50 Nautical Terms and Sailing Phrases That Have Enriched Our Language

Updated on June 17, 2018
Ben Reed profile image

Ben has held a life-long interest in language and has a special interest in the expressions, phrases and idioms that contribute to its use.

Nautical Idioms and Phrases

This article describes 50 idioms and phrases that have their origins in all things nautical. Sea-faring has a long and rich history and many of the characteristics and activities of life on the ocean waves have seeded the growth of nautical terminology and sailing terms that have subsequently found their way into our language in the form of idioms, phrases and slang.

Nautical Idioms and Phrases - All Aboard

Idioms and Phrases Sourced From The Sea

Idioms and phrases sourced from life at sea are as diverse and abundant as the sailors who have travelled the oceans for centuries. It should be no surprise therefore that many nautical terms and sayings have been incorporated into our everyday language.

We often try to choose our words very carefully. However, we rarely seem to give too much thought to where the source of many expressions used have their origins. When we do delve into this world of words, we discover a fascinating and enticing story, full of tradition, history and useful advice gleamed from the life experiences of those who helped create them.


All Aboard. Let’s Start Our Journey with These Sailing Phrases and Idioms.

1. On Board

To be part of the Crew – part of a team.

Example Sentence: "We should invite Anita to join us on the project."

2. To Go by the Board

To finish with.

Example Sentence: "We used to always be able to rely on bus timetable, but is has gone completely by the board nowadays."

3. To Take Something on Board

To fully understand what is being said or instructed.

Example Sentence: "Now that I have reinstated the reasons for the decision, I hope that this is something that you can take on board."

4. To Give a Wide Berth

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 when anchored will still move with the tide, only the length of 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

A way of saying that you should be preparing for trouble. Believed to have its origin in the sailing practice of securing a ship’s hatchways ahead of bad weather. These hatchways were usually covered by a grill or left open to allow the circulation of fresh air. When bad weather threatened, the crew would cover these openings with tarpaulins, fastening them in place with wooden battens.

In Peril at Sea. Danger Ahead for these Sailors

6. To Be Caught Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.

To be trapped / caught between significant difficulties.

A way of saying that someone is in a predicament. They are in a dangerous place with no easy way out. Believed to have its source in the historical nautical practice of sealing the seams between a ships wooden planks with hot tar. The devil in this context, is sourced in the name given to the seam which is the one usually the longest one on a ship and the seam most prone to leaking.

7. Down in the Doldrums

Used by sailors to describe the situation where no wind was present, sometimes for weeks at a time. Meaning that at a time when sailors relied solely on wind power, 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. To be in Deep Water

A way of saying that a person is in trouble.

Example Sentence: "Joey needs to be very careful he mixes with, he is danger of getting himself into deep water with that gang of lads."

9. All at Sea

To be 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. To be High and Dry

A way of saying that something or someone is stranded without any hope of recovering the situation.

11. To be Three Sheets to the Wind

A way of saying that someone is very, very drunk.

12. To Be Left High and Dry

A way of saying that someone has been left in a difficult situation.

13. To Sail Close to the Wind

A way of describing someone who is taking risks perhaps being close to breaking the law.

Example Sentence: "Jack is pushing his luck driving that car to the local garage on his own. You know he hasn't a full driving licence and if you ask me, he is sailing close to the wind with that idea."

14. Sink or Swim

A way of saying that someone will either fail (sink) or succeed (swim) in their endeavour or task.

Example Sentence: "He is staking his entire weeks salary on the turn of a card. It certainly looks like he is going to either sink or swim if he goes ahead with it."

15. Dead in the Water

A way to describe a situation where no further progress is being made. It has come to an end.

Three Sheets To The Wind - Video

These Nautical Terms Might Rock the Boat a Little

16. To Rock the Boat

A way of saying that a person has done something to disturb or aggravate the balance in a situation.

Example Sentence: " I don't want to rock the boat, but I think I should say something about his behaviour."

17. All Hand’s on Deck

A way of saying that everyone needs to help and assist in resolving a problem.

18. A Shot Across the Bows

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

A way of saying that a person is unpredictable. They are off doing their own thing without regards to others. Believed to have its origin from the mayhem caused on ships when a cannon breaks free from its mooring during a storm or in battle.

20. To Make Waves

A way of saying that someone is making / causing trouble.

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."

Shipshape and Bristol Fashion. Life at Sea can Sometimes be Plain Sailing.

21. Plain Sailing

A way of saying smooth and easy progress is being made.

22. Hunky-dory

A way of saying that something is perfect or just fine. 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.

23. Copper Bottomed

A way of saying that something is very stable or very safe. An idiom often used these days in financial circles.

Example Sentence: "This is a great deal. High return with no risk - it's copper bottomed guaranteed."

24. To be on the Right Track

A way of saying that someone / you are taking the line that leads to the correct conclusion.

This phrase stems from sailing, where if you take the correct sailing line, you end up where you want to be. In the event that a sailor takes the wrong track / line, you they would end up in the wrong direction.

25. To be Shipshape and Bristol Fashion

A way of saying that everything is 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. To Run a Tight Ship

A way of describing someone who is very strict in how they manage an organisation.

Example Sentence: "That new manager sees very organised, he certainly seems to be running a tight ship."

27. Turned the Corner

This idiom means to turn a corner or a critical point on the way to somewhere better or safer.

Believed to have origins from sailors who had passed the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa and / or Cape Horn at the southern end of South America.

28. To Make up Leeway.

A way of saying that you have to make up for time already lost or wasted. In maritime terminology, leeway refers to the distance that a ship has deviated from its proper course.

A True Limey or a Land Lubber?

29. A Land Lubber

A nautical phrase 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 land lubber really."

30. Limey

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.

Bottoms Up

31. Bottoms Up

A term used when encouraging others to drink something. It is believed to have its origins 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 the glass.

Bottoms Up - Drinker Beware

Better Check that check the bottom of the glass first mate.
Better Check that check the bottom of the glass first mate.

More Sea-going Phrases and Idioms. Don’t Let Them Bamboozle You.

32. To Show Your True Colours

A way of saying that someone has shown who the really are. Usually used in a negative way. This phrase has its origins in use of flags or pennants by warships long ago. They would carry flags from many countries in order to confuse or mislead their enemies at sea. It was common practice back then, for ships to hoist their national flags before commencing battle.

In the 17th century it was common for Spanish ships to hoist false flags in order to confuse their enemy. This practice introduced the term “to bamboozle” into our language.

33. The Cut of Someone’s Jib

A way of saying you dislike the way they look or conduct themselves. This has origins in the early 1800’s. 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 to lackadaisical to me. I'm not sure that I like the cut of his jib."

Scraping The Barrel

To Scrape The Bottom of The Barrel

34. Scraping the Barrel

The nautical origin of the phrase stems from the practice on 17th century ships, of scraping the empty barrels used to store salted meat. Today, way say this when wanting to describe someone or something that is of very poor quality.

Example Sentence: "My sister has a poor choice of men, her latest boyfriend looks like she has really scraped the bottom of the barrel this time."

Don’t Abandon Ship Just Yet. More Nautical Terms that have Enriched our Language

35. Trim Your Sails

An idiom, that is used to say someone should adapt or change to fit altered circumstances.

The act of trimming a ships sails, is to change the sails to suit and take advantage of the wind conditions.

36. To Abandon Ship

A way of saying that someone is leaving. Usually used with reference to a person leaving a company.

37. Like Rats Deserting a Sinking Ship

A way of saying that people are leaving / abandoning an activity or organisation.

38. At Close Quarters

To be very close.

39. To Learn the Ropes

To learn or understand how to do something.

40. To be Broad in the Beam

A way saying that a person has wide hips.

Like a Rat Deserting a Sinking Ship

Rat looking for a way off ship
Rat looking for a way off ship

Does the Language of Ocean Going Sailors Send you up the Pole?

41. Like Ships that Pass in the Night

A way of describing a situation where meeting is transitory or fleeting.

42. To Knock Seven Bells

This idiom has its source in the system of bell ringing that ships use to indicate how much of a 4 hourly shift has passed. For example, the ships bell is struck once for every thirty-minute period. Therefore, after eight bells have struck, the sailors shift is over. The term knock seven bells out of someone, has come to mean to launch an attack on someone so as to nearly finish them off.

43. Choc a Block

A maritime phrase which references the used of wooden wedges to secure moving object on board ships. A phrase commonly used today to say that someone is totally fed up.

44. As the Crow Flies

A way of describing the shortest distance between two points.

45. The Cut of One’s Jib

To make reference to a person’s appearance or demeanour.

46. To be Sent up the Pole

A way of saying that something is driving you mad.

Example Sentence: "Gregory is driving me up the pole with his constant demand that I buy him that new album."

47. Through Thick and Thin

A way of saying that you will stand by someone no matter what happens. Its nautical link comes from the method of both thin and thick pulleys and ropes used to hoist sails.

48. Pipe Down

A way of saying that someone should be quiet. Believed to have originated from the nautical practice of sounding the Bosun's pipe at the end of each day, signalling lights-out.

Example Sentence: "Oh pipe down! It's time you switched that darn music off."

49. Hand Over Fist

Originally, referred to sailors pulling at a ships lines as quickly as they could. Today this phrase is more commonly used to describe a situation where someone is making lots of money.

50. Stem the Tide

A way of saying that someone should 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."

Like Ships that Pass in the Night

Conclusion

I hope that you found this nautical journey of interest and relatively smooth sailing. There are, I am sure, many more phrases and expressions that can trace their roots back to the life experiences and trials and tribulations of those who sailed our sea's and oceans often in flimsy craft, surviving and thriving through the toughness of their character and reliance on each other. Perhaps you may wish to add them below?

Questions & Answers

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      • Ben Reed profile imageAUTHOR

        Ben Reed 

        8 weeks ago from Redcar

        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.

      • Coffeequeeen profile image

        Louise Powles 

        8 weeks ago from Norfolk, England

        It's surprising how many of these phrases you use in every day life. Very interesting!

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