See the Sea.org
The historical significance of the sea is easy to see when one looks at our language. Many words and expressions originate from our relationship with the sea. Western civilization has its roots in the areas surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. From the earliest Phoenician and Greek cultures, over two thousand years ago, the Mediterranean Sea was not only essential for survival, providing food, but also in maintaining economic and social ties between the people living around the sea. The language used from these early times became permeated with nautical terms. The nautical terms became the one universal language understood by different cultures. Throughout the ages, new words and phrases have entered into our language from this continuing tie to the oceans. The English language gained many additions during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when British naval and merchant ships traveled the seas.
Some familiar words and phrases come unexpectedly from their use on the sea; from commonly used words like overwhelm (from the Middle English word meaning "to capsize") and casual (from the term "a casual" used to describe the wages paid to seamen between regular payments) to expressions like a "square meal" (from the square tray upon which the main meal of the day was served on early British warships) and "Please stand by" (an expression derived from the command for sailors to be ready).
Below we have assembled a list of some of the more common words and
phrases that relate to our connection to the sea:
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
A1: Originates from the top ranking given to a wooden ship in the Lloyd's Register, an organization founded in 1760 to examine merchant ships and classify them according to their condition.
Above board: Pirates would often hide much of the crew below the deck. The ships that displayed the crew openly on the deck were thought to be honest merchant ships known as "above board".
Abreast: Meaning along side the beam of a ship. Now a common expression, "keeping abreast of a situation" means staying in touch with or keeping up with.
Admiral: An admiral is a senior ranking officer and the word signifies a commander of a fleet, or part of a fleet, in all maritime nations. The root of the word is from the Arabic word amir meaning commander.
Adornings: Comes from the Latin term adornare meaning to embellish. Commonly used to refer to the ornate woodwork on the stern of old sailing ships. To adorn is to make something more attractive.
Adrift: Naval word for anyone or anything that cannot be found or has come undone. Ships are adrift when they are moved about at the will of the wind and tide. Adrift originates from the Middle English 'drifte' meaning to float.
Afternoon Watch: The sea watch from noon until 4 p.m.-- one of the seven watches used by the Royal British Navy.
Albatross around one's neck: An Albatross is a large and long-winged seabird of the Southern Hemisphere capable of long flights. It was believed among seamen that albatrosses embodied the souls of dead sailors and it was considered unlucky to kill one.
All at sea: Nautical expression to describe the condition of a vessel lost out of site of land. Now the expression or its shortened form "at sea" is used to describe someone who is confused, bewildered and unable to understand.
All hands on deck: A term used to tell all seamen to get to their stations or positions and prepare for action.
All sewn up: Dead sailors were "all sewn up" in a bit of canvas with a weight attached to make sure that the corpse sank deep in the water. Today this expression is used to describe something that is "all done" or completed.
Aloft: This comes from the Anglo-Saxon word 'alofts' meaning "on high." Now the word is commonly used in the nautical world to describe things overhead on a boat, on the mast or in the rigging.
Aloof: A nautical order to keep the ship's head to the wind, thus to stay clear of a lee shore or some other quarter. The front part of the sail which meets the wind is called the luff. A sailing vessel that could point higher to windward and hold its speed better than another was said to stand apart or to sail a-luff that later became aloof. Today the word is used to describe a person who is distant or stands apart from the others.
Any port in a storm: When trouble struck at sea, seamen would go to the nearest to "any port in a storm." Now this phrase has entered our everyday language and is used when we have problems and any and all help is welcome.
Armed to the teeth: This expression does not originate with pirates holding swords in their teeth, rather it is just one of many uses of the metaphorical phrase "to the teeth," meaning "very fully or completely".
As the crow flies:. The most direct route from one place to another without detours. Before modern navigational systems existed, British vessels customarily carried a cage of crows. These birds fly straight to the nearest land when released at sea thus indicating the direction of the nearest land was.
At a loose ends: A nautical term for a rope when unattached and therefore neglected or not doing its job. Thus 'tying up loose ends' indicates having done a complete job or having dealt with all the details.
At a rate of knots: To go at top speed. This is used to describe someone who is traveling or driving very fast.
Athwart: Lying along the ship's width, at right angles to the
vessels fore-and-aft line (centerline). Same as abeam.
Bale out: To bale out means to remove water from a vessel. Now the term is used in the sense of getting out of a bad situation such as selling the shares of a failing company.
Bamboozle: From the 17th century, it described the Spanish custom of hoisting false flags to deceive (bamboozle) enemies. Today if one intentionally deceives someone, they are said to have bamboozled them.
Bare Poles: Describes a sailing vessel with no sail set. A ship in a storm that has taken down all of her sails is with or under bare poles.
Barge in: The word barge refers to the more common, flat-bottomed workboat which is hard to maneuver and difficult to control. They would bump and bang into other boats thus the term . . . "barge in."
Batten down the hatches: Now used as a term meaning "get ready". The term originates from the act of securing the hatches and tarpaulins covering them on a boat with use of battens (long flat blades made of wood) in preparation for a coming storm.
Bear down: To approach something from upwind, to bear down is to sail fast, often towards the enemy in a threatening manner. Today to bear down is still used to describe "making a rush at", as well as exert strength or pressure upon something or to pay special attention in some situation.
Bedlam: The word originated from the name of a London mental hospital, St. Mary of Bethlehem Hospital, where the Royal Navy would discharge men for treatment of mental illness. Now the word is used to describe a state of extreme confusion and disorder.
Bell-Bottom Trousers: Originating aboard sailing vessels, the wide, flared, legs on bell-bottomed trousers are easy to roll up when working, cleaning or wading on a boat.
Bigwigs: Senior officers in the English Navy were known as "bigwigs" because they wore huge wigs. Bigwig officers aboard ships were often disliked. Today it is still used to refer to the most important person in a group or undertaking and is often used in a derogatory manner.
Bilge Water: Now slang for nonsense, the term bilge water is the water that collects and stagnates in the bilge of a ship.
Binge: Nautical term for rinsing or cleaning out something such as a cask of rum. Thus a sailor who had cleaned out such a rum cask was known to have a binge. Now the term is used to describe any act of immoderate indulgence of for example alcohol.
Bite the bullet: To bravely face up to something unpleasant, one is said to "bite the bullet". This originated from the practice of giving sailors and soldiers a bullet to bite during amputations or other surgery before the use of anesthetics.
Bitter End: The last part of a rope or final link of chain. The end attached to the vessel, as opposed to the "working end" which may be attached to an anchor, cleat, other vessel, etc. Today the term is used to describe a final, painful, or disastrous conclusion (however unpleasant it may be).
Black Book: Beginning in the 1300's, a collection of maritime laws and conduct became known as the Black Book of the Admiralty. The punishments for offenses were often harsh. Today, if you're name is in someone's black book, they believe you have offended them in some way.
Blood is thicker than water: A well known saying meaning that family relationships are more important than all other relationships. It was originally attributed to an U.S. Navy commodore Josiah Tattnail who used the expression when justifying his intervention in the British attack on the Peiho forts in June 1859 during the second China war.
Blood Money: Originally known as bounty money, it was the financial reward for sinking an enemy ship. Today blood money refers to money paid by a killer as compensation to the next of kin of a murder victim or money gained at the cost of another's life or livelihood.
Bolster: A piece of wood fitted in various places to prevent chafing. Today the term means to support and strengthen.
Brightwork: On a vessel, brightwork is the varnished woodwork and/or polished
Calm before the storm: Although not exclusively nautical, this has been attributed to seagoing folk as a result of their constant and intimate interaction with the weather. Although not known at the time, an approaching storm will drop the barometric pressure, creating a low directly ahead of the storm front. If a storm comes from a direction that is opposite to the prevailing winds, the prevailing breezes will eventually be overcome by the storm front. Just before this happens, however, there will be an equalization of wind speed from two opposing directions resulting in an absence of any wind. The meaning is not lost on landlubbers: Before someone explodes in anger, they almost invariably become overly quiet and, in some instances, even tranquil.
Canteen Medals: Naval name for stains down the front of jumper, jacket or coat caused by food or drink.
Careen: From the Latin carina (keel) or French carener. When hulls on old wooden ships needed to be cleaned, patched, caulked, etc., careening was the deliberate heeling to one side in order to accomplish these tasks. Usually this was done on a careenage -- a steep, sandy shoreline when the tide had gone out.
Carry away: Break off; to break a spar, bowsprit or part a rope. A spar is said to "carry away" when it is broken or disabled. When any part of a vessel's gear or equipment breaks or gives way, is lost or washed away, it is said to be "carried away."
Carry on: In the days of sail, the officer of the deck kept a weather eye constantly on the slightest change in the wind so that the sails could be reefed or added as necessary to ensure the fastest headway. Whenever a good breeze came along, the order to "carry on" would be given. It meant to hoist every bit of canvas the yards could carry. Through the centuries, the term's connotation has changed somewhat. Today the expression means to continue onward or go on with a given task.
Castaway: A shipwrecked or marooned sailor or, in some cases, a sailor put ashore as punishment. To cast away was to commit a deliberate act to cause a ship to sink, to be lost or to make it necessary to abandon her.
Cat-o'-nine-tails: Until 1881, an authorized instrument of punishment in the British Navy, composed of nine pieces of chord about half a yard long fixed upon a piece of thick rope for a handle. Each length of chord had three knots at close intervals near the striking end. Sailors were flogged with the cay on the bare back for transgressing "The Articles of War" (the rules of the service). A "thieves cat" had larger and harder knots than usual and was used only for punishing thieves.
Chandlery: A maker and seller of candles was known as a chandler and the place where candles were made and sold was a chandlery. Boats at that time consumed large amounts of candles on a voyage. To replace those consumed, the captain would have to visit the local chandlery while in port. Chandlers would often stock other nautical goods, such as rope, leather and tar. Today the term refers to a boat supply store.
Channel: From the Latin canal referring to the movement of water. It is the area within a body of water of adequate depth to be used for navigation.
Chew (chewing) the fat: Sailors used to talk and complain about the poor food while eating their salt pork. Chew the fat meant to talk socially without exchanging very much information. Alternately, in the days when brine was added to barrels of meat, it had a hardening effect on the fat. It was still edible but it took considerable chewing. So, to "chew the fat" has come to mean to talk endlessly.
Chock-a-block (Chock full): When the sails were pulled in tight so that the boat could sail as close to the wind as possible, the blocks (pulleys) would be pulled "hard-up" or in as tight or close together as possible. This would be called "chock-a-block," or chock full." Used in the modern-day sense of any articles (or people) that are packed in tightly together.
Clean Bill of Health: A widely used term which originates from the "Bill of Health", a document issued to a ship showing that the port it sailed from suffered from no epidemic or infection at the time of departure.
Clean Slate: It was the custom in sailing ships to record courses, distances and tacks on a log slate. The new watch would always start with a clean slate if things had been growing fine, disregarding what had gone before and starting anew. In a similar way, today we refer to a new beginning as starting with a "clean slate."
Clear the deck/Clear for action: In preparation for heavy weather, "Clear the deck," (or a naval engagement, "clear for action") meant removing anything from the deck that was not essential. Today, this phrase is usually used when preparing to start a project in order to be fully ready for the intake of all new information and needed materials.
Close Quarters: A small wooden fortress or barricade constructed on the deck of a ship. The term 'close quarters' has come to mean in close contact or a small area. Closed quarters referred to the quarters aboard ship, especially those for officers and passengers, which had wooden partitions or bulkheads dividing them.
Cock Up: In port, the yard arms where slewed inboard by the cock up crew and neatly braced so that they would not foul other ship's rigging or dock equipment Today, a "cock up" is a mistake or making a mess of something.
Combing the cat: When flogging a seaman, "combing the cat" meant to run fingers through the cat-o'-nine-tails after each stroke to separate the strands in preparation for the next stroke.
Come hell or high water: To do whatever it takes to accomplish a goal or arrive at a destination.
Come through the hawse-pipe: The hawse-pipe is a pipe in the ship's bow for the anchor cable to run through. Anybody who has risen to Captain from lowly deckhand is said to have "come up through the hawse-pipe." Today the expression is also used outside of the naval language.
Couple of shakes: Shakes refers to the shaking (luffing) of the head sails if the vessel points up too close to the wind. Sailors would measure short periods of time before watch changes with a "couple of shakes." Today the expression is used to mean in a short time period.
Cranky: From the Dutch krengd, a crank was an unstable sailing vessel. It has come to mean irritable.
Crew Cut: A short haircut given to the whole ship crew.
Cut and Run: Hurry off abruptly; to escape by a sudden maneuver. This phrase comes from the act of cutting the anchor line in an effort to make a quick getaway. Alternately, the saying comes from the cutting of the ropeyarns used to fasten the sails so the sails could fall quickly when the need to get under way was urgent.
Cup of Joe: From American Navy lore. Josephus Daniels (1862- 1948) was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913.
During his time as Secretary of the Navy, "Joe" Daniels abolished the
officers' wine, after which the strongest drink aboard Navy ships was
coffee. A cup of coffee became known as "a cup of Joe".
Davy Jones' Locker: Seamen's slang for the bottom of the sea. This expression is believed to be from the story that Davy Jones was the owner of a sixteenth-century London pub where unwary sailors were drugged and put in lockers and then awoke aboard ship to find they had been 'recruited' into the Navy.
Dead Horse (Flogging a dead horse): The term "flogging a dead horse" alludes to the difficulty of getting any extra work from a crew during a celebration held by British crews when they had been at sea four weeks and had worked off their initial advance (often one month's pay). At the expiration of the first month of the voyage, it was at one time customary to hoist in the rigging a canvas effigy of a horse. Today, "dead horse" refers to a debt to the government and/or advance of salary.
Dead in the Water: A sailing ship that is dead in the water is stationary with no wind in its sails to make it come alive. In everyday usage, the term means "not going anywhere".
Dead Reckoning: For many years, the practice of keeping a log based on estimated speed was called 'deduced' reckoning. Over time, this turned into dead reckoning. Dead reckoning is the process by which the position of the ship at any moment is found (without any observation of the sun or stars) based upon the last well-determined position and the run that has been made since that last position. For this purpose, the ship's course indicated by its compass, the distance indicated by the log, and drift and leeway were all taken into account.
Dead on end: Said of the wind when exactly ahead and of another vessel when her fore and aft line coincides with observer's line of sight.
Dead Soldier: An expression used for an empty bottle of wine, spirit or beer. Originally the expression was "dead Marine." In the late 1700 Duke of Clarence ordered the steward to remove the "dead marines" to make room for new bottles.
Deep Six: A fathom, the unit of measurement for the depth of the sea, is 6 feet. Sailors used the term to refer to throwing something overboard and it has come to mean getting rid of something ("deep sixing").
Deliver a broadside: A broadside was the simultaneous firing of the guns and/or canons on one side of a war ship. Today, it means much the same type of all-out, often verbal, attack.
Devil to pay, Devil and the deep blue sea: In traditional wooden ships, the sailors had to caulk or pay the seams with hot tar between the planks of the deck to prevent leakage into the bilge. The devil seam was topmost on the hull next to the scuppers at the edge of the deck and the longest and most difficult seam to caulk. Hence, if there was the "devil to pay," then this was the most difficult and dangerous job since the sailor might be knocked down by a large wave and find himself between the "devil and the deep blue sea." Today, the expression "devil to pay" is used to mean that there will be a big price to pay, and "devil and the deep blue sea" refers to being in a difficult or unpleasant position like being "between a rock and a hard place."
Dismantle: To unrig a vessel and discharge all of its stores.
Doesn't have both oars in the water: This is an expression used to describe someone that is thought to be slow or crazy, or just not all there.
Dog watch and Dogging the watch: This likely comes from the expression "dodge watch," the shorter of the seven lookout or watch duties on board a ship. A dog (or dodge) watch is two hours long while all other watches are four hours in duration.
Don't hand me a line: An expression now used to ask for a speaker to consider telling the truth. This originated from the frequent observation that the person speaking or telling a story would not be helping to tie up boat lines or ropes while docking, but rather leaving the job to the other sailors.
Don't rock the boat: Keep things the way they are.
Down the Hatch: This is a drinking expression that is believed to have its origins in sea freight where cargo was lowered into the hatch for transport below deck. The freight appeared to be consumed by the ship.
Dragging your anchor: When a vessel is caught in a storm and heading for land or rocks, they would drop anchor to try to avoid running aground. If the anchor did not grip, it would drag along the bottom. Today the expression refers to being impeded by something or of behaving or acting in a tired or slow manner.
Dressed to the nines: To celebrate victories, a returning ship would approach her home waters or port "dressed" in bunting and flags. As many of the crew as possible would line up on the nine primary yards as a salute to their monarch. Today the expression is often used to describe a person who is dressed in fancy clothing.
Drifting through life (Drifter). From the Middle English 'drifte' which means to float. Now used to describe a person without purpose or aim in life.
Dummy run: The naval name for a trial or practice in which all the motions are gone through but nothing else. The expression is therefore freely used in the navy to mean a rehearsal.
Dungarees: A coarse kind of unbleached cotton cloth. The term dates back to the 18th century, from the Hindi word 'dungri', a particular type of sturdy Indian cotton cloth that was used for making sails.
Dutch treat or going Dutch: This means sharing the expenses. The expression, intended to be negative, originated as a result of the hostility between the British and the Dutch during the 17th and 18th centuries during which there were trade disputes, shipping embargoes as well as war.
Dunnage: Technically, packing material used to protect or wedge in cargo or
stores. It is also used when referring to a person's clothes and/or baggage.
Everything on top and nothing handy: This is used to describe any gear carelessly stowed. The expression is believed to come from the lack of organization in the crew's storage chest.
To splice, ('episeer' French. 'splitster', Dutch, 'plico'
Latin) to join the two ends of a rope together, or to unite the end of a rope to any other part thereof. There are several different methods of performing this operation, according to the services on which it is to be employed. Thus, there is the short-splice, the long-splice,
the eye-splice, and the cunt-splice-- all of which are used for different purposes. The "eye-splice"
is intended to make a sort of eye or circle at the end of a
Fathom: This was originally a land measuring term derived from the Anglo-Saxon word 'fætm' meaning the embracing arms, or to embrace. In those days, most measurements were based on average sizes of parts of the body. A fathom is the average distance from fingertip to fingertip of the outstretched arms of a six-foot tall man hence six feet.
Fathom it: (see fathom above) In the days of sailing vessels, soundings were made by lowering a lead weight on hemp line. As the line was retrieved, it was measured with outstretched arms. Today the expression "can't fathom it" means that we don't understand or can't work it out or, more close to the origination, we can't find the depth of the meaning in something.
Feeling Blue: Today 'feeling blue' means being sad or depressed. It comes from a custom that was practiced when a ship lost its captain during a voyage. The ship would fly blue flags and have a blue band painted along her hull when she returned to port.
Feeling down in the doldrums: "Feeling down in the doldrums" originates from the area near the equator known as "The Doldrums" where light winds make sailing difficult or impossible.
Feeling under the weather: This refers to feeling ill or sick and came from the frequency of ship passengers becoming seasick in heavy weather.
Fend off: To fend a boat or ship is to prevent her striking against any quay, jetty, vessel or any object that may endanger her. Hence a fender is an object used to soften the blow. To "fend off" is to prevent another vessel or object (quay, jetty, etc.) from striking a boat or ship. We use it more commonly in the sense of keeping something away or even in fending off an attack (even a verbal one) of some kind.
Field day: Originally a day for cleaning all parts of the vessel. Today the expression is used to reference a good time; "Have a field day".
Figurehead: An ornamental figure placed on the front of a ship often under the bowsprit. Originally, the figure was often thought to be a religious and/or protective emblem. Today the term figurehead describes a leader with no real power or function, much like the figurehead on the front of a ship.
Filibuster: From the Dutch for 'vrybuiter' (freebooter) translated into French as 'flibustier'. It is now used as a political term meaning to delay or obstruct the passage of legislation by non-stop speech making. The term originated from the Buccaneers known in England as filibusters who would stop sailing vessels.
Fits the bill: A Bill of Lading was used to acknowledge receipt of goods and the promise to deliver them to their destination in good or like condition. Upon delivery, the goods were checked against the Bill of Lading to see if all was in order. If so, they "fit the bill".
First-Rate: Today the expression is used to describe something as being best. Originally, this term referred to the largest and most heavily armed ship using the old system of grading English ships.
Flag of Convenience: When beneficial ownership and control of a vessel is found to lie elsewhere than in the country of the flag the vessel is flying, the vessel is considered as sailing under a flag of convenience.
Flake out: In order to keep the anchor chain of a ship in good condition, the chain would be flaked (laid out in a way to avoid tangle) on the deck in order to make repairs. Today the expression means to not complete a task or action, to fall asleep or to be overcome especially by exhaustion.
Flannel: A naval slang word for insincerity or "Hot air" .
Flimsy: Today the word is used to describe something that is weak or insufficient. The word originated from the paper certificate issued to an officer when leaving an appointment to show as to his previous conduct. The paper was known as the flimsy.
Flogging a dead horse. The term "flogging a dead horse" alludes to the difficulty of getting any extra work from a crew during a celebration held by British crews when they had been at sea four weeks and had worked off their initial advance that was often one month's pay. At the expiration of the first month of the voyage it was at one time customary to hoist in the rigging a canvas effigy of a horse. Today "dead horse" refers to a debt to the government/or advance of salary.
Flogging the glass: Old Naval term for being early for an appointment or doing anything earlier than planned. The expression originated from the half-hour sandglass used during sea watch to measure time "Flogging the glass" was when the hourglass was shook in order to shorten the watch.
Floozies: Women who were let aboard during the time a vessel was in port. A general term today for loose women.
Flunkey: A sailors' nickname for an Officers' Steward or a Marine acting as a Ward Room Attendant. In a more general, everyday sense, it is applied to anyone perceived as a subordinate, minion, hanger-on etc.
Fluky: A light wind at sea that does not blow steadily from any one direction, hence a wind that is light and variable.
Fly-by-night: The term comes from replacing several smaller, more intricate sails which require less attention than the large sail which are generally used at night and for downwind sailing. Today the term is used to refer to a "flaky" person who avoids their responsibilities and does not do things in a proper manner.
Footloose and Footloose and Fancy-Free: The word comes from the term for the bottom of the sail that is known as the foot of the sail which must be attached to the boom. If it is not properly attached it may become footloose causing the vessel not to sail properly. Footloose and fancy-free have come to mean someone acting without commitment.
Forging ahead: A naval term for going ahead slowly. Today the phrase is used to mean continuing or "press on", but not always slowly.
Foul up: To foul is a nautical term meaning entangled. The expression ""foul up simply means to error or "screw up".
Freeze the balls off a brass monkey: Cannon balls where piled on deck beside the cannon, pyramid fashion, and retained in a brass monkey or ring. If the weather was very cold the brass ring would contract faster than the iron cannon balls thus causing some of them to topple. From this, the expression was, and is today, used to describe something which is very cold.
From stem to stern: An expression for all-inclusive or very thorough. The expression comes from the nautical term stem or very front of a ship and stern or very back of a ship. From stem to stern means the entire ship.
Fudge (as used in expressions like "fudging the
books"): This expression is believed to come from a Captain Fudge,
also known as "Lying Fudge" who was a notorious liar in the 17th Century.
Galley: The galley is the kitchen of the ship. The best explanation as to its origin is that it is a corruption of gallery. Ancient sailors cooked their meals on a brick or stone gallery laid amidships.
Gangway: A nautical word for "Get out of the way," often used as an order to step aside for a superior naval officer.
Get cracking: The expression "get cracking" means to get moving or hurry up. It is a common slang expression indicating the importance of haste. It possibly comes from the old sailing expression "cracking on" meaning "to speed more sails".
Get Hitched: This is a common term used to describe the act of marriage. It comes from the act of joining or hitching two ropes together to form one.
Give a wide berth: Today this means to keep a safe distance which is the same as the nautical origination to avoid a collision by giving a large distance between maneuvering vessels.
Give Leeway: From the practice of allowing extra room off a dangerous lee (downwind) shore in case of error or mishap in order to allow the vessel extra distance to maneuver in an emergency. Today it is used to describe being more patient with someone or giving a little extra room to maneuver.
Give me some slack: An expression that originated during the docking of a ship. One would alternately tension the line in your hands and then release. The call would be to "give me some slack" when it was your turn to "haul". Today, it still means much the same thing as when used in referenced to the boating world. The term is also now used synonymous with "give me a break".
Gob-stoppers: The expression is thought to originate in the nautical practice of placing a grapeshot in the mouth (gob) of an over-talkative ship's youngster. The term refers to a large, round, hard candy, also know as a jawbreaker.
Go off on another tack: To alter one's course of action from that previously followed. The expression originates from the zig-zag or tacking action when sailing into the wind.
Go overboard: This refers to an over-enthusiastic person being carried away by his emotions or commitment.
Go to the Head: This is synonymous with going to the toilet. The expression comes from the fact that on sailing ships, the toilet was located forward, close to the figurehead or the "head" of the vessel.
Go with the flow: An expression for sailing in the same direction as the current flow that makes the passage smoother and faster. Later this term was used to mean taking things easier or being more relaxed, or getting in step with surrounding events.
Gripe: A sailing vessel 'gripes' when she can not properly sail close hauled (at a angle close to the direction of the wind) due to being incorrectly designed or because she has an imbalance of sail which results in bow (front) heading into the wind when sailing close-hauled. The sails flap around and forward progress is difficult. The term is now used to mean complain.
Grog (Groggy): This originates from the nickname the British sailors had for their Commander, Admiral Vernon, who wore a cloak made of a coarse cloth called grogram. Admiral Vernon became known as "Old Grog". In 1740, he ordered his men to dilute their daily ration of rum with water. Today the term is used to mean an alcoholic drink.
Ground swell: A sudden swell or rise of water near the shore that often occurs in otherwise calm conditions. It is caused by undulating water from a far away storm. Today the term means a growing change in public opinion.
Gung Ho: This term originated as a Chinese expression used to describe ship crews when they
would join together to make it through a difficult situation. The term was
brought into the English vocabulary when WWII Marine
Lieutenant Colonel Carlson used the term for a motto for his division.
Today the expression is synonymous with excited or ready for action.
Hail from: To hail, call to, or salute to other passing vessels has long been a nautical custom. The expression to "hail from" was used to acknowledge a passing vessel and to simultaneously inform the other vessel of the hailing vessels home port or area of origin. The expression is now used to inform people where you come from.
Halcyon Days: Originally this expression has its roots in Greek mythology. Halcyone was the daughter of Aeolus and wife of Ceyx. When Ceyx drowned, it is said that Halcyone threw herself into the sea. Out of pity, the gods changed the pair into kingfishers also known as halcyons. The gods also forbade the winds from blowing seven days before and after the winter solstice. This is the breeding season of the halcyon. The expression "halcyon days" has come to mean a time of peace and tranquility.
Hand over fist: The expression "hand over fist" means to go forth rapidly in some endeavor, such as, making money hand over fist. Originally the expression came from the act of quickly climbing the rigging of the old sailing ships " hand over hand" or "hand over fist".
Hard and fast: An expression used to describe inflexibility, such as, a hard and fast rule The term is nautical in origination and was used to describe a ship grounded on the shore; 'hard' meaning firmly and 'fast' meaning fixed.
Hard up: An expression now used to mean short of money. Originally when a sailing crew was ordered to tighten the sails, the blocks would be "hard up" meaning hauled together as close as possible.
Hasn't got a clue: With nautical origins, the clew refers to the corner of the sail where a brass ring is sewn into the fabric of the sail in order to properly hold the sail in place. If a clew should rip, the sail would loose shape and the vessel will not sail in a controlled manner. Until it is refastened, it "hasn't got a clew," or needs to "get clewed up" again. Today if someone "hasn't got a clue" then they do not understand or are not knowledgeable. To "get clued up" is to learn about or to come to fully understand something.
Haze or Hazing: Today this word is used to refer to an initiation ritual of a newcomer to a group by humiliating and harassing him or her, thereby asserting the authority of the group. Originally hazing was the practice of captains asserting their authority by having a ship's crew work all hours of the day or night, whether needed or not, in order to make them generally miserable thereby more humble and easier to manage.
Head: The lavatory aboard a ship is known as the "head." The expression comes from the fact that on the sailing ships the toilet was located forward, close to the figurehead or the "head" of the vessel.
Heave to: To stop or slow a sailing vessel by placing some of the canvas (often the jib) back against the wind and placing the main in a close haul position while fastening the rudder in a fixed position. The expression is also used to mean stopping. However, this is not used as commonly as it once was.
High and Dry: Today the expression is synonymous with being without resources or support. Originally used to describe a ship that is beached or on the rocks. She is left 'high' by the receding tide and 'dry' by being out of the water.
Hit the deck: To fall or drop suddenly, usually to evade some danger.
Holy Mackerel: Because mackerel is a fish that spoils quickly, merchants were allowed to sell it on Sundays contradicting the blue laws in 17th-century England. The phrase "Holy Mackerel!" is still used today as an expression of surprise and/or astonishment.
Horse Latitudes: This is the area of relatively calm weather conditions found from latitudes 30 degrees North to 30 degrees South. The expression is said to come from the story that sailing ships carrying horses to America, when traversing these latitudes, had to throw horses overboard in order to lighten their vessels to make headway.
Hot pursuit: A term originating from the naval warfare tactic of allowing a fleeing enemy to be followed into neutral waters and captured there if the chase had begun in international waters. Today it is used to mean closely follow or chase.
Hulk: A nautical expression for an old sailing vessel that is no longer seaworthy. The larger vessels were sometimes stripped of their rigging and used for in-port storage. Today expressions like "He was a great 'hulk' of a guy" means he was a big man.
Hunky-Dory: This term, meaning everything is alright, originated
from a street named "Honki-Dori" in Yokohama, Japan. This street
was known by the sailors as the street that catered to the pleasures of
sailors. If life was Honki
Dori, a sailor had money, plenty of grog, and a pretty girl.
Idler: This was the name for those members of a ship's crew, such as cooks and sail-makers, that did not stand night watch because of their work.
In Irons: This is a term used to describe the position of a sailing vessel with the bow or front facing directly into the wind so that neither side of the sails fill.
In the Drink: Is a term used to indicate that someone has fallen into the water.
In the Doldrums: Doldrums is the name of an area of the ocean on either side
of the equator. This area is known to have unstable and light wind
conditions. A sailing ship caught in the Doldrums can be stranded due to lack of wind.
Today the term is used to describe someone as being in low spirits, stagnated or
Jibes (Gybes): This is the term to describe the often unwelcomed and possibly violent and dangerous swing of the boom and sail from one side of the vessel to the other. This is brought about when a boat sailing down wind alters course or when the wind changes direction so that the wind passes from one side of the stern to the other. The term is also now used when referring to negative, unwelcomed remarks about or to another person.
Junk: Refers in a nautical sense to an old rope no longer able to take a load.
Jury Rig: This term describes something that is assembled in a makeshift
manner offering nothing more than a temporary solution. It originates from the
nautical term "jury mast," which is a temporary mast made from any available
pole when the mast has become damaged or lost overboard. This term gave
rise to the term 'jury rigging' to describe an attempt to place certain persons
as jurors in a court proceeding in an effort to assure a particular legal
Keel hauling: This was a naval punishment during the 15th and 16th centuries. The crew member who was to be punished was dragged under the bottom of the boat from one side of the boat to the other. The term "keel-hauled" is still used to mean a severe punishment.
Keel over: This describes the action of a boat that rolls over, often as a result of a strong wind gust. Today the expression is often used in reference to a person being emotionally "turned over" or upset as well as a reference to a person dying.
Keep an even keel: A nautical term for keeping a boat upright, not heeling over to either side. Today the expression is used when describing a persons emotions. To "keep an even keel" is to remain level headed or emotionally stable.
Keeping a weather eye open: This expression comes from the importance of a sailing crew staying alert and looking for potential trouble such as approaching bad weather. Today it has a similar use, meaning to generally watch out for trouble.
Knot: The term knot is used worldwide to denote one's speed through water and means the number of nautical miles per hour. One nautical mile is equal to 1852 meters or 1.15 statute miles. The term comes from the method of using a rope or line marked with knots at even intervals to measure the boats speed. At one end of the line there would be a log or some other type of sea anchor that was thrown over from the stern. The knotted line was allowed to run freely for a specific amount of time after which it was hauled back onboard where the number of knots could be counted giving the number of knots of forward speed.
Know the ropes: This is a term that originally meant to
know the proper use of the many ropes the older sailing vessels had. Today the
term means to be accomplished or be proficient at some particular job or task.
Lay of the land: Nautically to "know the lay of the land" was important for navigation as well as an indicator of what the seafloor may be like. If the land is flat and sandy, the seabed is likely to be shallow and sandy.
Leading light: It was customary to mark the entry to a port with a line of leading lights to show the way. Someone who shows the way or is a leader is called a "leading light".
Learning the ropes: This expression has come to mean generally learning how to perform some specific task or gain skill within some particular field of endeavor. The term comes from the important task of learning the use of the many ropes aboard a sailing vessel.
Letting the Cat out of the bag: This term comes from the old naval punishment of being whipped with a "cat o' nine tails." The whip was kept in a leather bag and when the sailors "let the Cat out of the bag" they had usually done something that would result in punishment. The term is used today to mean that someone has said something that was not to be said or revealed a secret.
Like rats deserting a sinking ship: This is a derogatory term for a person who leaves a given situation at the first sign of trouble, just as rats were said to leave a sinking ship.
Like ships passing in the nights: This expression indicates a meeting or passing which had a low probability of occurring just as it was unlikely that ships met at night on the sea when boat traffic was little and before navigational aids such as radar were used.
Limey: A term that was used to refer to a British sailor, now this is also used generally to indicate a British person. The term came from the seventeenth and eighteenth century practice of issuing limes to British sailors to combat scurvy (a vitamin C deficiency).
Listing to port: Today this phrase is used to describe someone who appears to be unsteady on their feet, perhaps from the effects of fatigue or alcohol. The term is from the nautical term "listing to port" which means the vessel is leaning towards the left or portside.
Log book: Today a record kept on a regular basis aboard ship is called a "log." The term comes from the fact that these records were originally kept by inscribing information into shingles cut from logs and hinged so they opened like books.
Loose Cannon: Today the term "loose cannon" refers to someone who is out of control, unpredictable, and who may cause damage, just as the canons would do if they were to break loose on the decks of the old sailing vessels.
Loose Ends: Today the term "at loose ends" is used to reference someone who has spare time and does not know what to do with themselves. The term comes from the practice of having the ship's crew members repair and splice the ship's ropes when they didn't have something else to do. The crew member performing this task was said to be at "loose ends."
Loose lips sink ships: This term originated during World War II by the US military and was meant as a reminder that classified information was never to be discussed as it posed unnecessary risks for naval ships. Today the term is used to refer to the act of generally saying something that should not be said.
Lubber or Landlubber: This term is used to mean a big, awkward or clumsy
person. The term landlubber originated as a derogatory term for an
inexperienced seaman who
may be better off on land.
Maiden voyage: A term to reference a ship's first voyage. Today the term is applied to most any type of first trip, whether it is a first trip in a new car or the first voyage to a new place.
Main stay: Part of the standing rigging on a sailboat, it is the cable or rope which supports the mast from the front of the boat to the top of the mast. Today it's use in the vernacular, as in "He was the mainstay of the organization," meaning someone or something on which there is a principal dependence.
Marooned: This term is used for an old punishment for mutineers. It consisted of placing the person on a remote island with very limited supplies and leaving them to their fate. Today the term is used synonymous with stranded.
May Day: 'Mayday' is the internationally recognized voice radio signal for ships and people in serious trouble at sea. The word comes from the French m'aidez which means "help me".
Mind your P's and Q's: Sailors would get credit at the taverns in port until they were paid. The barman would keep a record of their drinks on a chalkboard behind the bar. A mark was made under "P" for pint or "Q" for quart. On payday, the sailors were liable for each mark next to his name, so he was forced to "mind his P's and Q's." Today the term means to remain well behaved.
Miss the mark: This expression comes from sailing where the "mark" is a rounding
or buoy that sailboats competing in a regatta must sail around before turning
towards the next mark or finish line. If a sailboat misses the mark, it must
complete a 360-degree circle before continuing the race as a penalty. Today the
expression is used when one did not achieve an intended goal or
complete a plan.
Nautical: The term 'Nautical' originates from the Greek word 'nauti' meaning sailor.
No room to swing a cat: During the whipping punishment using the "cat o' nine tails," all hands were called on deck to witness. With a full crew, the deck could be so crowded that the cat o' nine tails was difficult to use without hitting other crew members. In other words, there was "no room to swing a cat." Today the expression is used to indicate crowded or packed surroundings.
Now You're talkin': This was originally an expression used by sailors to
indicate that the sails were set correctly and the ship was balanced. The
tem is still used to indicate agreement with what someone else is saying or
a particular course of action.
Off and On: An expression meaning at some times or occasionally. It originated as an old naval expression meaning close to the shore by sailing off and on or away from and towards the shore.
Old Salt: Nautical term for old, retired sailor or someone with many years of sailing experience. The term is also used to mean a "genuine" kind of a person.
On an even keel: This is a term to indicate that a vessel has no lean or tilt towards either side. The expression is often used to reference something or someone in a state of stability and balance.
On the wrong tack: This was originally a nautical term for a sailing vessel which is sailing a bit too close to the wind for that particular tack. The expression is also used to reference someone approaching a task or problem from the wrong direction or continuing in the wrong direction.
Over a barrel: Sailors being punished were sometimes tied over a cannon barrel when being whipped. Today the expression is used when someone is in a bad situation and that there is often no other possible course of action.
Overhaul: An expression which refers to the action of the crew going aloft to adjust and replace ropes or lines to avoid chaffing while sailing. Today the word means to maintain things in a working condition or to improve upon the current condition, for example to overhaul or make repairs on a car.
Over-reach: This is an expression that originally meant to continue to sail longer upon a tack than is necessary in order to reach a given point. Today the term is used in a general sense of exceeding a limit or having gone too far or over-extended in some venture.
Overwhelm: This term comes from the Middle English word meaning "to
capsize" or overturn a vessel. Today the term is synonymous with being overcome,
defeated or to capitulate.
Passed with flying colors: This expression comes from the custom of sailing ships that would fly their colors or put up their flags and pennants if they wanted to be identified when passing other ships at sea. Today this expression is used to refer to someone who has passed a test or some other type of trial with a great margin.
Perks: This word comes from the naval abbreviation of the word "perquisites" meaning the allowances or benefits (often money) offered with any specific office or appointment. Today the word is used outside of the navy and is synonymous with benefit or advantage, like getting a company car for ones own use.
Pidgin English: This is a term used to reference the limited or altered English language spoken by non-native English speaking people. The term is likely taken from the phonetic translation of the Chinese word meaning business, as this form of English was often used in commercial trade in ports outside of Europe.
Pipe Down: This originally nautical term was used as an officer's whistle sound denoting the completion of an above-deck work shift and thereby giving permission to go below. This expression is now used to mean "be quiet" or keep quiet".
Plumb the depths: This is an expression meaning to find out what's going on or to fully investigate something. Originally the phrase "plumb the depths" came from the plumb or lead weight attached to a rope used to test the depth of the water.
Pooped: This word is used to denote the swamping of an aft deck when sailing down wind in high following seas. Today the word is used synonymously with worn-out or fatigued, perhaps as the crew member may have been on a "pooped" deck.
Port Holes: Today the term is used to describe the windows, or openings on a vessel. The word originates from the French word porte which means door. The expression "port hole" originated when French boat builders began to install small doors on the side of ships which could be opened to shoot the cannons.
Port and Starboard: Port is the nautical term for left and starboard means right. Originally the words come from the old sailing ships that did not have a rudder and were steered using a board on the right side which became known as the "steerboard" side, the other side of the vessel was called the port side as the boat was docked on this side so as to not interfere with the steering board.
Posh: Today this word means superior or fashionable and expensive. The word originated in colonial Boston where the trunks of the wealthy passengers would have the label "POSH", which stood for "Portside Out Starboard Home" instructing the luggage handlers where to place the luggage to avoid intense sun exposure.
Push the boat out: This is an old navel expression meaning to have drinks all round or to celebrate lavishly.
Put a new slant on things: This expression refers to the fact that sailing vessels have an optimum angle of heel and experienced sailors know when to "put a new slant on things" to achieve this optimum slant or angle. Today the expression is used to indicate a new approach or that one is looking at an issue from a different perspective.
Rake you from stem to stern: This expression refers to the attempt during battle between ships to maneuver in a way as to have the opponents stem or stern facing your cannons so they could be fired to "rake the ship from stem to stern".
Rise and shine: This was part of a traditional naval morning call-out to the crew. The expression is now used outside the Navy meaning to awaken and be alert.
Round robin: This is an expression rooted in British nautical tradition. Sailors planning a mutiny would sign their names in a circle so the leader could not be identified. Today the term is often used in sporting events and competitions when referring to a series of games in which all members of a league play each other one time.
Stay on an even keel: This is a term to indicate that a vessel has no lean or tilt towards either side. The expression is often used to reference something or someone in a state of stability and balance.
Stem the tide: An expression originally used to mean that a ship was sailing against the tide fast enough to make headway over the ground or to move faster than the tide in the opposite direction. Today the expression means to stop, slow, or prevent an event.
Stick in the mud: This expression was originally used to refer to someone of no consequence, such as a pirate or mutineer, which came from the old English practice of burying executed criminal seamen in the mud of the Thames river. Today the expression is used to mean someone not likely to be persuaded or change.
Stranded: This word was originally used to describe a vessel that has been driven aground during a storm. Today stranded is synonymous with stuck, marooned or abandoned.
Swashbuckler: Swashbuckler has become synonymous with
adventurer, explorer or traveler. The word originated in the 1500's,
and was used to refer to below average swordsman.
Taken Aback: This is a term used to describe the position of a sailing vessel with the bow or front facing directly into the wind so that neither side of the sails fill. Today the expression is used to describe a sense of being surprised or shocked by an unforeseen event.
Take someone down a peg or two: This expression comes from the fact that the flags of old sailing vessels were raised or lowered using pegs. To lower a flag meant to surrender. Today the expression is still used to mean to deflate someone's ego or lower someone's status.
Take the wind out of his sails: Today this expression means to stop someone's forward momentum in some venture or to 'bring someone back down to reality'. The term comes from literally taking the wind out of someone's sails by sailing upwind or to windward, causing the other vessels to slow or stop.
Taking the wrong tack: This was originally a nautical term for a sailing vessel which is sailing a bit too close to the wind for that particular tack. The expression is also used to reference someone approaching a task or problem from the wrong direction or continuing to go off in the wrong direction.
Tally: The word originally comes from the tally stick used in checking or counting cargo from a vessel. Today the word means to count or add up as in 'taking a tally of his money'.
Thar she blows. Today an expression meaning 'there it is.' Originally this was the cry of the crew on a whaling boat when a whale was spotted.
Three sheets to the wind: This expression meant that one did not have control of the vessel because one had lost control of the sheets or lines. Today the expression is used to refer to someone who is drunk or does not have control of himself or herself.
Tide-Waiter: This expression refers to someone who waits to see the trend of events before taking action, much like ship captains wait for tides to continue on a given course.
Time and Tide waits for no man: This phrase refers to procrastination. Act now as the time and tide will continue regardless of one's actions.
Took the wind out of his sails: Today we use this expression to describe getting the overhand or the best of an opponent in an argument. Originally it described a battle maneuver of sailing ships whereby they would take the wind out of the opponents sails by sailing upwind or to windward causing the other vessels to slow or stop.
Touch and go: If a vessel goes aground and then slips off, she is said to "touch and go." Today the expression is used to mean a close call, a near thing or something where the outcome is unsure.
Try a new tack: A tack is the way the sails are set relative to the direction of the wind. If one tack is not working or not the most efficient, then one can "try a new tack". The expression is used generally to mean to try something different.
Under the weather: This expression came from boat passengers who would go down to lower levels or 'under the weather' where the rocking of the ship was less. Today the expression is used to describe someone who is generally not feeling well.
Wash Out: This expression means that something is a disappointment or failure or that someone is a failure. The expression originates from the recording of naval signals that were written on a slate that was wiped clean when the message was complete.
Weather the storm: An expression used to mean that a person or thing was able to withstand, endure or resist a difficult situation. The expression comes from the vessels and the reference to their ability to weather the storms.
Whipping boy: Whipping the end of a rope is to wrap a light line around the ends to prevent the lines from unraveling. If this was not done correctly, the crew member who had done the job would become the 'whipping boy' and face punishment. Today, the expression is used to describe someone who takes the blame for others.
Whole nine yards: This expression means everything or all encompassing. The expression comes from the old square-rigged sailing vessels that had three masts with three yards of sails on each. The whole nine yards meant all sails were up.
Windfall: This is synonymous with a stroke of luck, a turn of luck, or a financial gain. Originally the word was used to refer to a rush of wind which would help a vessel's forward movement. Today, it means a stroke of good luck.
Windward: This word means to be upwind. It is now also a naval expression meaning to gain an advantage.
Yacht: A yacht is a vessels used mainly for pleasure. The word 'yacht' comes from the Dutch word 'jacht' that means to hurry. It has been Anglicized to yacht. The word yacht only applied to light fast vessels in its early usage.
Zig-Zag: This is the action of a sailing boat tacking to windward.
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