Nautical Sayings and Phrases

Nautical Sayings

While many everyday sayings certainly have genuine nautical origins, there are others which have unproven claims and still more where it is easy to find a logical link…..even though not necessarily valid.

So if you are at a “loose end” and want to “know the ropes”, then “sling your hook”, “batten down the hatches” and “get underway” with these Nautical Sayings.

  • At a loose end –  unoccupied.  Nautically, loose ends are unattached ones which are not doing their job. “Tying up loose ends” is used to mean finalising details of a matter as a sailor makes fast the loose ends to ensure the boat is shipshape.
  • Batten down the hatches – prepare for trouble. Battening down of walkways and hatches was done when bad weather was imminent. Ships hatches were often open or covered with a wooden grating. When bad weather was expected the hatches were covered with tarpaulins and edged with thin wooden battens to stop them from blowing off.
  • Between the devil and the deep blue sea – faced with two dangerous alternatives. The derivation seems obscure, but try this one. The “devil” is the seam between the deck planking and the top plank of the ship’s side. It would have to be watertight and would need filling or caulking regularly, which would require a sailor to stand on the very edge of the deck or even be suspended over the side. A dangerous place to be.
  • Chock a block – crammed tightly together to prevent movement.  Chocks are wedges used to secure moving objects and a block and tackle is a pulley system used on sailing ships to hoist the sails. A possible derivation is that when two blocks of rigging tackle were so close together they couldn’t be tightened further, it was said they were “chock-a-block”.
  • Cut and run– run away. It is possible that it derives from ships making a hasty departure by cutting the anchor rope and running with the wind.
  • Full to the gunwales – full to the brim or packed tight. Pronounced “gunnels”, it is the upper edge of a ship’s side in large vessels and the piece of timber extending round the top side of the hull in smaller craft. It probably first referred to heavily loaded ships.
  • Get underway – begin a journey. The “under” is likely to have meant “on the” and the “way” is the forward progress of the ship through the water so it actually means “on their way”.
  • Give a wide berth – a good distance. Originally a berth was a place where there was sea room to moor a boat. The meaning of “berth” was probably “bearing off”. Sailors were warned to keep a wide bearing off something they needed to keep away from. It could also refer to anchoring a boat far enough away from another so that they did not hit each other when swinging with the wind or the tide.
  • Hard and fast – rigidly adhered to – without doubt. A ship that was “hard and fast” was beached firmly on land. Land was known as “The hard” as in Buckler’s Hard.
  • Hand over fist – quickly and continuously. It describes the action of hauling on a rope using alternate hands, so it is probably nautical. In the 18th century though, it had a different meaning –“making steady progress”.
  • In the doldrums – in low spirits or feeling drowsy or dull.  In 19th century the word “doldrum” meant a “dullard or dull fellow” so “the doldrums” was a general state of low spirits. In the middle of the century the word was used to denote the state of ships experiencing becalming in the area just north of the equator, between the Trade Winds. The name was then used geographically to refer to the area itself rather than the state of the ships.
  • Keel over – to fall over - also a sailor’s term for dying. When the boat’s keel comes out of the water it is very likely to capsize. To be on an even keel – calm and steady. The boat would float upright without listing.
  • In the offing -  imminent or likely to happen soon. “Offing” is that area of sea that can be seen from land, so when a ship was seen to be “in the offing” it would be expected to dock before the next tide. The adjective “off” in a sailing context means “away from”.
  • Knowing the ropes – understanding the principles. In square rigged ships there were miles of ropes in the rigging and the only way of keeping track of their functions was to memorise where each of them went. It took and experienced sailor to “know the ropes”.
  • Log book – an official record book.  An early way to measure a boat’s progress through the sea was to throw overboard a wooden board or “log” with a string attached. The rate at which the string was paid out as the ship moved away from the log was measured by counting knots in the string. These measurements were recorded in a book, the “log book” and from here we also get “knot”- the unit of speed at sea.
  • On your beam ends – hard up or in a bad situation. The beams were the horizontal timbers of a boat. If the end of these beams were touching the water you were in imminent danger of capsizing.
  • Ship-shape and Bristol fashion – in first class order. The derivation could be that Bristol has one of the most variable tide flows anywhere in the world and the water level can vary by more than 30 feet between tides. Before the harbour was built boats moored here were beached at low tide so they had to be of sturdy construction and their cargoes well stowed. On the other hand it could refer to Bristol’s high standards of equipment and service, when it was the major British west-coast trading port, before the growth of Liverpool.
  • Sling your hook – to leave or clear off. Those who believe it has a nautical origin think it refers to the sailors pulling up the anchor before leaving.
  • Pipe down -  a request for silence. The boatswain’s pipe was used to give signals to the crew of sailing ships. “Piping down the hammocks” was the last signal of the day, to go below decks and retire for the night. Also when an officer was “piped down” he was dismissed.
  • Three sheets to the wind – very drunk. In sailors’ language, a sheet is a rope. If three sheets are not attached to the sails as they ought to be, the sail will flap and the boat will lurch around in a drunken fashion. Sailors had a sliding scale of drunkenness. Tipsy was “one sheet”, whereas falling over was “three sheets”.

Read part 2

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