Nautical but nice - sailing expressions boat - copy
There are so many nautical terms we use every day and the sailor in your life will love reading this ship-shaped selection. If you've ever heard them say they need 'Dutch courage' or to 'batten down the hatches' you know they will happily add another 140 sailing expressions to their repertoire. Collection is from Hillside in Greystones or postage within Ireland is €10
Abandon Ship: Used figuratively now to indicate suddenly leaving a situation.
When a ship was sinking or being overrun by an enemy ship, sailors would need to abandon their posts and escape. The call to abandon ship was considered a last resort.
Ahoy: A call used to greet someone from a distance
“Hoy” was a middle English greeting derived from the Dutch “hoi”. It soon became “ahoy” as a signal word to boats and passing ships.
All Hands on Deck : used to indicate that the involvement of all members of a team is required.
a cry or signal used on board ship, typically in an emergency, to indicate that all crew members are to go on deck.
A Shot Across The Bow: A warning shot, whether literal and metaphorical.
This sea-faring term refers to firing a cannon across an opposing ship’s bow to indicate readiness for battle. References to this phrase in print go as far back as 1939.
Above Board: Referring to anything in open and plain view.
On a naval vessel, items and equipment could either be stored on deck or below in the ship’s hold. An item stored or viewable from the deck was said to be kept above board.
All At Sea: A state of active confusion, disorder or disarray.
This phrase comes from the nature of sailing and was used to refer to any situation where the ship was now unable to be seen from land and could potentially never return.
Aloof: To be in a state of indifference.
Coming from the Old Dutch ‘loef’, meaning windward, this term was used when referring to a ship sailing higher to the wind and was thus drawn apart from the rest of the fleet.
At Loggerheads: To be in a stake of adamant dispute or argument.
An iron ball attached to a long handle was a loggerhead. When heated it was used to seal the pitch in deck seams. It was sometimes a handy weapon for quarrelling crewmen.
Any Port in a Storm: A commonly used proverb usually taken to mean that in a time of difficulty, any solution is acceptable, whether completely ideal or not.
When at sea, vessels would occasionally become caught in galls or storms that could be potentially hazardous for both ship and crew. In cases such as these, the ship would make a berth in the nearest port, regardless of whether they had intended to stop there or not.
As the Crow Flies: Referring to the shortest distance between two points in a straight line.
This early phrase originated in the 18th Century and referred to the habit of the crow of taking the shortest route possible when in flight.
At a Loose End: to finalise the details or requirements of an activity.
This term refers to the final task of the sailor to secure the loose ends to ensure the vessel is ready and shipshape.
Batten Down the Hatches: to secure and make preparations.
This phrase is believed to come from the common naval practice of needing to prepare a ships’ hatches for impending poor weather conditions. Hatches were designed to promote fresh air circulation below deck and were secured with wooden battens and tarpaulins to keep the interiors dry.
Between the devil and the deep blue sea: a dilemma, being between two unattractive options.
There is no evidence for this etymology but anecdotally the phrase comes from the nautical practice of sealing the seams between a ship's wooden planks with hot tar. In this context, the devil is the name given to the ship's longest seam, which is typically the most prone to leaking.
Bottoms Up: To finish one’s drink, often quickly.
This term comes from the common practice of tricking English sailors into joining the Navy when they didn’t want to. The sailor would be manipulated into “accepting payment” for joining the Navy by dropping a coin into his drink. Once the trick became well known, people would remind each other with the phrase ‘bottoms up’ to check their glass for hidden “payment”.
Broad in the Beam: having wide hips or buttocks
This phrase derives from the nautical term 'beam' - the widest point of a ship.
By and Large: To refer to something broadly or to speak in general of
In seafaring times, the word “large” was used to refer to a favourable situation when the wind was strong, and the largest sails could be raised to increase speed. Then, the term ‘by’ was used to mean ‘in the direction of’. Therefore, ‘by and large’ meant to keep slightly of the wind to ease influence over steering direction.
Chock a Block: To be packed together so tightly that there is very limited movement.
On naval vessels, a ‘block and tackle’ was the name for the mechanism used to raise the sails. When the sail has been hoisted to its full extent, the blocks jam tightly together and cannot move.
Clean Bill of Health: To be healthy, generally well or in good condition.
In the days of seafaring, one of the biggest concerns for a ship out at sea was disease. Before departure, port authority would sign a document attesting that the crew were free from contagious disease before setting off
Clear the Deck: To prepare for an incoming disturbance such as bad weather, similar to the phrase “Batten down the hatches.”
When preparing for battle, sailors would need to remove any objects from the deck that could impede movement and slow them down.
Close Quarters: To be gathered together in a small area.
As you might imagine, space was generally limited at sea, even when aboard the largest ships. As a result, the recreational quarters within which crew members would spend their free time and sleep was often cramped and crowded.
Copper Bottomed: To be genuine, in good condition or unlikely to fail.
First used by the British Navy in the 18th Century, ships were coated in a layer of copper to protect the wooden planks from shipworms and barnacles. It became widely popular when proved effective at protecting the ships hull and increased the speed and handling of the ship in water.
Cut and Run: to run away, to abandon something, to leave something incomplete.
Often thought to refer to the severing of an anchor line, the phrase cut and run is much more likely to refer to the practice of tying down the sails of a square-rigged ship with ropes that could be cut, rather than untied, if sails needed to be hoisted with haste.
(The) Cut of One’s Jib: A person's general appearance.
A jib is a type of sail. At one time countries would display their own unique jibs, allowing outsiders to instantly know the ship’s origin, and form an impression of it by the cut of its jib.
Dead in the Water: The term describes a more severe situation when no further progress may be possible.
The lack of wind would keep ships from making progress on their voyage, often called being “dead in the water”.
Deliver a Broadside: To attack one another with words.
In the days of early naval warfare, ships would fire their guns or cannons together on a single side of the ship, often the side facing the opponent.
Devil to Pay: A difficult or seemingly impossible task.
This naval phrase actually refers to the application of pitch or tar along the ‘devil’, the longest seam in the ship’s hull, which was known to be one of the worst jobs a sailor could be assigned.
Don’t rock the Boat: don’t cause trouble
Smaller skiffs or boats easily move with the water, as well as the movement of the people on deck. Because of this, it is crucial to understand the balance of the boat to avoid unnecessary rocking that can put you off course or simply be uncomfortable.
Dressing Down: To be the recipient of a severe reprimand or disciplinary action.
On a vessel, the act of “dressing down” a ship’s sails involved coating them with tar or oil to renew their quality and effectiveness. An officer or sailor who had committed an infraction and was reprimanded in order to not repeat the mistake in future was also said to receive a “dressing down.”
Duffle Bag: large bag made of either natural or synthetic fabric (typically canvas).
Originally a rough woven cloth bag used by sailors to carry their belongings, the name "duffle" comes from the Belgian town of Duffel near Antwerp, where the cloth was originally made.
Dutch Courage: False or foolhardy courage that comes from being intoxicated.
In the 15th Century, propaganda from the British was circulated that posed that the Dutch sailors were cowards and that they could only fight when intoxicated by large amounts of alcohol.
Edging Forward: To move forward with caution, very slowly.
Originating from the 1500’s, ships would advance with caution by repeatedly tacking from one side to the other.
Even Keel: To maintain calm and steady progress.
On a ship, the keel helps keep the vessel upright and acts as a counterbalance against the mast. A vessel that is upright and unswayed by the ways is said to be ‘on an even keel.
Fall Foul Of : To become ensnared by something or someone
Foul is an often used nautical term generally meaning entangled or impeded. An anchor tangled in line or cable is said to be a foul anchor. A foul berth is caused by another vessel anchoring too close wherein the risk of collision exists. A foul bottom offers poor holding for anchors.
Feeling Blue: Feeling low or sad
If a captain or officer of a ship died at sea, some vessels would raise a blue flag and paint a blue stripe on the hull as a sign of mourning. Over time this became synonymous with feelings of sadness.
Foul Up: to make an error or mistake.
Many nautical terms used the term ‘foul’ to refer to unwanted situations. Foul itself meant to be tangled up, or impeded of progress. A foul anchor is one that is entangled and unusable for the time being. A foul berth describes another vessel that has positioned itself too close to another and there is a high risk that the two ships will collide.
Fathom: to attempt to figure out, or get to the bottom of something. To deduce based on facts.
A fathom is a nautical unit of measurement equivalent to 6 feet and used to measure water at sea.
Figurehead: A noted leader with no real power or authority.
On a ship, a figurehead was an ornamental figure used for religious protection, or for purely decorative purposes.
Filibuster: to delay legislation.
Buccaneers were sometimes known in England as filibusters. From the Dutch for vrybuiter (freebooter) translated into French as flibustier. It is now used as a political term meaning to delay or obstruct the passage of legislation (as opposed to sailing vessels) by non-stop speech making.
First Rate: To be the best, of the highest quality, of the most skill.
From the 1500s through to the advent of steam-powered naval vessels, British Naval ships were scored from 1 through to 6, with first-rate having 100 or more guns, down to 6th rate, being frigates with only 20 to 48 guns.
Fits the bill: Appropriate, suitable.
A Bill of Lading was signed by the ship’s master acknowledging receipt of specified goods and the promise to deliver them to their destination in the same condition. Upon delivery, the goods were checked against the bill to see if all was in order. If so, they fit the bill.
Flotsam and Jetsam: Items of no real value.
In the early days of maritime law, flotsam and jetsam were used as legal terms to describe goods that had been lost from a ship as a result of a wreckage as well as those that had been purposely thrown in order to stabilise the ship in times of heavy wind or adverse conditions. Flotsam is any part of the wreckage of a ship or her cargo that is lost by accident and found floating on the surface of the water. Jetsam are goods or equipment deliberately thrown overboard (jettisoned) to make the ship more stable in high winds or heavy seas. (Lagan are goods cast overboard with a rope attached so that they may be retrieved and sometimes refers to goods remaining inside a sunken ship or lying on the bottom.)
Footloose: To be free to do as you please.
If unsecured, the bottom portion of a sail, called the foot, is able to flap and move about in the wind.
From Stem to Stern: The entirety of something.
This term refers to the full distance between the front of the ship and the back.
Flying Colours: To complete something to a high standard.
If a ship survived a battle with relatively little damage with her flag (colours) flying, she was described to be “flying colours”.
Get Underway: To set off on a journey
This nautical term referred to the wake or trail left by a ship as it progressed through the water.
Give a Wide Berth: to leave a distance between
A berth is defined by the space a ship is at anchor within. Even when at anchor, a ship will move with the tide and weather, so space must be given for this movement. To remind sailors of this, it would be said a wide berth was needed.
Go by the Board: To be finished with, no longer needed.
On a ship, the board is the siding or decking of a ship. This nautical saying is believed to come from the act of dropping something into the water from the side of the ship.
Go Overboard: To do or say too much.
If cargo, or people, went overboard when sailing, the call “overboard” would be yelled out to draw attention to the event. It’s not entirely clear when the phrase ‘going overboard’ took on its figurative meaning but it associates extreme enthusiasm for something with abandoning ship.
Gripe: To complain or have a problem
A gripe is a nautical term used to describe a vessel that has been poorly designed and so the bow tends towards the wind, causing the sail to flap, impeding progress and making the ship difficult to manoeuvre.
Grog/Groggy: to describe alcohol, usually of poor quality.
In the 18th Century, Vice Admiral Sir Edward Vernon decreed that each sailor’s half pint of rum a day should be watered down with an equal amount of water. The sailors nicknamed the Vice Admiral “Old Groggy” as he wore a Grogam coat on deck. The mixture of watered-down rum became termed ‘grog’, and those who drank too much of it were referred to as ‘groggy.’
Groundswell: an increasing shift in the opinion of the public.
A sudden rise in water along the shore in otherwise calm waters that was said to be a result of disturbed water from a storm many miles away reaches the shoreline and causes the water level to rise.
Hand Over Fist: to act quickly with determination
Raising and lowering sails on a pulley system required placing one hand over another in a consistent movement, i.e., hand over fist.
Hard and Fast: to be sure of, without a doubt, without debate
In seafaring times, the term ‘hard and fast’ was used to describe a vessel that was beached on land and unable to be moved.
Hard Up: to be in a state of need
In nautical terms, to put the ‘helm hard over’ means to position it as far as it can go in a particular direction. The full saying. ‘Hard up in a clinch and no knife to cut the seizing’ was used by sailors to refer to the coming of grief with no solution.
Haze: to mark the arrival of a new arrival to a group by means of embarrassment or humiliation in order to instate authority
In the seafaring times, captains and other levels of authority would demand their crew to work long hours during the day and into the night, even when necessary, for no other reason than to make them miserable.
High and Dry: To be left in a state of desperation, without resources or help
If a ship was caught in low tide or ran up on the shoals, it might end up being stranded with no hope of recovery. The term was to be caught high and dry, as in up out of the water.
Hot Chase: To be in active pursuit of something
This term is actually taken from naval warfare in that, according to law, an enemy attempting to escape battle by sailing into neutral waters could be followed and captured under the proviso that the engagement had begun in international waters.
Hulk/Hulking: to describe something that is large and awkward
This naval term was used to describe a large and unwieldy ship of simple construction and dubious seaworthiness.
Hunky-Dory: To describe a situation as being pleasant, moving as expected, going ok
This naval saying is thought to come from American Sailors who used the term to describe a popular street in Japan called Honcho-Dori which was frequented by lonely sailors.
Idle/Idler: To be standing by without task, often when there is work needing to be completed
On a naval ship, “idler” was used to refer to a crew member that was not required to stand watch at night due to the nature of his work. Carpenters, sailmakers and cooks for example completed their duties by day and thus ‘idlers’ at night.
In the Doldrums: To be sad, tired or dull
This phrase was used during the 1800s to describe an area of the calm waters typical around the direct north of the equator, between what was called the trade winds. Ships caught in this area could sometimes remain stuck in place, without wind for long periods of time. And so to be ‘in the doldrums’ meant to be in a state of low spirits.
In the Offing: Imminent or likely to soon happen
In seafaring times, the “offing” was a term used to describe the area of sea that could be seen from land. So if a ship was seen in this area, it meant that soon enough the ship would be docked in the harbour and safe.
In Deep Water: in a troublesome situation
Once a ship reached deep water, if trouble occurred, the crew might not be able to salvage the cargo, the ship, or a person’s life.
Junk: things of no use or value
The word came from Old French (jonc) to Middle English’s junk meaning ‘old rope’. Once the old rope was no longer able to take a load, it was cut into shorter lengths and used to make mops and mats for the deck and then discarded.
Jury Rig: an improvisation.
This commonly used phrase is today’s language was once used to describe an emergency repair that was necessary to keep a damaged ship able to continue sailing until it could make berth in the nearest port.
Keel Hauling: To receive a strong punishment or reprimand for a particular wrongdoing.
A severe naval punishment during the 15th and 16th centuries. The victim, presumably a delinquent sailor, was dragged from one side of the boat to the other, under the bottom of the boat (keel). Tossed over one side and pulled up on the other, he was usually allowed to catch his breath before suddenly being tossed overboard again. Keel hauling lost favour at the beginning of the 18th century, to be replaced by the cat-o-nine-tails. The term still means a rough reprimand.
Keel Over: To fall over or pass away
Even today, the keel is a fundamental component of most types of sailing ships. It acts as a counterbalance for the mast and keeps the boat stable in conditions that would otherwise cause the boat to capsize. If a ship “keeled over” it had rolled over and began sinking, or on land, simply fallen over.
To Know the Ropes: To be familiar/competent in a particular task.
Tall ships sailed by the navy prior to the advent of steam-powered vessels were operated by a series of ropes that controlled the mechanisms and pulleys that operated the sails. These rope-based systems were complex, and so sailors were required to memorise the configurations, so they were used correctly. This obviously took time, so a less experienced sailor might not “know the ropes” as well as one who had been sailing for longer.
Landlubber: Someone who dislikes, prefers not to be or isn’t commonly on the water
A distortion of ‘land lover’, this term was used by sailors to describe people who spent most of their time on land or who preferred to not be at sea.
Limey: A British person
A limey is slang for sailor and originated with the practice of issuing limes as a means to prevent scurvy on long voyages. The British navy was a dominant force on the seas, so the term began to represent the British in general.
Learn the Ropes: To take the time to understand how to perform a new task
Similarly to “Knowing the Ropes”, this nautical saying refers to the practice of learning how the systems of ropes and pulleys operated on a Tall Ship.
Leeway: An allocation of space, literal or metaphorical to allow a margin for error
When sailing, the ‘weather side’ of the ship is that that faces the wind and the ‘lee’ side is closest to land. If a ship did not have sufficient ‘leeway’ then there was little margin for error before the vessel was blown ashore or onto rocks.
To Let the Cat Out of the Bag: To unveil what was previously unsecured or secret
In the early days of sailors, the ‘cat o nine tails’ was the name for a whip constructed from rope with unbraided ends that left wounds on the back similar to the scratches of a cat.
Like Ships That Pass In The Night: A near encounter, the passing of two entities without knowledge of the other
Unlike the steam powered ships that would eventually succeed them, sailing ships make very little to no noise when moving forward. It is therefore highly likely that ships would be unaware of one another when sailing in darkness
Logbook: A meticulous record of official details accompanied with data such as dates and times
Naval and merchant ships utilised a wooden board attached to a length of rope to measure the speed the vessel was traveling. The unit was calculated by counting the knots in the string that passed through the sailors hands as they moved along. Incidentally, this is where the unit ‘knot’ came from, a measure we still use on the water today.
Listless: To be in a state of demotivation, lacking energy or enthusiasm
In seafaring times, if a boat was listless, it meant that the vessel was idle in the water, without the characteristic list taken when the ship is driven forward by the wind.
Long Haul: An extended period of time.
This term was used to describe any task onboard that required the hauling, or pulling in, of a large quantity of line onto the ship’s deck.
Long Shot: A situation where the intended or preferred outcome is considered unlikely to occur.
Old naval warships used cannons as their main form of weaponry, which often were hit and miss in terms of accuracy. Different cannons also had varying maximum ranges which depended on their design, age and quality. If a vessel was to fire beyond its range and deliver a long shot, it was unlikely that it would hit its target.
Loose Cannon: Used to describe a person, object or situation that is unstable or likely to cause trouble if left unattended.
Due to their massive weight, cannons on a sailing ship were secured to prevent them from moving about with the waves of the sea, as a loose cannon would cause immense damage to the sailing vessel or crew.
Mainstay: A crucial element, something on which other things depend.
On a Tall ship or similar sailing vessels, the mainstay was a crucial rope that ran the length of the maintop to the foot of the foremast.
Make Up Leeway: To make up for lost or wasted time.
In nautical terms, ‘leeway’ referred to how much a vessel had deviated from its intended course.
Making Waves: Causing trouble
Winds and storms create waves at sea and can cause hazardous sailing conditions.
Mate: Friend, pal.
The word mate has a long history of meaning friend or comrade and was adapted in British sailing vernacular to designate the titles and responsibilities of certain crew members. A first mate, for example, would be in charge of the duties of those below him.
No Room to Swing a Cat: A small or confined space.
When a sailor was to be punished by the cat o nine tails, the entire crew was required to attend and watch. Consequently, there was no room to swing the whip.
One sheet to (or in) the wind : Tipsy
See ‘three sheets to the wind’ for etymology
On Board: to be or become part of a group or team or to assimilate a new idea.
From early 16th century board here means ‘the side of a ship’. The current meaning dates from the late 17th century and appears to be an expansion of aboard.
On the Right Tack (Track): To be going in the right direction, towards the correct outcome.
The correct course while sailing requires you to tack or move the sail to catch the wind to keep you on course. To take the wrong tack means to be off course. Tack has changed to track in a more modern language.
On Your Ends/On Your Beam Ends: To be in a bad situation.
On a seafaring naval vessel, timber beams ran the horizontal length of the ship. If these beams were close to the water, it meant that the ship was likely to capsize and sink.
Over the Barrel: To be unable to change one’s mind or escape a situation.
In seafaring times, the most common punishment handed down to sailors was whipping or flogging. Normally, the crew mate to be punished would be tied to a secure grating or over a barrel.
Overbearing: To manipulate a state of power in a fashion that makes others uncomfortable
This term refers to the act of sailing downwind of another ship, blocking or ‘stealing’ their wind, slowing them down.
Overhaul: To pull something apart and redo it completely, as if from scratch.
This term was the name given to the act of crew being sent up amongst the sails to haul the buntline ropes over the sails to prevent chafing.
Overreach: To move to quickly to the point that you have missed your target
In a situation where a ship held its turn for too long, it would have moved past its turning point and now must sail a greater distance to reach its next tacking position.
Overwhelm: To be in a state of emotional overload or to be taken over by something
This naval term is derived from the Old English for a boat that has capsized.
Pipe Down: A Call For Silence.
In the early naval days, the boatswain’s pipe was used as a tool to communicate with the ship’s crew. In this sense, the ‘piping down of the hammocks’ was the final signal delivered for the day, meaning that the crew were able to go below and rest for the night.
Plain Sailing: Easy progress without impediment or difficulty.
The term smooth sailing refers to sailing through calm waters, free from big waves or rough seas.
Pooped: To be washed out, tired.
In terms of the actual structure and layout of the ship, the highest deck at the back of the vessel was called the poop deck. If a ship were to become breached by a large wave that flooded the vessel from the back, she was said to have been pooped.
Press Gang: to force someone to do something against their will
Impressment, colloquially "the press" or the "press gang", is the enslavement of men into service on a ship by compulsion, with or without notice.
Press into Service: To be pressured, forced, guided into making a specific decision.
In the early days, recruiting for the navy was very difficult as men knew that the job was difficult. In order to overcome this issue and fill their recruitment quotas, “Press Gangs” would actively kidnap men from the ports at shore and force them into working for the Navy.
Push the Boat Out: To spend money generously, without reservation.
This naval term comes from the act of assisting someone to push their boat or vessel out into the water. This was considered an act of generosity as ships were often far too large to be pushed out to sea by one man alone. The term was later used to refer to the act of shouting a round of drinks or to buy them a treat.
Rats Deserting a Sinking Ship: To leave or abandon an activity, organisation or school of thought before it fails entirely.
It was very common for ships at sea to be carrying large numbers of rats aboard, either picked up from port or stowed away in crates or containers of food loaded on deck. In the unfortunate event that the ship would sink, the rats would attempt to escape by jumping off into the deep blue sea.
Running a Tight Ship: Under control, perfectly in order.
The phrase originated around the mid-1900s and is based on the tight ropes of a sailing ship, alluding to a ship that is in order and under control, and generally well-taken care of.
Sailing Close to the Wind: To engage in a risky activity, to disallow a margin for error.
Strong winds can be just as problematic at sea as no wind. Strong winds can unexpectedly shift and take control of a boat’s direction, and many sailors will lower their sails until more favourable conditions exist. To use strong winds for sailing is risky and unpredictable.
Scraping the Barrel: To gather the last remaining quantity of something, to be left with a choice that is not ideal.
In the 1600s, naval vessels carried salted meat in barrels. Sailors would check the bottom of these empty barrels when hungry to recover any remaining scraps that may have been left behind.
Scuttlebutt: Rumour or gossip.
A butt was a barrel. Scuttle meant to chop a hole in something. The scuttlebutt was a water barrel with a hole cut into it so that sailors could reach in and dip out drinking water. The scuttlebutt was the place where the ship’s gossip was exchanged.
Shake a Leg: To get out of bed, to get moving.
During the 1700s and 1800s, especially during times of conflict, men were pressed into naval service, and shore leave was nearly impossible to get. When at dock the men were allowed women visitors to help keep them from deserting. In the morning, when it was time for the men to get to work, 'show a leg' was shouted and the legs that were masculine had to get up and get to work.
Shipshape and Bristol Fashion: To be of the best quality and ready to go.
This seafaring term has a number of likely origins. Bristol in England is home to one of the most variable tide flows across the globe and so ships needed to be well built and maintained in order to withstand the low tides. It could also be derived from the fact that this part of the world had extremely high standards for naval equipment and service before Liverpool took its place.
Ships that pass in the night: Expression often said of people who meet for a brief but intense moment and then part, never to see each other again.
From a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Shiver Me Timbers: An expression of annoyance or surprise.
In the 1300’s, the word ‘shiver’ meant to become broken or fall to pieces. There is some debate as to whether this saying was actually real or simply invented as part of pirate folklore.
Sink or Swim: Succeed or Fail
Tossing a person overboard resulted either in them sinking or swimming. The term was made popular in swashbuckling movies featuring pirates deciding on whether they should spare their captives or not.
Skyscraper: A tall building or structure
This modern term often used to refer to large-scale industrial architecture in cities actually refers to a small sail set above what was called the skysail in order to maximise the amount of wind captured by the sails.
Sling Your Hook: To leave, clear off, move away.
There is much argument about whether this saying has its origins in seafaring times. Those that believe it takes its roots in nautical history believe it may refer to the pulling up of the ship’s anchor before making sail.
Slush Fund: An amount of money assigned to the use of bribe or influence.
In the 1800’s, a mixture of fat would be sold ashore by the ships cook that would be gathered from boiling the salted beef for food at sea. This money was then used for the benefit of the crew or the cook himself and called the ‘slush fund’.
Son of a Gun: An exclamation of surprise, an exclamation meaning a rogue or scamp.
The phrase potentially has its origin in a Royal Navy direction that pregnant women aboard smaller naval vessels give birth in the space between the broadside guns, in order to keep the gangways and crew decks clear.
Square Meal: A good quality, nutritious meal.
This term was most likely derived from the fact that sailors were served their meals on square shaped plates. However, from the 1500’s onwards, the word ‘square’ meant that something was upstanding, proper or straightforward.
Squared Away: To describe a matter that has been satisfactorily completed and/or addressed.
On square-rigged vessels, the state of the sails when properly trimmed. Currently, arranged or dealt with in a satisfactory manner.
Stem the Tide: to stop the advance of something
To stem the tide means to tack, or steer, against the tide or oncoming storm to avoid being blown off course or capsized.
Swing the Lead: to feign ignorance or avoid doing something.
This phrase comes from the practice of using a lead weight on a line to determine the depth of water. A sailor who was "swinging the lead" had taken one of the easy jobs.
Take the Con:To take control of.
To take over, or control, the navigational duties on the bridge of a ship.
Taken Aback: To be in a state of surprise, unable to speak.
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.
Taking turns: Sharing duties
Changing watches with the turn of the hour glass. This was to prevent accidents and mishaps that could result from fatigue.
Taking the Wind Out of His Sails: To demotivate someone, or remove their initiative.
If a vessel should sail between the wind and another ship, the first could be slowed down as the amount of wind in their sails was reduced.
Three Sheets to the Wind: Drunk to the point of falling over
Sheets were ropes, not sails as you might expect, and these are tied to the lower corners of the sails to hold them in place. If three sheets were loose in the wind, the sails would flap and the boat would lurch about like a drunken sailor. The sailors had a sliding scale of drunkeness so there was also two sheets (in or) to the wind, and one sheet (in or) to the wind
Through Thick and Thin: To carry on, regardless of the situation.
This nautical saying is believed to have its roots in the fact that both thick and thin pulleys were used aboard to hoist the sails up.
Tide Over: A small supply of something, such as money, to get you from one point to another.
In early naval days, vessels would mostly move under the influence of the wind. On occasion however, when the wind was not strong enough, the ship would simply move with the tide. This was referred to as a ‘tide over.’
Toe the Line: To conform to the policies of a group.
Members of the British Royal Navy were required to stand barefoot and at attention for inspection. While at attention they lined up along the seams of the planks of the deck with their toes touching the line. This became known as "toeing" the line.
Trim One’s Sails: To adapt or change to fit a different circumstance that was originally supplied
In the event of a change in weather conditions, crew would alter the set of the ships sails to suit the new circumstances.
True Colours: To reveal yourself as you really are
This phrase came about because of the opposite phrase “false colours” – from the 17th century referring to a vessel which sailed under a flag not her own. This tactic was used by almost everyone as a ruse de guerre, but the rules of gentlemanly behaviour (and possibly actual legal rules) required one to raise one’s true colours before opening fire on another ship.
Try a Different Tack: To attempt a different tactic or method when dealing with a situation or problem
When completing a tack, or change in direction when sailing, sometimes the new course of direction would turn out to be incorrect. In this case, the helmsman would need to try again.
Turn a Blind Eye: To ignore, to pretend you did not see something.
This commonly used saying originates from the actions of Admiral Lord Nelson in the Battle of Copenhagen. In the battle, a signal was given to cease fighting and retreat. In response, the Admiral held his spyglass to his blind eye and later insisted he had not seen the signal.
Touch and Go: To be in an uncertain situation.
This seafaring term was used to describe a situation in which a ship was sailing through shallow waters and would occasionally touch the bottom and then move forward again, without becoming grounded.
Turn the Corner: To move past a vital milestone or event that had a high degree of influence.
This phrase is thought to have been coined by sailors after rounding the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn and continuing on with their journey. Both were critical points and pointed them towards safer waters.
Two Sheets to the Wind: Drunk - more than tipsy but not falling over.
See ‘three sheets to the wind’ for etymology.
Under the Weather: To be feeling ill, not yourself.
On an early naval vessel, various watches were assigned to crew members to keep an eye out for danger. Often considered the worst watch station one could be assigned, the ‘weather’ side of the bow was often subject to the pitching and rolling of the ship, as well as the numerous waves that would break over the bow. The crew-member assigned this watch would end their shift drenched and described as having been ‘under the weather.
Walk the Plank: To be ousted, removed or literally fall from a plank into the sea below.
A staple of pirate folklore, walking the plank was an actual form of impromptu naval execution in the 1700’s and 1800’s.
Warning shot (across the bow) : to give a warning
From the literal practice of firing a warning shot across another ship’s bow to encourage the captain to strike without engaging.
Whistle for the Wind: To hope for an unlikely outcome.
This saying is believed to have originated from the naval superstition that the wind could be summoned at a time of still water by the act of whistling for it. Similarly, in the event of a gall where there is an excess of wind, crew members should not whistle.
Windfall: An unexpected, potentially unearned advantage.
This nautical term was used to describe a sudden gust of wind coming across a mountainous shore that allowed the vessel to gain more headway.