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”.
  • All at sea – in a state of confusion.  In the days of sail before navigational aids, boats out of sight of land, or having lost their bearings, were in an unknown position and in danger.
  • By and large – on the whole, or generally speaking. In the days of sail “large” was a term describing the wind when it was blowing from a point behind the ship’s direction of travel. When this favourable “large” wind was blowing the “largest” sails could be set and the boat could travel downwind. “By” is a nautical term meaning “in the direction of”….eg “by the wind” means to face more or less into the wind. It could be that to sail “by and large” meant the ability to sail not only with the wind but also against it. However, another theory is that to steer a course “by and large” was to keep slightly off the wind, so there was less need for constant adjustment in steering direction.
  • Dead in the water – not going anywhere or brought to a halt. A ship that was “dead in the water” had no wind in its sails to make it come alive and was therefore not able to move forward.
  • Fathom out – to deduce something from the facts. A fathom is a unit of measurement – the distance from finger tip to fingertip with arms outstretched. In 14th century, “fathoming” meant embracing someone, so to “fathom out” may have just been a way of measuring with outstretched arms.
  • Foot loose – free to do as one pleases (maybe romantically unattached). The lower edge of the mainsail is called the “foot”. If this is not attached it will hang or fly free and be much more difficult to control.
  • Go by the board – finished with (thrown or lost overboard). The “board” is the side or the decking of the ship. The phrase could refer to things that went over the side or that merely fell on the deck.
  • Grog or Groggy – a ration of alcohol or the state of drinking too much. In 1740 Vice Admiral Sir Edward Vernon issued a decree that the sailors’ daily ration of half a pint of rum should be diluted with an equal amount of water. The sailors referred to the Vice Admiral as “Old Groggy” because of the impressive Grogram cloak which he wore on deck. Hence the disdainful nickname of “grog” was given to their watered down drink. Sailors who drank too much were referred to as “groggy”.
  • Let the cat out of the bag – disclose a secret. This refers to the cat o’ nine tails, a whip made of rope with nine unbraided strands at the end, used to flog sailors. The “cat” refers to the scratches and wounds the sailors would incur from the flogging. The “cat” was kept in a bag and when it was brought out there was obviously going to be trouble ahead.
  • No room to swing a cat – a very confined space.  When a sailor was punished by flogging with the “cat o’ nine tails”, the whole ship’s company was required to witness it. The deck became very crowded and there was sometimes “no room to swing a cat”.
  • Over a barrel – to be in a situation where one cannot change one’s mind. The most common form of punishment for sailors was flogging. The culprit was tied either to a grating, the mast, or over a barrel. “Kissing the gunners daughter” was being tied to the barrel of a deck cannon while it was fired.
  • Push the boat out – to spend generously. Boats are often too large to be handled by one individual, especially when they are beached and need to be pushed back into the water. It was an act of generosity to help someone to push their boat out into the water. It later became used to mean buying a round of drinks or standing someone a treat.
  • Shake a leg ( or show a leg) – rouse yourself and get out of bed. “Show a leg” seems to have been the Royal Navy command for putting a foot out of your hammock and getting up. Another meaning could derive from the 19th century when women were sometimes allowed on board when the boat was in port. Legs were hung over the side of a hammock so that the hairy men’s legs could be distinguished from the more shapely and smooth women’s legs.
  • Shiver my timbers – an oath expressing annoyance or surprise. It is not certain whether this was a genuine sailor’s oath or just a literary invention, but by the 14th century the meaning of “shiver” was to “break into pieces”. So in a nautical context it would mean “if so and so happens let my boat break to pieces!”
  • Slush Fund – money put aside to bribe or influence. In 18th century “slush” or “slosh” was the fat or grease skimmed off by the cook when boiling up salted beef. This “slush” was a perk for the ship’s cook who sold it when the ship reached port. The money derived in this way was known as the “slush fund”.
  • Square meal – a substantial, nourishing meal. Many people believe the phrase to refer to the square plates used by sailors. But as far back as the 16th century the word “square” was used to mean “proper”, “honest” or “straightforward”. This is more likely to be the derivation of the phrase.
  • Take the wind out of his sails – to take away someone’s initiative, disconcert or frustrate them. This could derive from the art of sailing so that you “steal” the wind from another boat. A boat under sail can be slowed down if another boat sails between it and the wind, preventing their sails from filling.
  • Touch and go – in a precarious situation. This refers to the situation a vessel would be in, in shallow water, when it touched the bottom but did not become grounded and was able to move off again.
  • Whistle for the wind – hope for the impossible. This possibly derives from the nautical superstition that the wind could be summoned to help a becalmed vessel by whistling for it. Possibly it was thought that the wind would blow in sympathy with the sailors’ blowing. Conversely they should refrain from whistling during a gale. Some sailors believe that whistling raises not a fair wind but a storm.

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