Ben has held a life-long interest in language and has a particular interest in the expressions, phrases, and idioms that contribute to it.
How Many of Our Everyday Idioms Come From Maritime Slang?
We often try to choose our words very carefully. However, we rarely seem to give much thought to the sources and origins of the many expressions that litter our conversations. When we do delve into this world of words, we discover fascinating and enticing stories full of tradition, history and useful advice gleaned from the life experiences of those who helped create them. Terms sourced from a life at sea, for instance, are as diverse and abundant as the sailors who contributed to their creation.
This article describes the meanings and origins of 50 terms, idioms and phrases whose origins can be traced back to the sailors and seafarers of old. Seafaring has a long and rich history, and many of the activities involved in a life on the ocean have seeded the growth of nautical terms that have subsequently found their way into our day-to-day vocabulary in the form of idioms, phrases and slang.
50 Pieces of Sailing Jargon That Are Now Common Sayings
All aboard! With no further ado, let's walk the proverbial plank and dive into a sea of sailor sayings and their oceanic origins!
1. On Board
Meaning: Part of a crew or team
Example Sentence: "We should invite Anita to join us on the project. Do you think she would be on board?"
2. Go by the Board
Meaning: Finish with, be rid of
Example Sentence: "We used to always be able to rely on the bus' timetable, but nowadays, it has gone completely by the board."
3. Take Something on Board
Meaning: Fully understand what is being said or instructed
Example Sentence: "Now that I have restated the reasons for the decision, I hope that this is something that you can take on board."
4. Give a Wide Berth
Meaning: Leave space for, veer around
Origin: At sea, a berth is a place where a ship drops its anchor. In harbours, a berth is allocated to boats within it. However, any boat or ship will still move with the tide when anchored to the degree that the length of its anchor rope limits its movement. Hence, it always sensible to give other ships a wide berth, or plenty of room, to prevent accidents.
5. Batten Down the Hatches
Meaning: Prepare for trouble, take precautionary measures
Origin: This idiom is believed to have its origin in the sailing practice of securing a ship’s hatchways to prepare for bad weather. These hatchways were usually covered by a grill or left open to allow the circulation of fresh air. When bad weather threatened, however, the crew would cover these openings with tarpaulins and fasten them in place with wooden battens.
6. Caught Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Meaning: Trapped/caught between significant difficulties
Origin: This phrase is a way of saying that someone is in a predicament or that they are in a dangerous place with no easy way out. It is believed to have its source in the historical nautical practice of sealing the seams between a ship's wooden planks with hot tar. The devil, in this context, is the name given to the ship's longest seam, which is typically the most prone to leaking.
7. Down in the Doldrums
Meaning: Stuck in a rut, not making progress
Origin: This idiom was used by sailors to describe a situation in which no wind was present—sometimes for weeks at a time. At a time when sailors relied solely on wind power, this meant they would be stuck at sea going nowhere.
Example Sentence: "I am feeling a bit down in the doldrums today; nothing seems to be happening, and I am getting nowhere fast."
8. In Deep Water
Meaning: In trouble, out of one's comfort zone
Example Sentence: "Joey needs to be very careful who he hangs out with; he is getting himself into deep water with that rowdy gang of lads."
9. All at Sea
Meaning: In a state of confusion
Example Sentence: "I am all at sea today—I can't seem to make my mind up on anything at the minute."
10. High and Dry
Meaning: Stranded without any hope of recovering, in a predicament and at a loss for solutions
11. Three Sheets to the Wind
Meaning: Very, very drunk
12. Left High and Dry
Meaning: Abandoned (by an individual or group) in a difficult situation.
13. Sailing Close to the Wind
Meaning: Taking risks that may be unreasonable, being close to breaking the law
Example Sentence: "Jack is pushing his luck driving that car to the local garage on his own. His license is suspended, and if you ask me, he is sailing close to the wind with that idea."
14. Sink or Swim
Meaning: Either fail (sink) or succeed (swim) in an endeavour or task
Example Sentence: "He is thinking about staking his entire week's salary on the turn of a card. It certainly looks like he is either going to sink or swim if he goes ahead with it."
15. Dead in the Water
Meaning: A situation where no further progress is being made, something that has come to an unproductive end
16. Rock the Boat
Meaning: Do something to disturb or aggravate the balance of a situation
Example Sentence: "I don't want to rock the boat, but I think I should say something about his behaviour."
17. All Hands on Deck
Meaning: A call to action meaning that everyone needs to assist in resolving a problem or addressing a situation
18. A Shot Across the Bows
Meaning: A warning shot
Example Sentence: "I have told the neighbours that I intend to build an extension on that plot of land they all border. I certainly gave them all a shot across the bows with that news."
19. Loose Cannon
Meaning: Unpredictable, spontaneous and potentially dangerous
Origin: This expression is believed to have originally described the mayhem caused on a ship when a cannon breaks free from its mooring during a storm or in battle.
20. Make Waves
Meaning: Cause turmoil or trouble among a community
Example Sentence: "Look, Simon has already committed the company to the takeover deal. If you raise issues with it now, you will only make waves and cause him difficulty in finalising the deal."
21. Plain Sailing
Meaning: Smooth and easy, as in a course of action or future path
Meaning: Perfect or just fine
Origin: This phrase is believed to have been invented by American sailors who used it to describe a particular street in Japan called Honcho-dori. This street was known to lonely sailors for the services it provided.
Meaning: Very stable or very safe (often used today in financial circles)
Example Sentence: "This is a great deal—high return with no risk—it's copper-bottomed."
24. On the Right Tack
Meaning: Taking the line/course of action that leads to the correct conclusion
Origin: When you take the correct sailing line, you end up where you want to be. In the event that a sailor takes the wrong tack/line, they end up headed in the wrong direction.
25. Shipshape and Bristol Fashion
Meaning: Fine, in good order
Example Sentence: "It's been a good day. All sales targets met, all takings in and counted; everything is shipshape and Bristol fashion."
26. Run a Tight Ship
Meaning: Manage and organization strictly, efficiently and effectively
Example Sentence: "That new manager is very organised; he certainly seems to be running a tight ship."
27. Turn the Corner
Meaning: Pass a critical point on the way to somewhere better or safer
Origin: This idiom is believed to have been first used bu sailors who had passed the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa and/or Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America.
28. Make up Leeway
Meaning: Make up for time already lost or wasted
Origin: In maritime terminology, leeway refers to the distance that a ship has deviated from its proper course.
Meaning: One who prefers not to be at sea
Origin: This nautical phrase is used by sailors to describe someone who is happier on dry land.
Example Sentence: "If you don't mind, I will give that boat ride a miss. Sorry, but I'm afraid I am something of a landlubber really."
Meaning: A British person
Origin: Originally, this was a slang word for an English sailor. It came into being in the 19th century and was a reference to the Royal Navy’s practice of issuing its seamen with rations of limes as a means of preventing scurvy.
31. Bottoms Up
Meaning: An encouragement to drink or to finish one's drink
Origin: This imperative is believed to come from a time when English sailors were sometimes tricked into joining the navy. The trick involved giving the unsuspecting man a beer with a coin at the bottom. Once the poor man had hold of the coin, he was deemed to have accepted payment and was swiftly enrolled or press-ganged into the Royal Navy. It is said that as people began to wise up to the con-trick, they would say “bottoms up” to the people they drank with in order that they could check for any hidden coins at the bottom of their glasses.
32. Show One's True Colours
Meaning: show who one really is, reveal one's character (usually used in a negative way)
Origin: It was once common practice for ships to hoist their national flags before commencing battle. Some ships would carry flags from many countries and hoist "false flags" in order to confuse or mislead their enemies at sea. This was especially common among Spanish ships in the 17th century. This practice also introduced the term “bamboozle” into our language.
33. The Cut of One’s Jib
Meaning: The way one looks or conducts themself (usually negative)
Origin: In the early 1800s, sailors used the term “cut” to describe the condition of something. “Jib” is the name of the foresail that controls the general performance of a ship.
Example Sentence: "That new apprentice seems a bit too lackadaisical to me. I'm not sure that I like the cut of his jib."
34. Scraping the Barrel
Meaning: Obtaining the last dregs of something, procuring someone or something that is of very poor quality
Origin: On 17th-century ships, sailors would scrape empty barrels used to store salted meat to recover any remaining scraps.
Example Sentence: "My sister has a poor choice of men. By the looks of her latest boyfriend, she's really scraping the bottom of the barrel."
35. Trim One's Sails
Meaning: Adapt or change to fit altered circumstances
Origin: Originally, this referred to the act of changing a ship's sails to better suit and take advantage of the wind conditions.
36. Abandon Ship
Meaning: Leave (as in an executive leaving a failing company)
37. Rats Deserting a Sinking Ship
Meaning: people are leaving/abandoning a disgraced or failing activity or organisation
38. Close Quarters
Meaning: Tightly packed (as in people in a small space)
39. Learn the Ropes
Meaning: Learn or understand the basics of how to do something
40. Broad in the Beam
Meaning: Having wide hips
41. Like Ships that Pass in the Night
Meaning: A phrase used to describe a brief encounter or near-encounter (as in two people having been in the same place at the same time but not having run into one another)
42. Knock Seven Bells
Meaning: Launch an attack on someone so as to nearly finish them off
Origin: This idiom has its source in the system of bell-ringing that ships use to indicate how much of a four-hour shift has passed. For example, a ship's bell may be struck once for every thirty-minute period. Therefore, after eight bells have struck, a sailor's shift is over.
Meaning: Full to the point of bursting, crowded, full to the brim
Origin: This maritime phrase references the use of wooden wedges to secure moving objects the decks of ships.
44. As the Crow Flies
Meaning: The shortest distance between two points (as in a straight line)
45. Sent up the Pole
Meaning: Driven mad
Example Sentence: "Gregory is driving me up the pole with his constant demands that I buy him that new album."
46. Through Thick and Thin
Meaning: For better or for worse, no matter what happens
Origin: This phrase comes from the method of using both thin and thick pulleys and ropes used to hoist sails.
47. Pipe Down
Meaning: Be quiet
Origin: This saying is believed to have originated from the nautical practice of sounding the bosun's pipe at the end of each day to signal lights-out.
Example Sentence: "Oh pipe down! It's time you switched that darn music off."
48. Hand Over Fist
Meaning: Easily and quickly (in reference to making money)
Origin: Originally, this phrase referred to sailors pulling at a ship's lines as quickly as they could.
49. Stem the Tide
Meaning: Try to prevent a situation from becoming worse than it already is.
Example Sentence: "The government seems unable to stem the tide of violence that is sweeping across the country."
50. Keel Over
Meaning: Fall over
Origin: When a boat's keel emerges from the water, the boat is very likely to capsize.
I hope that you found this nautical journey relatively smooth sailing. There are, I am sure, many more phrases and expressions that can trace their roots back to the life experiences, trials and tribulations of those who have navigated our seas and oceans—often in flimsy craft—surviving and thriving through due to the toughness of their character and cooperation. Perhaps you wish to add some below?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: Is there a phrase or saying which wishes a sailor farewell?
Answer: It is common to wish a sailor goodbye by using the term: "may you have fair winds and following seas". The use of the expression "fair winds" is used to wish a person a safe journey or good fortune. Whilst "following seas" is used to express a smooth journey.
Question: Where does the phrase "at the wheel"’ come from?
Answer: This idiom can refer to any vehicle (car or boat) that has a steering wheel. It is also said when inferring that a person is in charge of something. Its origin is unclear. Indeed, concerning ships and boats, before the early 18th century, tillers were used to steer and it was only after this time that a ship's wheel became the prominent steering mechanism.
Question: What is meant by the expression: "the glass is turned"?
Answer: Traditionally, to turn your glass over is to indicate that you have had enough to drink and that you do not want it filling, or topping up again. This expression has come to mean that you have had enough of something and that you wish to either pause for reflection or to take a new course of action.
Question: Question: What is meant by the phrase "all aboard who's coming aboard"?
Answer: This phrase is said as a warning to passengers — reminding them that they need to hurry on board before the ship departs. The same phrase has also been used in conjunction with other forms of transport such as trains.
Question: How did you get from "choc a block", to a different quote "full to the brim" on #43?
Answer: An interesting question. Idioms are very effective at shortening what might otherwise be a long and complicated explanation. In the context of the idiom "choc a block", I was trying to demonstrate the meaning that something was full to the top, or squeezed together, and jammed full.
Question: What is the word used to describe the tying of a ship or boat alongside a dock for the night?
Answer: I believe the word you are looking for is "mooring". This is the act of securing a boat to the dock.
Question: I have heard of a nautical phrase beginning with "Calm seas and..." but I don't know how this expression ends. Can you help?
Answer: There are a number of sayings that essentially wish a person farewell and a safe journey. I believe the expression you have heard is: "Wishing you fair winds and calm seas".
Question: What is the expression used for wishing someone good and safe sailing? It concerns tide and wind.
Answer: The expression in question is to wish someone a fair wind and a following sea. To wish for fair winds is to hope for winds that are blowing in the direction of travel. While the phrase "following seas" refers to wave direction that matches the direction of travel of a ship. I have sometimes heard this expression used with a slight variation: "a fair wind and following tide." Both are often said as an expression of good luck and a safe journey.
Question: Are "bitter end" and "square meal" nautical terms?
Answer: The term "bitter end" does have a nautical background. This term refers to the fixing or fastening of the ship's anchor rope to the deck of the ship. It is the fastening of the end of the anchor rope to the bollards on deck (also called bitts or bitter end).
There are some references to “square meal” being linked to a navy practice during the time of Admiral Nelson, of serving sailors their food on square wooden plates. However, this is not a widely accepted attribution.
Question: What is meant by the phrase: "Turn a blind eye"?
Answer: This is a phrase commonly associated with Admiral Lord Nelson on the occasion of him having wilfully ignored a signal telling him to withdraw from a naval engagement. However, there is evidence to suggest that this expression was used years earlier by yet another admiral, this being Admiral Sir Hyde Parker at the battle of Copenhagen in 1801.
Question: What would "sailing away Huldy" mean?
Answer: I have not heard of this used as an idiom before. I have however heard of the tune titled: "Sail Away Huldy". I suspect that this is what you may have heard being referred too.
Question: What does the phrase "pull the anchor and the ship will sail mean"?
Answer: This expression is a way to say that removing an impediment will enable a journey or path to continue. It refers to the pulling up of a ships anchor, which will then enable the vessel to move from its berth.
Question: What does the term "in the cans" mean? It was part of a sentence which read: "whether in the cans or across the pond." I know that the pond is a term for the Atlantic, but what does the term "in the cans" mean?
Answer: Like you, I have heard reference to the "the pond" as meaning across the Atlantic. I have not directly heard of this phrase being used in conjunction with the expression "in the cans." The only nautical references that I can source about the word cans are: 1, slang for a naval destroyer. 2, a sailing term for racing around a buoyed course. Or 3, a derivation of a German word describing a small vessel.
Question: In my coastal family the phrase "boat happy", would mean someone who was near the end of a task and was so excited that they were not necessarily doing it very well. Do you think this originated from a sailor nearing the end of a long voyage? Never heard it anywhere else but we all understood its meaning.
Answer: There are a number of nautical phrases that have a similar meaning as "boat happy". An example being: "whatever floats your boat". I have heard "boat happy" being used in a similar context to yourself. I am sure that it has a nautical context and origin but is one that seems to be used in certain areas of the country more than in others and its precise origin seems uncertain.
Question: What does the phrase: "A storm in a teacup" mean?
Answer: This means that the significance of the issue is small. To say that a problem has been blown out of all proportion.
Question: What is a “sailor’s ramble”? As in, "I have been on a sailor’s ramble."
Answer: To ramble is to wander or habitually roam. There is a folk song called "The Rambling Sailor" which expresses the meaning of this far more succinctly than I can. The 4th verse of which goes:
"And if you want to know my name,
My name it is young Johnson.
I have got a commission from the king
To court all girls that are handsome.
With my false heart and flattering tongue
I court all girls both old and young;
I court them all and marry none,
And still be a rambling sailor".
Question: Why is a ship's prison called the "rattle?"
Answer: A ships prison is more commonly referred to as a brig. A ship that has been converted to a floating prison is usually referred to as a hulk. I have heard of them being described as a rattle on rare occasions - usually when referring to the noise of prison chains rattling beneath the ship's deck. Interestingly, the author Paul Dowsell refers in his book - "Prison Ship: The Adventures of Sam Whitchall", to the rattling noise of prisoners chains scraping on the decks as they hobbled around.
Question: Does the expression, “a rising tide floats all ships” actually have any historically nautical based roots?
Answer: There is some debate over the exact origins of this expression. Two of the main observations are that it was popularised by politics and a speech by J.F. Kennedy in 1963, when he was discussing economics. The second was from around 1910, where it was mentioned in a religious publication and cited as being first stated by a Commissioner McFarland in a speech at a dinner event.
Question: What is the term used to describe sailing around the world?
Answer: Circumnavigation is the term used to describe the complete navigation around the world.
Question: What is the origin of the phrase "worse things happen at sea"?
Answer: There are a number of notable references to the use of this expression. Examples being: Author Nevil Shute used this in his novel "No Highway" in 1948. It has also been attributed to Spanish veterans returning from their conflict with the U.S.A in 1898. I suspect that the actual origin of this phrase may never be known.
Donelly on July 13, 2020:
im interested in knowing what terms were used for actual sailing...like ready to tack...coming about...the sails are luffing...also the names lke halyard, sheets, boom...main stay, etc...wonder how they changed from back then...
James kennerley on June 14, 2020:
I have heard that the freezing of balls on a brass monkey is actually the original saying , from sea spray freezing the balls as opposed to the brass shrinking as indicated by wikipedia. Do you know which is correct?
Ben Reed (author) from Redcar on January 15, 2020:
Thank you for your comment. Extremely well explained and enlightening.
Al Dumas on January 14, 2020:
Re "Three sheets to the wind:" Small harbor boats that shuttled between the larger ships and the dock were frequently sloop rigged -- a main sail and a foresail called a jib. The "ropes" that controlled these sails are called sheets. The foresail had two sheets, usually only one of which was used depending upon whether one was on starboard or port tack, and the mainsheet. Additionally, they used rudders. Now you could control the boat with two sheets without the rudder, or even one sheet with the rudder, but not just the rudder alone. So if all three sheets were blowing in the wind, you were out of control -- hence, very, very drunk.
Anita on November 05, 2019:
Docking at night...coming alongside. not mooring.
Ben Reed (author) from Redcar on October 16, 2019:
The bowsprit is a part of a small sailing vessel. It refers to the spar extending forward from the prow of the ship. Its purpose is to act as an anchor point for the forestay (rigging that keeps the mast from falling backward).
mr zamsul bin ekhsan on October 15, 2019:
what is bowsprit
Ben Reed (author) from Redcar on June 17, 2018:
Thank you for your comment Louise. We certainly use phrases like these far more than we realise. Its only when we pause and think about them a while that we start to realise how dull our vocabulary might be without them.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on June 17, 2018:
It's surprising how many of these phrases you use in every day life. Very interesting!