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.
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 continue today to be used by seafarers and their shore-based counterparts.
A - D
A1 First class. A1 was the highest classification awarded to wooden ships by Lloyd’s Register. 'A' refers to the quality of the ship’s hull and '1' to her equipment.
Above board Legal, open and honest. ‘Board’ in this connection is the deck and things ‘above board’ are in the open and available for all to see.
Aloof Distant (as in a person’s demeanour, with head back and nose in the air); standing apart. Originally, a nautical order to keep the ship’s head to the wind to keep clear of a lee shore. Also refers to a vessel that draws apart from others as a result of sailing higher into the wind.
As the crow flies The shortest distance between two points. Crows were customarily carried on board ships. If a vessel wanted to head to the nearest land, it would release a crow, which would fly towards land by the most direct route. The lookout platform at the top of the tallest mast became known as the ‘crow’s nest’.
Bearing down Approaching someone or something, usually at speed. ‘Bearing’ refers to a ship’s heading relative to the wind. To ‘bear down’ is to approach an object or another ship from upwind. To ‘bear away’ is to head away from the wind. ‘Bearing up’ is heading into the wind without making much progress. The phrase is used these days to mean managing or getting by in adverse circumstances.
Between the devil and the deep blue sea In a difficult position, such that whatever action is taken, the consequences are unpleasant. The ‘devil’ was the longest outside seam between the two planks on a wooden ship. This was caulked with ‘pay’ (tar or pitch) by a seaman hanging over the side. Hence, ‘There’ll be the devil to pay’, meaning that the consequences of an action (or inaction) will be unpleasant.
By and large Generally speaking. Sailing 'by' the wind meant going to windward. Sailing ‘large’ meant sailing slightly off the line of the wind.
I can’t fathom it 'I can’t understand it'. A fathom is 6 ft, or the distance from fingertip to fingertip when arms are outstretched. A ship’s depth soundings were taken by a lead weight on a line and measured with outstretched arms. If it could not be measured, it could not be ‘fathomed’.
Chewing the fat Talking idly and at length over a subject or subjects. In the days before refrigeration, salted beef and pork was a sailor’s staple meat ration. This required prolonged chewing to make it edible.
Chock-a-block Full up. Describes two blocks of hauling tackle pulled together as tight as possible.
Clean bill of health Used when someone or something has been pronounced healthy. A bill of health was the certificate given to show that a ship was disease-free on departure.
Clean slate A fresh start, with old problems wiped out. On board ship, watch keepers would record details such as courses, distances, speeds and tacks on slate tablets using chalk. If there were no problems during the watch, the slate was wiped clean ready for the next watch.
Copper-bottomed Extremely reliable, sound (usually in connection with an investment or guarantee). Refers to copper plating used to protect the bottom of wooden ships from worm damage.
Dead reckoning A method of establishing one’s position using the distance and direction travelled. Mariners would plot a course and expected position according to last known position, time, compass course and present speed, without allowing for variables such as wind speed and direction, currents and drift. Originally ‘deduced’ reckoning, this became ‘de’d’, ‘ded’ and then ‘dead’ reckoning.
D - K
Dogsbody A person who carries out menial tasks. Meals made from leftovers mixed with ship’s biscuits were known as ‘dogsbody’. This poor-quality food was fed to those with the lowest status, who then became known as ‘dogsbodies’.
Down in the doldrums Depressed or feeling low. Refers to an area near the Equator called the Doldrums where light winds made sailing difficult.
Down the hatch To drink often by taking a generous mouthful or emptying the glass. Refers to cargo being lowered into a ship’s hold.
Dutch treat Sharing the cost of something (also referred to as ‘going Dutch’). In the mid-17th century, the British and Dutch were often at war. The Dutch were regarded as miserly and cowardly. Hence ‘Dutch courage’, meaning drinking alcohol to get the necessary courage to fight in battle.
I’ll eat my hat An offer traditionally made if something very unlikely happens. Sailors kept their chewing tobacco in their hats, causing the linings to become soaked in sweat and tobacco juice. If they ran out of tobacco they would chew on the linings of their hats.
Feeling blue To be sad, depressed or unhappy. A ship that lost any of its officers during a spell at sea would enter its home port flying blue flags and with a blue line painted around the hull.
To fit the bill To be correct or in order - for example, when the goods at delivery conform with those listed on a bill of lading.
First rate Excellent, well done. In the 17th century, warships were classified according to a rating system. Originally a ship’s rating was based on the number of crew, but this was later changed to a system based on the number and weight of guns. Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist, who provided personal accounts of the Great Plague, the Fire of London and the second Anglo-Dutch War was Secretary to the Admiralty. In 1677, he revised the rating classification such that a first-rate ship carried 90-100 guns.
Flogging a dead horse To waste time doing something that will not succeed. Sailors were generally paid one month’s wages at the start of a voyage so that they could pay off any debts they had run up ashore. Sailors called the first month at sea ‘dead horse’ time, because they were working hard (also called ‘flogging’) for nothing. The end of the first month was celebrated by making an effigy of a horse, parading it around the ship, hauling it up a mast, setting fire to it and throwing it into the sea.
Fly-by-night An unreliable person. Refers to the use of a large, single, more easily managed sail at night in place of several smaller sails, thus requiring less attention.
Footloose and fancy free Used to describe someone who is single, unattached and therefore carefree. The bottom of a sail where it attaches to the boom is known as the ‘foot’. If loose, the vessel is more difficult to control.
Freeze the balls off a brass monkey Very cold, as in ‘cold enough to ...’ Brass trays, known as ‘monkeys’, were used to store pyramids of iron cannon balls. In cold weather, the trays would contract faster than the iron cannon balls, causing the pyramids to unbalance and the cannon balls to topple over.
Give someone a wide berth To stay away from someone or to keep a distance from them. Ships at anchor would leave space between them so as not to hit each other as they swung on the tide or in the wind.
Gone by the board Done or finished with. Originally used to refer to something that had gone over the ship’s side.
Go with the flow Content to acquiesce in something. The description refers to the ebb and flow of the tide.
G - P
Groggy Unsteady, dazed or confused. Each crew member received a daily rum ration. Because of continued drunkenness, Admiral Edward Vernon started to dilute his crews’ daily rum ration. This practice was then adopted throughout the navy. Seamen referred to Vernon as ‘Old Grog’, after his coats made of grogram, a coarse mixture of wood, mohair and silk stiffened with gum. The diluted rum itself became known as ‘grog’, and a sailor who had drunk too much grog was ‘groggy’.
Hard and fast Fixed, not subject to change (usually applied to rules). Refers to a ship beached on the shore.
High and dry Abandoned, without back-up or support. Refers to a ship that is beached or on the rocks. As the tide recedes, the ship is left high and dry.
Holy mackerel! An expression of surprise. Mackerel deteriorates rapidly and was therefore allowed to be sold on Sundays, by way of a permitted exception to the ‘blue laws’ which enforced religious standards, including Sunday observance.
Hunky-dory Fine, OK, as in 'everything is ...' Sailors’ slang for a street in the port of Yokohama, Japan, that was not known for its libraries, museums and tea-houses.
Know the ropes To be well informed about, or familiar with, something. Old sailing ships had a considerable number of ropes to control the sails and those who knew the use of each were said to ‘know the ropes’.
Leading light An outstanding person in their field. ‘Leading light’ is a less common term for the range lights, usually fixed ashore, used by ships to navigate safely into port.
Let the cat out of the bag To give away a secret. Refers to the removal from its cloth bag of the cat o’nine tails used to flog sailors. The ‘cat’ consisted of nine lengths of rope, each about 50 cm, with three knots, fastened to a thicker rope. See also No room to swing a cat.
Loose cannon Someone who is unpredictable. Improperly secured cannons were dangerous objects and could cause serious damage if thrown about the decks of a ship during rough weather.
Money for old rope Financial gain for very little effort. Sailors in port who were short of cash would make money by selling lengths of old rope.
Now you’re talking An expression of agreement or approval. The phrase is nautical in origin, but opinion is divided as to whether it refers to sails being set correctly, or to the sound of a ship’s hull moving effortlessly through the water.
No room to swing a cat A small space. Floggings using a cat o’ nine tails were carried out on deck because of the restricted space and headroom below decks, where there wasn’t room to ‘swing the cat’.
Over a barrel In an awkward position. There are competing derivations. One is that sailors were tied over the barrel of a cannon to receive a flogging. The other is that drowned sailors were placed over a barrel with their head lower than their body in order to expel swallowed water.
Pass with flying colours To pass an exam with distinction. A ship would display its ‘colours’ or flags so as to be recognised when passing another vessel.
See also Show your true colours.
P - T
Pipe down Keep quiet. On naval ships, orders are given by the bosun’s whistle. The last order of the day calling for silence on board is the ‘pipe down’. ‘Piping hot’ means very hot, as the food would be eaten as soon as the appropriate pipe order was blown.
Pour encourager les autres Refers to a harsh punishment meted out to deter others from acting in a similar way. Admiral John Byng was commander of the British Fleet at the Battle of Minorca in 1756, the opening battle in the Seven Years War between the British and French fleets. Byng’s poor tactics resulted in a French victory and, ultimately, a court martial and execution. In Candide, Voltaire writes of Byng’s execution: ‘Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un admiral pour encourager les autres.’ (‘In this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.’)
Pull your finger out Hurry up; get a move on. When cannon were loaded, a small amount of gunpowder was poured into the ignition hole and kept secure by a crewman’s finger until firing, when he would pull his finger out.
Put a new slant on things Consider from a different perspective. Refers to altering the angle of sail to compensate for changing wind conditions.
Round robin A sporting or other contest in which everyone plays everyone else. Refers to intending mutineers signing their names in a circle so that the ringleader would not be identified.
Rub salt into the wound Make a situation worse. Salt was used on board naval vessels as a disinfectant, and was applied to wounds to prevent gangrene.
Shipshape and Bristol fashion In first-class order. The port of Bristol had a reputation for preparing ships for sail in excellent condition. This was because the tide ebbed and flowed more than 10 metres. At low tide, ships could have been stranded on the exposed seabed; to avoid damage, they needed to be sturdily built and their cargoes securely fastened.
Show your true colours To reveal your true nature or character. Warships would sometimes fly a foreign flag in order to confuse the enemy. The rules of civilised warfare required that a ship’s true colours be shown before firing a shot.
Sling your hook Go away. The expression is definitely nautical, but there is some disagreement about the meaning of ‘hook’. Some think it refers to the anchor, and that ‘sling your hook’ means to raise the anchor; others believe it might have been said by a sailor to the man in the next hammock when he wanted him to move elsewhere, i.e. to sling his hammock somewhere else.
Slush fund A secret fund. Slush was waste, fat or grease from the galley of a ship. The ship’s cook would collect and sell the slush in port.
Son of a gun A rogue. The British navy used to allow women to live on board ships; a child of uncertain paternity was entered in the ship’s log as a ‘son of a gun’, i.e. a sailor.
Square meal A full and satisfying meal. A sailor’s main meal was the evening meal which was served on a square tray.
There’ll be the devil to pay See Between the devil and the deep blue sea.
To be at loggerheads To be engaged in a dispute or confrontation. A loggerhead was a round iron ball at the end of a long handle that was used to heat tar for sealing deck planks. Arguing sailors often used loggerheads as weapons.
To be in somebody’s black book To displease or get on the wrong side of someone. The Admiralty Black Book was based upon the 13th-century Laws of Oberon and set out rules for conduct and punishment on board ship. A murderer could expect to be tied to the corpse of his victim and thrown into the sea. If a member of crew struck another with his hand, his punishment was to be ducked three times in the sea. The Black Book was eventually replaced by the Naval Discipline Acts. Included among the punishments introduced by Henry VIII was to pour a bucket of water over a member of crew who fell asleep on his watch. If he fell asleep four times, he would be placed in a basket and hung from the bowsprit of the ship with beer, a loaf of bread and a knife. He would remain there until he starved or cut himself into the sea.
To the bitter end Until the finish of a task, no matter how unpleasant or difficult. The posts on the deck to which mooring and other lines are attached are known as ‘bitts’. The end of the anchor cable secured to the bitt was known as the ‘bitter end’ (as opposed to the anchor end). In bad weather when the anchor dragged, cable was fed out, until the bitter end.
Turn a blind eye To deliberately ignore something or someone. Admiral Horatio Nelson lost the sight of one eye whilst commanding land forces during an attack on Calvi in Corsica in 1 794- In the Battle of Copenhagen 1801, the British fleet was commanded by Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. Hyde Parker signalled (with flags) to Nelson to disengage from battle. Upon seeing the flags, Nelson chose to ignore the order by placing his telescope to his blind eye.
The introductory text for this page is adapted from the fantastic archive of nautical language found at See the Sea.org.
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