

    Today we use the idiom to mean changing the way we see things or looking at things from a different perspective.

    165. Whipping boy

    To be the whipping boy means that you are blamed or punished for the faults or incompetence of others. For example, “If this project fails, Smithies will be made the whipping boy because management will never take responsibility…”

    In sailing, whipping means the protection of the end of a rope to prevent fraying. It is both a knot and a method. In essence, a twine is wrapped around the end of a larger rope. It was a very junior task. When done incorrectly the junior sailor would, at today’s standards,  be severely punished.

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    166. Perks (perquisites)

    Naval officers had a relatively small salary which was subsidised by perks (short for perquisites). This could be a percentage of the spoils of war or any benefits either in money or in kind.

    In today’s language, it is used outside the navy in any situation where one stands to receive a benefit. For example, if you work in a clothing store you will enjoy perks such as free or heavily discounted clothing.

    167. An Albatross around your neck

    To have an Albatross around your neck is synonymous with an annoying burden. You can say: “This useless dingy is an Albatross around my neck.” We all know an Albatross is a large sea bird.

    However, sailors in the 1600s believed that the Albatross was an embodiment of dead sailors. Chasing an Albatross of the deck or killing one was considered bad luck. I guess not dissimilar to cows in some parts of India.

    168. Going Dutch

    Going Dutch means sharing the expenses of what could often be a dinner. In today’s world, a first date may decide to go Dutch so there is no expectation of post-meal activities.  It is a considered and conscious decision based on fairness and equality.

    Not so in the 17th centuries were English and the Dutch were constantly at war over trade routes. The English considered the Dutch a stingy bunch and coined the phrase “going Dutch” with a negative connotation.

    Going Dutch etymology and meaning
    Going Dutch

    169. Go the whole nine yards

    Today we use the idiom “the whole nine yards” relatively often. We want to express that whatever we are talking about was complete, comprehensive and includes everything.

    The expression stems from the era of square-riggers. These ships had 3 masts and often carries 3 yards (smain sails) on each mast disregarding sky and moon sails etc… Hence, when all mainsails were up it would give you the full 9 yards. This provided maximum speed and manoeuvrability and was all that the ship had to offer.

    Go the whole nine yards

    170. Go with the flow

    A very commonly used idiom which is self-evident in terms of its origin. Specifically in the age of sail, but also relevant in today’s shipping industry, going with the flow of the tides made the voyage quicker as well as more comfortable. 

    Today we say go with the flow to because we suggesting to relax and take the path of least resistance. For example: “Don’t worry about tomorrow’s stocktake: just go with the flow and it will work itself out…”

    171. Start with a clean slate

    Old sailing ships use to record their movement on a slate. This included things like the ship’s course, tags made, the speed where applicable and other information that was recorded during the watch. When the watch was released, all information was handed over to the new watch. Subsequent to analysing the data, the slate was wiped clean in order to record relevant data of the new watch. Ie, it was used as an aid to a handover brief.

    Today, when we wipe the slate clean and start with a clean slate we are meaning to say that there is a new beginning without passed issues being forgotten. For example: “Smithies did really badly on his knot tying test last year but the captain offered him another opportunity by letting him start with a clean slate…”

    172. What a cock-up

    When the old sailing ships came into port, space was of the essence. Any spars (wooden poles like yards, booms, bowsprit etc…) that were positioned outside the breath of the ship needed to be secured so they would not stick out impeding other ships or cranes and equipment on the dock. This was referred to as cocking up the spars” and was a process that was carried out most times a ship came into port.

    Today, a cock-up is something that is done wrong or badly. For example: “Smithies handed over the stocktake figures to the captain. After having a quick look over the numbers, the captain shook his head and declared both the stocktake, and Smithies personally, as a total cock-up…””

    173. The sun is over the yardarm

    Okay, you want a beer but it is a bit early. You can say “it 5 o’clock somewhere in the world” or make similar excuses. The sun is over the yardarm is just one more excuse to start drinking earlier than is socially excepted…

    It possibly originates from the habits of Officers in the Navy. If the sun would rise above the most upper spar, it was time for morning tea (read rum break). When analysing this, we could say that this may occur between 10 am to 11 am. Cheers!

    174. Having a field day

    Having a field day may mean just going to spend some time in the field: like a school excursion. As an idiom, and more likely, it is a great time or a great deal to do, at somebody else’s expense. For example: “Smithies had a field day after discovering that the captain’s wife filed for divorce…”

    The expression arguably came from maritime maintenance where a workday was designated for the maintenance or cleaning of ship’s equipment and stores. 

    175. Armed to the teeth

    Being armed to the teeth originates from the Caribean in the age of piracy. Having a flintlock pistol as his main weapon was an issue as it could only be fired once. Naturally, a pirate could carry many loaded flintlock pistols but eventually, he would need something else. Whilst using his pistols, a pirate would carry his knife in between his teeth so he could have easy and instant access to it as well as looking rather intimidating.

    Today, we use the idiom to denote that someone is well-armed either literally or sometimes figuratively.

    For example: “When Smithies entered the courtroom he was well prepared and armed to the teeth with rebuttals…”

    Armed to the teeth etymology idiom origin
    Armed to the teeth
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    176. At a rate of knots

    “Smithies is travelling at a great rate of knots in his new Porsche”. A well-used idiom to express that something is going fast. Literally, the greater the rate of knots by a ship, the more nautical miles it will travel per hour.

    177. Bamboozle

    It was common practice for pirates in the late 1600s and early 1700s to fly a nation’s flag in order for them to approach other ships without suspicion. At the last minute, the pirates would hoist the Jolly Roger to strike fear into the heaths of their unsuspecting victims.

    Bamboozling in today’s language means simply to fool or trick someone. For example: “When the magician turned over the Queen of Spades the audience looked bamboozled…”

    See also “Showing her true colours“.

    178. Fudging the books

    Once upon a time (the introduction of this idiom should alert you to its validity), there was a Captain called Fudge. There are in fact records of the existence of a Captain Fudge in the late 1700s. However, from here the tale loses some credibility as it pronounces Captain Fudge to be a bit of a “creative accountant” and a pathological liar. It is said that the good Captain would off-load some of the ship’s cargo in France with proceeds going into his own pockets. Then manipulating the books to show that there was no cargo missing.

    Now, we just mean to say that something is put together dishonestly.

    179. Getting hitched

    A hitch is a means by which a rope is made fast and stems from the 1760s and is without a doubt nautical.

    There are several types of high knot including a cow hitch and a more simple clove hitch.

    Now we describe the act of marriage as getting hitched. 

    Getting hitched idiom origin and etymology

    180. Barging in

    As we know, a barge is a vessel with a flat bottom which at best is a bit hard to manoeuvre. They are often large with a momentum that is not easy to stop. Barges are not elegant ships with great lines but clumsy floating containers…

    You “barge in” if you suddenly and rudely interrupt or disturb someone. For example: “I’m happy to listen to you but don’t barge in right now…”

    Barging in origin etymology and meaning

    181. Stranded

    Figuratively, you can be stranded when you get stuck, left helpless and without the means to move from somewhere. For example: “Smithies picked up a hitchhiker who seemed stranded at the side of the road…”

    The word originates from the Dutch word “strand” meaning beach. Being stranded was no more than your ship running aground on a beach.

    Related: Marooned

    Stranded etymology origin and meaning

    182. Take someone down a peg or two

    There are 2 potential origins of this idiom but both stemming from maritime practices.

    1. We mentioned the scuttlebutt before to describe the barrel on board a sailing ship in which the drinking water was stored. Water was sometimes rationed and each sailor was given a number of pegs: a unit of volume. IIf a sailor did something wrong he may be punished by reducing his ration of drinking water.
    2. It is also argued that the flag signalling system sits at the core of this well-used idiom. The colours where raised using pegs and the colours were only taken down as a sign of surrendering which must be the low point of the battle.

    Using the idiom today, we mean to imply that someone needs to realise that they have less talented or important than they may think they are. For example: “When Smithies declared that he could be a great leader, the captain took him down a peg or two reminding him of the last time he was in charge of the sloop…”

    183. There she blows...

    There it is! We say “there see blows” sometimes to announce the arrival of something that we anticipated for a long time. For example: “When Smithies wife asked for an additional allowance, he hailed there she blows…”

    Originally, it was the whaler in the crow’s nest that hailed “Thar she blows…” when spotting a spout of water making the crew below aware that a whale was nearby to be hunted down and killed for its oil.

    184. Marooned

    It became common practice in the early 1700s to punish someone by way of abandonment on a small deserted island. That person would more often than not be the (ex) captain after a mutiny.

    Today we simply mean to say that someone or something is stranded.

    185. Leading light

    When approaching a harbour or port, there is often a narrow channel that needs to be navigated. In order to assist sailors, two lights were placed one behind the other.

    If the ship was on a course the two lights lined up and it was assured it was in the centre of the channel and safe from running aground.

    We now use “leading light” to point out a leader or someone that inspires us…

    Leading light idiom
    Leading light
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    186. Bigwigs

    Don’t act like you are a bigwig. In other words, stop pretending you more important than you are. An idiom with negative connotations which derives its meaning from early 18th-century dress code by the elite within the Royal Navy.

    It seems, the higher the rank and the more substantial the wealth; the bigger the wig. Sailors referred to these high ranking officers, which often simply purchased their commission, as bigwigs and were very much disliked by all other ranks.

    Bigwig: Admiral Cloudesley Shovell

    187. In the black books

    In the time of Edward III of England in the early 1300s, there existed a volume of law which contained admiralty rules. It was a collection of maritime laws and conduct and was known as the Black Books of the Admiralty.

    It governed some of the punishments of the time which were cruel and inhumane at best.

    Today, if you are in someone’s black books it will mean that you are out of favour with someone. For example: “Smithies was in the Captain’s blank book when he steered the ship 60-degree off-course…”

    Black book etymology and origin and meaning
    Black book

    188. Careen

    We use the word careen or careening to indicate that someone is driving a vehicle recklessly and in the worst case getting the vehicle on two wheels… “The go-cart careened around the corner…”

    It stems from the French carener and was simply a method of performing maintenance on ship hulls by laying the ship on its side assisted by the low tide. The ship was sailed to a careenage at high tide and when the tide receded, the ship’s hull would be exposed and work could commence.

    189. Calm before the storm

    Sailors were the first to understand the meteorological conditions of storms. They knew instinctively and through experience, that warm moist air is pulled into a storm system which leaves a low-pressure vacuum at its front. This low-pressure system is the calm a ship would find itself in before the high pressure would hit.

    Today we say “calm before the storm” when we expect something to change from smooth to chaotic. For example: “When Smithies started to babysit the twins, they were asleep but he knew that was just the calm before the storm…”

    Calm before the storm - etymology, origin and meaning
    Calm before the storm - etymology, origin and meaning

    190. Come up through the hawse-pipe

    There were two ways of receiving a commission as an officer in the British Navy. Usually, the wealthier families could simply purchase a commission at any rank or go through the appropriate channels entering the officer’s career path and working their way up within the commissioned ranks. A third way to become an officer was to “come up through the hawse-pipe” meaning that you started as a simply deckhand, worked your way up through the non-commissioned ranks and then finally made the change from non-commissioned officer to a commissioned officer. 

    In today’s language, we can say that someone came up through the hawse-pipe were the individual climbed the corporate ladder from the very bottom. For example: “The editor of the Post Newspaper came up through the hawse-pipe, starting his career as a copy boy and working his way up…”

    Come up through the hawse-pipe etymology, origin and meaning idiom
    Come up through the hawse-pipe

    191. Dismantle

    Originally, a naval term to strip a ship from its rigging, equipment and fortifications.

    Today, when we dismantle something we take a thing apart.

    192. Chewing the fat

    A sailor’s rations were not a culinary smorgasbord of fresh produce. Fresh meat was an issue due to the lack of refrigeration so low-quality pork or beef was often dried and salted to preserve it. A kind of jerky is you like. It was consumed more often than not below deck when the sailors had some spare time. The social setting combined the consumption of dried meat with the telling of tall tales. Hence, today we use “chewing the fat” where we have a casual conversation, some gossip or other verbalisation of what goes on in the world. For example: “When Smithies caught up with his mate Billie, they chewed the fat until the early hours…” 

    193. Fend off

    We still fend off when we are trying to avoid our vessel from running into other vessels or the jetty. In order to do this, we can make use of several fenders.

    We also use it as an idiom to distance or defend ourselves from both verbal and physical attack.

    Fend off idiom

    194. Swashbuckler

    Swashbuckler and buccaneer are often used synonymously especially in Hollywood movies. In essence, they show a pirate (either licenced by a Government or not) with a good hard such as Jack Sparrow.

    The term “Swashbuckler” has changed a bit over the years and mellowed it’s meaning from a negative to a more endearing one. One that seeks adventure…

    We can use it today to say for example: “Price Phillip’s reply was no less than a swashbuckler’s retort…”


    195. Sound off

    To gauge the depth of the water, sailors used a swinging the lead. They used a rope with knots denoting the depth of the water. They would shout out the depth to the officer in charge often at the aft of the ship. This was called “sounding off”.

    Today, we sound off if we express our opinions in a brash and/or vigorous manner.

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    196. Any port in a storm

    PROVERB: in adverse circumstances, one welcomes any source of relief or escape.

    Stems from sailors sailing to the nearest port when a storm was developing.

    197. Crew Cut

    The “Crew cut” is precisely what it promises: a very short hairstyle given to the crew of a ship.

    It further developed in the 1940s where reference is made to the term “crew cut” chosen as the preferred hairstyle by boat crews of Harvard and Yale universities.

    Today we just mean to say a very short cut and often referred to as a “number 1”.

    Crew Cut etymology origin and meaning
    Crew Cut

    198. Cup of Joe

    A cup of Joe stems from American Navy folklore. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Josephus Daniels (Joe) as Secretary of the Navy. Not long after his appointment, and to the horror of the officers, “Joe” Daniels abolished the long-standing tradition of serving alcohol on ships. This was known as “general Order 99”.

    From that point onwards, a cup of coffee was the strongest beverage available and hence, a cup of coffee became synonymous with a cup of Joe…

    The idiom quickly spread through the rest of the defence force. 

    Cup of Joe idiom meaning
    Cup of Joe

    199. Blood is thicker than water

    When we say “blood is thicker than water” we mean to say that we value our family relationships above anything else. For example: “When the captain’s son was given the promotion over Smithies, it was clear that blood will always be thicker than water…”

    The earliest mention of this can be found in the German language in the late-1100s (blut ist dicker als wasser) but really entered our language in the late 1800s after Josiah Tattnall, a U.S. Navy Commodore, decided to go against the U.S. policy of neutrality when he witnessed the British being attacked at Taku Forts at the mouth of the Pei Ho River. Tattnall clearly saw the British as kin more so than the Chinese.

    Josiah Tattnail Blood is thicker than water
    Blood is thicker than water

    200. Bolster

    A bolster is a piece of wood applied in many places on wooden sailing ships. They are designed to prevent chafing. It can also be a piece of softwood installed on the trestle-trees to prevent them from getting nipped by the rigging.

    Today we use the word bolster to mean “support” or “strengthen”. For example: “After the captain died, Smithies tried to bolster the crew’s morale by volunteering to act in the position of captain. If anything did bolster morale, it was the laughter that followed…”


    201. Having both oars in the water

    Clearly, “boaty” speak by reference of the oars and meaning that you are calm and collected and moving forward with purpose. Conversely, the saying “not having both oars in the water” means the opposite evidenced by the fact that when you only have one oar in the water you will go in circles.

    For example: “When Smithies took over the role of CEO he had both oars in the water and took the company to new heights…”

    Have both oars in the water etymology - origin - meaning
    Have both oars in the water

    202. Lower Deck Lawyer

    If someone calls you a “lower deck lawyer” then that someone thinks you are a “know-it-all” with a bit of knowledge just enough to be dangerous…

    203. Scupper

    Scupper originated as old seafarer’s slang for injured or killed. A scupper is literally an opening from which access seawater can drain from the deck back into the ocean. Being washed through a scupper was a bad thing and hence the slang meaning. The scupper is also now adopted in the building industry where it serves a similar purpose in channelling water from the roof through a hole in the facade of a building.

    Today it is used to mean destroying something like a plan or idea. It is also used to denote sinking your own vessel. As in: “Smithies scuppered his boat to claim on the insurance…”

    Scupper meaning and etymology

    204. Cracking on - get cracking

    We use the term “cracking on” or “get cracking” relatively often when we want to encourage someone to start or speed up procedures respectively.

    Cracking on in maritime terms means simply to add more sails and the process of adjusting sheets. The cracking referred to the luffing of the sails until the sheets were hauled in enough to stop the “creaking”…

    205. Maiden voyage

    Literally, a “maiden voyage” is the first journey made by a ship or spacecraft.

    As an idiom, we may broaden this to include anything new we are about to embark on.

    For example: “Smithies admitted that it was his maiden voyage and not to expect too much of him as he entered a breakdancing competition for the very first time…”

    206. Mayday (SOS)

    “Mayday” is the globally recognised voice radio signal for ships and people in serious trouble at sea. The word comes from the French m’aidez which means “help me” and was first introduced at Croydon Airport in London by a radio officer named Frederick Mockford because SOS was not well understood over voice radio.

    Where voice is not practicable, an S.O.S. Morse code will pretty much have the same meaning. However, against popular belief, the letters “SOS” have no literal meaning such as “Save Our Souls” or “Save Our Ship”.

    The distress call ‘mayday’ may be used only if the boat is in imminent or serious danger and immediate assistance is required. For less serious matters, the call “PAM PAM” is used…

    As an idiom, we may use “mayday” to denote some type of trouble we find ourselves in.

    Distress frequencies:

    • VHF 16, 27.88 MHz
    • HF 4125, 6215, 8291 kHz.

    Call procedure:

    • “mayday, mayday, mayday”
    • “this is – name and radio call sign of boat in distress” (spoken 3 times)
    • “mayday”
    • “name and radio call sign of boat”
    • “detail of boat’s position”
    • “nature of distress and assistance required”
    • “other information, including the number of people on board, vessel description and intentions”.

    207. Scuttle

    Scuttle, as opposed to “scuttlebutt” has a definitive meaning in the maritime business. In essence, it means the deliberated sinking of a ship. The verb scuttling, therefore, involves the creation of a hole in the ship’s hull situated under the waterline resulting in the flooding of the hull and subsequent sinking of the ship. Ships are often scuttled to create a dive destination as it creates a man-made reef attracting aquatic species. In history, there are also many examples where ships were scuttled to form a barrier or blockade to avoid enemy ships entering harbours.

    In today’s language, you can use scuttle to explain the deliberate undermining of a plan or a proposal. For example: “Smithies erroneous navigational advice to the captain scuttled his chances of a promotion.

    208. Dead marine

    The idiom “dead marine” refers to an empty liquor bottle. It is synonymous with “dead one” or “dead soldier” which all mean pretty much the same thing.

    For example: “It was disheartening to find all these dead marines on the floor even after I told you to clean up after your party”.

    The origin is a bit vague but there is some evidence that the term was “marinized” by William IV, then still the Duke of Clarence, in the late 1700s where he ordered his servants to remove the “dead marines” to make way for the next round of drinks… 

    Do you know any other idioms?

    If you have any idioms, expressions or sayings that you think have their origin in sailing or maritime in general then let us know by commenting below. Let’s make this the most comprehensive “sailing did you know” list around…

    If you feel there are mistakes in the above idioms then don’t hesitate to say…

    8 thoughts on “200 Nautical Terms and Sailing Phrases That Have Enriched The English Language”

        1. Taken Aback. ‘ I was so taken aback ‘ From the square riggers when the wind changed direction and blew the sails back onto the mast.

    1. POSH, referring to high class or fancy, is an acronym from the days when Europeans visited the United States. If you were wise, you would take a cabin on the port side of the vessel on the OUTbound leg. and starboard side when going HOME. That way your cabin would have maximum sunshine.Port Outbound Starboard Home.

    2. When a vessel has forward movement, it is said to have “way”. Hence underway and give way impede way. — self explanatory really.

    3. Pingback: Buying your first sailboat - Tall Tell Tales

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