Nautical Phrases we all use

Many of the phrases we use in daily conversation have a basis in words used by sailors. Here are a list of the popular ones and where they originated from. Courtesy of . For all you sailors they are a wealth of information about all things boating.

Over the Barrel -
The most common method of punishment aboard ship was flogging. The unfortunate sailor was tied to a grating, mast or over a barrel.  Kissing the gunner's daughter was being tied over the barrel of a deck cannon whilst it was fired.

To Know the Ropes -
There are miles rope in the rigging of a square rigged ship. The only way of keeping track of the function of all of these lines was to memorize (know) where they were located. It took an experienced seaman to know the ropes.

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

Footloose -

The bottom portion of a sail is called the foot. If it is not secured, it is footloose and it dances randomly in the wind.  Also known for a sail with no boom.

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

Pipe Down -

Means stop talking and be quiet. The Pipe Down was the last signal from the Boson's pipe each day which meant lights out and silence.

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

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

Windfall –

Unexpected stroke of good luck.

A sudden unexpected rush of wind from a mountainous shore which allowed a ship more leeway.  Some English landowners were prevented to either fall or sell timber as this was reserved for building ships for the Royal Navy. However, this did not apply to trees which were blown down. Hence, a windfall became a financial blessing.

Feeling blue -

When a ship's captain died during a voyage, his ship would return to port flying a blue flag and bearing a blue stripe on its hull. The term “feeling blue” signifies depression or sadness today.

Grog -
In 1740, British Vice Admiral Edward Vernon (whose nickname was Old Grogram for the coat of Grogram he wore) ordered that the sailors' daily ration of rum be diluted with water. The men called the mixture grog. A sailor who drank too much grog was groggy.

Splice the Main brace -

Splice the mainbrace is an order given aboard ships to issue the crew an extra drink . Originally an order for one of the most difficult emergency repair jobs aboard a sailing ship , it became a euphemism for authorized celebratory drinking afterward, and then the name of an order to grant the crew an extra ration of rum or grog .

Three Sheets to the Wind -
A sheet is a rope line which controls the tension on corners of a square sail. If, on a three masted ship, the sheets of the three lower course sails are loose, the sails will flap and flutter and are said to be in the wind. A ship in this condition would stagger and wander aimlessly downwind acting much like a drunken sailor.

Pooped -
The poop is the stern section of a ship. To be pooped is to be struck by a high, following sea or wave on the stern.

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

Cut and Run -

If a smaller ship at anchor was discovered by a larger enemy vessel, the smaller ship might decide that discretion is the better part of valor, and so would order the crew to cut the anchor cable and sail off in a hurry.

The Bitter End -
The end of an anchor cable is fastened to the bits at the ship's bow. If all of the anchor cable has been paid out you have come to the bitter end.

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

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

Slush Fund -
The slushy slurry of fat obtained by boiling salted meat. This stuff called slush was often sold ashore by the ship's cook for the benefit of himself or the crew. The money so derived became known as a slush fund.

Bear Down -

To sail downwind rapidly towards another ship or landmark.

Under the Weather -

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

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

Keel Over
To capsize.  Also a sailors term for death.

Above Board -
Anything on or above the open deck. If something is open and in plain view, it is above board.  Questionable cargo was kept out of sight below decks, thus anything above board was legitimate.

Overwhelm -
Old English for capsize or founder.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea -
The devil seam was the curved seam in the deck planking closest to the side of the ship and next to the scupper gutters. If a sailor were hanging off the side in a boatswains chair you would be between the devil and the deep blue sea.

The Devil to Pay -
To pay the deck seams meant to seal them with tar. The devil seam was the most difficult to pay because it was curved and intersected with the straight deck planking.  Paying the Devil was considered to be a most difficult and unpleasant task, sometimes used as mild punishment.

Rummage Sale -

From the French arrimage meaning ship's cargo.  Damaged cargo was sold off, eventually becoming called a rummage sale.

A Square Meal -
The crews' mess was a warm meal served on square wooden platters.  They were not nutritionally balanced.

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

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

Taking the wind out of his sails -

Sailing in a manner so as to steal or divert wind from another ship's sails.

Let the Cat Out of the Bag -

Aboard ship the punishment prescribed for most serious crimes was flogging. This was administered by the Boson's Mate using a whip called a cat o' nine tails. The cat was kept in a red dyed bag. It was considered bad news indeed when the cat was let out of the bag.

No Room to Swing a Cat -
The entire ship's company was required to witness flogging at close hand. If the ship was crowded the Boatswain might not have enough room to swing his cat o' nine tails.

Taken Aback -
A dangerous situation where the wind is on the wrong side of the sails pressing them back against the mast and forcing the ship astern. Most often this was caused by an inattentive helmsman who had allowed the ship to head up into the wind.

Back and Fill -
To trim the sails of a ship so that the wind strikes them first on the forward and then on the after side.  This causes the ship to turn around in a very small area.

Fly-by-Night -
The word fly means “to sail” in nautical jargon. Sailing at night was a difficult and dangerous task. Therefore, when the night watch began, the elaborate sails used during the day were replaced by one large sail requiring rather little attention.  This was the easiest sail to set and take down thus it could be put up and taken down quickly.

Give (someone) a Wide Berth -

To anchor a ship far enough away from another ship so that they did not hit each other when they swung with the wind or tide.

Cut of His Jib -

The "cut" of a sail refers to its shape. Since this would vary between ships, it could be used both to identify a familiar vessel at a distance, and to judge the possible sailing qualities of an unknown one.

Hard and fast -
Rigidly adhered to - without doubt or debate. A ship that was hard and fast was simply one that was firmly beached on land. Land was known as “the Hard”.

High and dry -
Stranded, without help or hope of recovery. This term originally referred to ships that were beached. The 'dry' implies that, not only were they out of the water, but had been for some time and could be expected to remain so.

Tide Over -
Wait for a better time. Sailor's manual A Sea Grammar , 1627, which includes this earliest known citation of 'tide over': "To Tide ouer to a place, is to goe ouer with the Tide of ebbe or flood, and stop the contrary by anchoring till the next Tide."

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

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

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

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

Batten Down the Hatches -
Prepare for trouble. The securing of property, especially the covering with protective sheeting (tarpaulin), is called 'battening down'. A batten is a strip of wood used to secure the sheeting. It has a nautical origin and 'battening down' was done on ships when bad weather was expected.

Broad in the beam -
Having wide hips or buttocks. The widest point of a ship.

By and Large -
On the whole. When the wind is blowing from some compass point behind a ship's direction of travel it is said to be 'large'. Sailors would say to be 'by the wind' is to face into the wind or within six compass points of it. Tto sail 'by and large' required the ability to sail downwind and also against the wind.

Clean Bill of Health –
This widely used term has its origins in the document issued to a ship showing that the port it sailed from suffered from no epidemic or infection at the time of departure.

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

True colors -
Early warships often carried flags from many nations on board in order to elude or deceive the enemy. The rules of civilized warfare called for all ships to hoist their true national ensigns before firing a shot.

Holystone –
Soft sandstone, often used to scrub the decks of ships. Sailors had to kneel as if in prayer when scrubbing the decks. Holystone was often called so because it is full of holes.

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

Brought Up Short -
A sailing ship underway could only be brought to an emergency standstill by dropping the anchors. Not a pleasant experience. Used today to mean a person brought to an unexpected standstill by a sudden change of fortune or circumstance.

Dead Horse -
A ceremony held by British crews when they had been at sea four weeks and had worked off their initial advance, usually one month's wages (and usually long gone). The term 'flogging a dead horse' alludes to the difficulty of getting any extra work from a crew during this period, since, to them, it felt as though they were working for nothing.

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

and my personal favourites...

Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey -
On board sailing warships cannon balls were kept on deck in a brass frame, which had turned up ends to keep the balls from rolling off. It sort of looked like a monkey's tail and was actually refered to as a monkey. In cold weather the brass expanded faster than iron, the result is the balls would fall through the frame. Hence the phrase.

Chewing the fat -
The staple meat on board old sailing boats was salt pork. Men would chew it cold, and it took a lot of chewing. When you watched a group of them 'chewing the fat' it looked like they were in deep conversation.

The bitter end -
A bitt is a post on the deck of the ship to which lines were attached. When one has used used up all the rope at hand you are at 'the bitter end', nothing is left.

Cut and run -
To leave the dock in a hurry, usually with a bailiff hot on one's tail. Basically you cut all the lines and cast off.

Old British liners travelled down the coast of the continents. The view from the water side of the boat was boring. So for an addition amount of money one could get the side of the boat with the view of the shore. Tickets for passengers so gifted were marked "POSH" or "Port Out, Starboard Home". The best view being afforded.

Shake a leg -
Generally means to make an appearance, usually to get out of bed. Favourite source of this goes back to 19th century Royal Navy when women were permitted to stay on board when in port. Generally a means to identify who was in a bunk. The command was given to someone in a hammock, one could easily tell the difference between a woman and a hairy legged sailor.

In the offing -
The Offing is the part of the sea that can be seen from land. A watch was always held ftom shore when a boat was expected. Once seen it was then "In the offing" or soon to land. Anything in the offing is now used to describe an event or such that was soon to happen.

Loose cannon -
Cannons were restrained by ropes so that when fired and recoiled they could not do damage. Naturally a cannon that broke it restraints was a danger to the crew. We now refer to a dangerous individual as a Loose Cannon.

Panic stations -
The source of this is not as it seems. Warships in modern times would conceal guns to lure enemy ships to think they were attacking an unarmed ship. The command to "Action Stations" meant to man the guns. If unsuccessful, call was to Panic Stations, usually followed by Abandon Ship. Used as late as WW2 by HMS Prize to lure German U boats to surface when the True Colours were hoisted. These boats were also refered to as a Wolf in Sheeps Clothing.

Tell it to the marines -
Goes back to the days of the Royal Navy when the Marines were soldiers trained to serve and fight on the ships. A rather dense bunch according to the sailors, so if you needed a gullable ear for a tall story you were told to "Tell it to the marines"

Close Quarters -
This phrase has many meanings. The command to Close Quarters usually meant hand to hand fighting on boats. The area was sometimes defined by wooden barriers behind which refuge could be taken. Now we take to to mean limited room.

And some random thoughts and nonsense...

It is said that a captain of a vessel is allowed to perform marriages. Tales of how this came to pass was in old sailing days when crew were not allowed to leave a ship. In fact most of them never came back that jumped ship in harbour. However married men were allowed to have visits from wives. It was convenient for the captain to marry sailors in harbour. Even if they were only for the duration of ....

Flag protocol in the US dictated that the flag be lowered at sunset. Most other countries allowed the flag to be flown whenever the vessel is manned. Re flying the flag upside down as a sign of distress only Britian and US do so. When a vessel is abandoned by the crew, the flag is usually flown upside down as a sign that it was abandoned and may be claimed and salvaged by anyone.

The toilet on a boat is refered to as 'the head'. This is because sailing vessels had a 'direct flush' outhouse near the bow of the boat. This is because square rigged boats sailed with the wind and that blew the smell away from the decks. Most boats had a figurehead so going forward was shortened to "going to the head'.

Taping the Admiral- When Admiral Nelson was killed in The Battle of Trafalgar they sent his body back to England in a keg of rum to preserve it. When they got to England the admiral was still in the keg, but the rum was gone. From then on the Tars (sailors) in His Majestie's Navy refered to having a tot of rum as "Taping the Admiral".


Last updated July 21, 2012 August 10, 2012 9:56 PM