The Book of Maritime Idioms
A curious collection of sailing terms that found new meaning in the English language
There are many old sailing, maritime, and nautical terms that found new meaning in the modern English language. From feeling blue to showing your true colours; from pipe down to eating a square meal per day, all these modern expressions find their origin in the maritime industry.
The comprehensive list of 200+ idioms will surprise you. Beautifully illustrated, this book covers the etymology of the idiom, its current meaning, and an example of how we use the idiom in modern-day speak.
My intentions were rather light-hearted when researching, gathering, interpreting, and collating idioms that find their origin in the maritime industry. I was indeed surprised to find as many nautical idioms as I did. Still, there is no claim that this list is neither comprehensive nor accurate. The etymology of several of the idioms quoted in this book is shaky at best and should be read in that context.
The paintings in the book are a random collection of maritime art of which all are in the public domain. Most are by established artists long gone; some are from unknown artist. Nevertheless, a salute to their efforts in creating such a magnificent window into our nautical past.
Like many things in life, collating a book of idioms is a team effort.
My thanks go out to my wife who must be on the brink of divorcing me due to the constant barrage of idioms coming her way, my requests for her opinion and a lot of “Have you ever heard this one?” are numerous and proofreading my pen is never an easy task. However, the fact that you are reading this means it is all over and our normal lives will continue as before. (I have not mentioned my new book about maritime superstitions…)
Thank you Michelle…
Also, a “thank you” to my old friend Ken Reed who took on the
roll role (thanks Ken) of editing the book. This task cannot be underestimated as English is not my first language and therefore the occasional Dutch word makes its way into the copy.
Thank you Ken…
Because I’m a sailor and because I know which side my bread is buttered on, this book is dedicated to Poseidon; sovereign of the seas and all that is in or on it. A honourable mention goes to Boreas the North-Wind, Zephryos the West-Wind, Notos the South-Wind and Euros the East-Wind.
Current meaning: A cheerful gesture encouraging your mate to finish his drink so you can order another one.
Current usage: “Bottoms up mate, I have to be home for dinner before 6.”
However, the origin of ‘bottoms up’ is much more sinister. It derives its meaning from the days of ‘shanghaiing’ or ‘crimping’, which was a common practice to combat an enormous labour shortage in the old navies around the world. In essence, you would be tricked (at best, as some were just kidnapped) into contracting with the navy for your services. It was most likely called shanghaiing because at the time a lot of ships simply sailed to Shanghai. The unscrupulous individuals engaged in shanghaiing were called crimps, hence crimping is synonymous with shanghaiing. So, with this background out of the way, where did ‘bottoms up’ originate from? Well in torts (judge-made law), contracts require some basic elements for a contract to be legal. Consideration is one of these elements, that is, some payment for services rendered. So here is what the crimp got up to:
“So, Smithies, you look like you could use a beer. Have one on me…”
“Gee, thanks, glug, glug, glug, glug…aaaaah…hey, what is this penny doing in the bottom of my glass?”
“Well Smithies, that my man, is the payment you just accepted to serve in Her Majesty’s Navy. All legal, done and dusted. We sail tomorrow at high tide and these six large, rough-looking gentlemen will escort you right now to your new home for the next 6 years.”
After some time, the unsuspecting citizens of coastal towns and villages caught on to this legal but despicable practice and became a bit more cautious.
“Gents, you all look like you could use a beer.”
“Sure mate, and end up like my brother Smithies! Before we accept your beer, we would like to see if there isn’t something hidden at the bottom of the glasses. So, hold those bottoms up so we can check.”
Okay, I think we got there in the end.
I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole
Current meaning: To avoid something at all costs.
Current usage: “John’s investment strategy is so bad that I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole.”
Barge poles are very long wooden poles used to guide barges through narrow channels and locks as well as pushing barges along. The first time the idiom was used was in 1893 in Lady Monkswell’s Diary:
“It will be a long while before any political party touches Home Rule again with the end of a barge pole.”
Today, this very widely used idiom simply means that you do not like something and would like to stay well away from it. For example:
“Smithies, I’m going to clean the heads.”
“Sir, I wouldn’t touch that job with a (ten-foot) barge pole.”
Current meaning: Make things neater or better by removing unwanted elements.
Current usage: “After going to the gym for ten weeks, he is looking pretty trim.”
Originally used to manage weight distribution on a vessel including cargo and passengers. As a result of ‘trimming’, the correct balance made the ship sit level on the water so it could sail more effectively and safely. Subsequently, the sails were ‘trimmed’ to further support the vessel’s stability and performance. In today’s language, trim can mean anything from being in good order to a well-shaped body.
Current meaning: To make it more beautiful or attractive.
Current usage: “Oil paintings adorned the tall walls of the castle.”
From the Latin ‘adornare’, meaning to embellish. Adorning was used in the early days of shipbuilding where ornate carvings were added to the vessel for purely aesthetic or religious/superstitious reasons. Now mainly used as a synonym for making things more beautiful or attractive.
Lay of the land
Current meaning: Having a situational awareness.
Current usage: “He negotiated his way to the top of the company as he knew the lay of the land well.”
The lay of the land was used to extrapolate the depth and makeup of the seabed before we had detailed charts, marks, or depth sounders. It was assumed that, as a general rule, if the shore was rocky and steep then this would carry on under the waterline. Or, if the lay of the land was sandy and flat, one could assume the seabed was shallow and sandy. Today we use ‘lay of the land’ to show we have a good understanding of our surroundings both figuratively and literally.
Current meaning: To move forward with ideas or concepts.
Current usage: “The plans they made were solid, so they forged ahead with the financing.”
The nautical term ‘forging ahead’ means moving the vessel forward slowly. Today we simply use the idiom to mean ‘press on’, be it slowly or otherwise.
Current meaning: Someone’s first experience doing something.
Current usage: “Expansion into China was the company’s maiden voyage towards international growth.”
Literally, a ‘maiden voyage’ is the first journey made by a ship or spacecraft. As an idiom, we may broaden this to include anything new we are about to embark on.
For example: “Smithies admitted that it was his maiden voyage and not to expect too much of him, when he entered a breakdancing competition for the very first time.”
Current meaning: Force or trick someone into a place or situation.
Current usage: “Smithies was shanghaied into Big Bob’s cabin for a nightcap.”
To shanghai someone means that you force someone to do something they have not willingly signed up for. The expression finds its origin in the practice of forcefully recruiting crew into the Royal Navy (see ‘press into service’). This was achieved by using unconscionable methods ranging from drugging the potential sailor to deceit (see ‘bottoms up’) or violence.
However, shanghaiing was specifically referred to when commercial ship owners adopted the same practice. The term shanghaiing was probably adopted because a lot of the ships had Shanghai as one of their destinations.
Press into service
Current meaning: To use someone or something when a special need arises.
Current usage: “Dad’s old VW was pressed into service after the new car broke down.”
Due to a severe shortage of crew, the British Navy found new sailors by deception or plain kidnapping. This was referred to as impressment and was executed by press gangs. It is synonymous with ‘shanghaiing’ or ‘crimping’. See also ‘bottoms up’.
Let her rip
Current meaning: To go ahead with something without restraint.
Current usage: “Although the car was doing 100km/h already, Mary decided to let her rip.”
This idiom means to go as fast as physics allows. As in: “Going around the last corner towards the finish line, Smithies let her rip and won the race.” The term is derived from American steamboats conducting racing activities and putting too much pressure on their machines resulting in the steam boiler blowing up or ripping apart.
Between the Devil and the deep blue sea
Current meaning: You have run out of options other than two; neither of them great.
Current usage: “John found himself between the Devil and the deep blue sea after hearing his diagnosis.”
You are ‘between a rock and a hard place’ is one interpretation of this idiom. In that context, the Devil is just that, the Devil, and the deep blue sea doesn’t hold much promise either. In this interpretation, we say that we have two choices and neither of them is good.
But this is a nautical idiom list so we will go with the ‘real’ origin. The ‘devil’ is described as the outer plank on the deck of a ship. It is often thicker than the other deck planks to add strength, so it is somewhat more problematic to caulk (waterproof) particularly at the outer edge where sailors needed to be on the outer side of the railing.
“Smithies, today you are re-caulking the devil’s outer edge.”
“That sounds like a fantastic job sir. I just love working between the devil and the deep blue sea.”
The captain noticed some level of sarcasm but let it go.
There be the devil to pay
Current meaning: Suggests the imminent consequences of one’s actions.
Current usage: “Even before announcing the increase in retirement age, he knew there be the devil to pay.”
As we have just seen, the devil is no more than a part of a ship. A large plank strengthens the outer side where the hull meets the deck.
The full quote is “the devil to pay and no pitch hot”. There is a clear nautical connection because “pay” was synonymous with waterproofing or caulking. The material used to caulk was called pitch. Because of the extremely hot pitch, sailors recognised this as a hazardous job. However, not doing so would increase the risk at sea due to potential leaking and flooding.
Current meaning: To begin something.
Current usage: “Get the project underway now or it will never happen.”
We begin a journey or a project and say that we are underway. The well-documented nautical term ‘way’ means ‘moving’, as it refers to the ‘way’ created by the bow moving through the water. These small bow waves can only, by definition, be created when the ship moves forward.
The ‘under’ part of underway may stem from the fact that under sail and underway were for some time interchangeable and so were combined.
Further evidence can be found by looking at the Dutch word ‘onderweg’, which means that you have started your journey. Because many Dutch sailing terms entered the English language in the 1700s, it seems a credible explanation of the origin of ‘getting underway’.
Hard and fast
Current meaning: Fixed, inflexible and definitive.
Current usage: “His hard and fast attitude will one day be his downfall.”
When someone is said to be hard and fast asleep it means that person will not wake up in a hurry.
It is 100% clear that this is a nautical expression as it has been used for centuries. Its literal meaning is simply ‘a beached ship’. We know it is an old idiom because folks were already using hard and fast figuratively in the early 1800s. ‘Hard and fast’ is synonymous with ‘high and dry’.
Batten down the hatches
Current meaning: Preparing for bad things to come.
Current usage: “With the upcoming budget, most departments were battening down the hatches.”
Batten down the hatches is clearly a nautical expression meaning that we need to prepare for troubled times ahead. Literally, the old sailing ships had hatches which had an open grate for covering.
When bad weather was imminent, the hatches were covered with canvas. However, this would just blow away if not fixed to the hatch, and this was done with battens.
Current meaning: A reserve of money used for illegal purposes, often associated with political bribery.
Current usage: “The Union’s slush fund financed the illegal employees on the docks of Sydney.”
Today we associate a slush fund with money set aside for unethical purposes such as bribery. However, the origin is very different and less dishonest, but equally dubious. Sailors used to get rations of beef, which contained some level of fat. Fat in those days was in high demand and a consumable that was easily sold on the open market. The sailors may have collectively carefully separated the fat from their meat and stored this to be sold at the next port. The ‘pot’ in which the fat was temporarily stored was called the slush fund.
Current meaning: Feeling down or sad.
Current usage: “I was feeling rather blue after my girlfriend left me.”
Feeling blue is an idiom we use a lot when we are feeling down or depressed, but where did it come from? There are some schools of thought that argue that the term ‘feeling blue’ came from a maritime custom of raising a blue flag after the ship’s captain died. On return to the home port, the blue flag was raised, notifying the authorities in advance about the demise of the captain. A negative connotation is associated with the fact that the crew either were feeling generally sad about the loss of their leader or perhaps more a feeling of apprehension as they had a bit of explaining to do as to the death of their master to avoid any accusations of mutiny.
Down in the doldrums
Current meaning: Feeling down or depressed.
Current usage: “After his mother died, Smithies was down in the doldrums for months.”
Being stuck at sea without the prospect of wind is an unenviable situation, particularly if the wind is the only mode of propulsion. The Doldrums is an actual area of low pressure that is found just north of the equator. It is known for extremely light winds or no wind and spans several hundred nautical miles. The area is known as the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone or simply ‘itch’.
Today we use the idiom to express that we are not in a good (mental) space.
All hands on deck
Current meaning: A particular job needs everyone to pull together to achieve the desired outcomes.
Current usage: “When the flood waters receded, it was all hands on deck for the cleaning crew.”
When we need to get things done, we say all hands on deck, denoting that everyone needs to assist in the task ahead. This is not so different in nautical terms. The order ‘all hands’ or the longer version ‘all hands on deck’ was given to all crew and officers of all ranks to assemble on the deck for a task, a briefing or any other activity that required all ship’s personnel to be involved.
A square meal (per day)
Current meaning: A sizable, fulfilling, and balanced meal.
Current usage: “The miller’s pay was low, but he was provided three square meals per day for free.”
That was an excellent meal, and it filled me up to the brim. The origin of the idiom ‘square meal’ dates to mid-16th century Royal Navy practices where sailors were served their main meal on a square wooden plate. Although some argue that the etymology is simpler and stems from the word square as in ‘right’. This has a lot of merit as the word square means right in the context of ‘right angle’, that is, square. This is further supported by the fact that we use sayings like ‘fair and square’ and to ‘square things away’. However, this is a list of nautical idioms, so we need to cling to the former, much more romantic explanation.
Broad in the beam
Current meaning: Someone with big hips or generally overweight.
Current usage: “After John came back from his holiday, he seemed a bit broad in the beam.”
Sorry to those who may be offended, but broad in the beam refers to the hips, and often highlights hips of a generous diameter.
First used by Captain John Smith, it denotes the widest part of a ship. There is little imagination needed to link the nautical term with the modern-day idiom.
Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey
Current meaning: Denotes that it is very cold.
Current usage: “The weather front was cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey.”
That seems very cold to me, and I guess that is precisely what the idiom is trying to say. It finds its origin (arguably) in maritime folklore where the iron cannonballs were stacked in a pyramid next to the cannon ready use when the need arose. We have all seen it at the movies, where 1 cannonball sits on 4, sits on 9, sits on 16, sits on 25 cannonballs (an interesting mathematical conundrum but that is a different story). This pyramid was constructed on a brass plate which was called the brass monkey. It had the right number of indentations to hold the bottom layer of cannonballs. In freezing conditions, the brass plate contracted at a quicker and more pronounced rate compared to the iron cannonballs positioned on the plate. The brass monkey then became too small to contain the bottom layer of cannonballs, and hence the cannonballs would roll-off; thus freezing the balls of the brass monkey.
In any case, a nice well-circulating folk tale. Personally, stacking cannonballs in this manner on a ship on the open sea seems challenging at best but let’s not have facts stand in the way of a great idiom.
I don’t like the cut of his jib
Current meaning: Not liking someone’s general looks or character.
Current usage: “That new guy in sales – for some reason, I just don’t like the cut of his jib.”
In the early 16th century, the way the headsail or jib was shaped could give a good indication as to the nationality of a ship. So, the conversation may have gone something like this:
“What is up Smithies?”
“Sir, I do not like the cut of her jib. Although she looks dead in the water and is displaying the English flag, I think she is not showing her true colours. Looking at her jib, it seems like a Spanish ship to me.”
By the 17th century, non-maritime folk started using the expression simply to say that they didn’t like a person’s general demeanour.
Current meaning: A final action or obituary.
Current usage: “The company rang eight bells in honour of its deceased founder.”
Ringing eight bells at sea meant that a four-hour watch had ended. There would be a debrief from the outgoing to the incoming watch about navigational issues such as hazards ahead, other vessels in proximity, the weather, compass headings, and all other information the new watch needed to sail the ship. The bell was a great tool to announce all types of information from fog warnings to letting sailors know what time it was. The sharp sound of the bell was easily heard above the sound of the wind and weather. The bell was rung in sets of two to indicate the full hour followed by a single to add the half hour. I.e., eight bells each half hour for four hours where each half hour was gauged from an hourglass.
Today, we often use the idiom to denote that someone retired or has died. In this case, the “watch” may signify someone’s career or life respectively.
Current meaning: Asking someone to be quiet, talk less or at least less loudly.
Current usage: “Please pipe down! I’m on the phone!”
“Shut up! Pipe down! It is time for a bit of quiet!” You’ve heard the expression enough times but where did it come from? Well, the bosun’s whistle is referred to as a ‘pipe’ because when you blow on it you ‘pipe’ a command rather than whistle one. It is a rudimentary high-pitched instrument that was used to communicate orders and commands over the noise of the sea or battle. It was also used to order the crew to move into their night routine. Shortly thereafter, most sailors would bunk down and go to sleep. Hence the connection between the old pipe down command and the modern ‘be quiet’ idiom.
The two most likely actual commands that underpin the idiom are:
The command ‘pipe down’ was given to signify that all the crew but the watch was dismissed and could attend to other duties or recreational time (sleep).
Word to be passed
Important orders via the bosun’s pipe were easy to miss over the noise of the ocean or battle. This was a preparatory command that indicated that an important command was to follow. It commanded the crew to be silent and listen out for the next order.
The side or away galley
High ranking officers in the Royal Navy where often seen hoisted on board ships whilst sitting on chairs perhaps out of arrogance or because they were too unfit. The haul command was used followed by a controlled release to lower the officer onto the deck. This command is still used today when embarking and disembarking VIPs.
Three sheets to the wind
Current meaning: To be very drunk.
Current usage: “He stumbled out of the pub three sheets to the wind.”
Last night he was three sheets to the wind, so I don’t think he is having any drinks tonight. If you are three sheets to the wind you are out-of-control drunk. There are two very credible pathways for getting to the origin of this idiom. One finds the origin in sailing, and the other in windmills. You make up your own mind if we can claim this one.
The windmill theory
The miller referred to the sails on his mill as sheets. The size and the number of sheets he used depended on the wind conditions, with two constants – the number of sheets was always an even number (2 or 4), and the sheets were always opposite each other. Deploying the third sheet without an opposite would create severe instability and cause wobbles and vibrations to the point where the mill could collapse. From there, it is easy to see the connection to the use of the idiom in modern-day language.
The sailing theory
Sheets in a sailing context refer to ropes that control the sails. When a sheet fails, the sail starts to luff and flap about. One could argue that if you lose control of three sheets, the situation would be rather chaotic as the ship would potentially stop dead in the water and start to respond more viciously to the swell and waves, almost emulating the uncontrolled stagger of a drunk person.
High and dry
Current meaning: Lacking any resources or help.
Current usage: “After the cook resigned on the spot, the restaurant owner was left high and dry.”
When the tide runs out, an anchored vessel could be stranded and find itself out of the water. The vessel is said to be high and dry. Today we use the idiom to express a desperate situation. Smithies was left high and dry when his speaker’s notes caught fire minutes before his speech was due…
See ‘Hard and Fast’ and ‘Stranded’.
Current meaning: Belonging to the upper classes.
Current usage: “The Rolls Royce belonged to the posh looking gentleman down the street.”
We’ve all heard ‘posh’ used to denote a person with style and money. The origin of the adjective may stem from the anecdotal tale of P.O.S.H. or ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’.
From the mid-17th to the mid-18th century, the Oriental Steam Navigation Company ferried passengers from England to India. On the way to India, the port side cabins were favoured because of the setting sun and the swell conditions. Returning home, naturally, the starboard cabins we in higher demand because of the same reason. So as a clever marketing ploy, the company offered Port Out, Starboard Home tickets where passengers had the best cabins on both the Indian leg as well as the home leg of their journey. As those passengers with a ticket stamped P.O.S.H. were often the wealthy and trend-setters of their day, they were later known to be posh people.
The story draws some credibility after the release of the 1968 musical-fantasy film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. During the movie, Grandpa Potts, played by Lionel Jeffries, is suspended in an outdoor dunny from a hot air balloon, where he sings a song praising the luxuries of travelling “P-O-S-H”.
Oh, the posh, posh traveling life
The traveling life for me
First cabin and captain’s table
When I’m at the helm, the world’s my realm
And I do it stylishly
Port-out, starboard home
Posh with a capital P-O-S-H
Unfortunately, there is no evidence to date of any documentation that shows P.O.S.H. in printed form within the context just described. If you visit your grandmother next, ask her if she has any old voyage tickets lying about. We need this story to be true!
Current meaning: To be surprised or shocked.
Current usage: “She was taken aback when John asked her for her hand in marriage.”
When we are surprised enough to take a little jump backwards either literally or figuratively, we are ‘taken aback’. The origin of taken aback can be found in sailing. The sails of a vessel are said to be ‘aback’ when the wind pushes them against the masts and spars from which they are suspended. Also, a ship is said to be ‘taken aback’ when she is pointed into the wind and being pushed backwards. Both these events would have occurred unexpectedly, hence the connection with being surprised.
Current meaning: Misplaced and often reckless confidence induced by alcohol.
Current usage: “John needed some Dutch courage before asking Fiona out on a date.”
The Anglo-Dutch wars between England (now Great Britain) and the Dutch Republic (now Holland) were predominantly fought at sea. The expression ‘Dutch courage’ arguably came from the English soldiers, who noticed that there was a direct correlation between the consumption of Jenever (a Dutch gin) and the courage displayed by the consumers of the beverage. Today, however, we use the expression Dutch courage when a drunk is displaying a level of bravery that is clearly attributable to his inebriation.
As the crow flies
Current meaning: From one point to another in a straight line.
Current usage: “It is 23 kilometers to Hobart on the winding road, but only 10 kilometers as the crow flies.”
‘As the crow flies’ denotes the shortest route between two points, that is, a straight line on the map. In the days before sophisticated navigational aids, Vikings deployed crows as a last resort to find land. It is said that the crows would fly instinctively directly to the nearest land. Naturally, if the crow came back to the boat no land was in reach. A simple calculation of flight time and speed would tell the sailors that land was at least that distance or more away on that specific bearing. However, if the crow didn’t return it was assumed it found land and the sailors would set a course on the same bearing as the crow took.
Current meaning: Become unconscious or die.
Current usage: “He just keeled over and died from a heart attack.”
He was okay but then suddenly keeled over and died. The connection is pretty clear. When a boat’s keel is sticking out of the water it is upside down and something is severely wrong – the keel is (turned) over.
Current meaning: Slang for calling someone scum or a lowlife.
Current usage: “John is a real tow rag for cheating on his final test.”
Today a tow rag or toe rag means a person with no credibility, social standing or respect. The bottom of the barrel if you like. You can understand the negative connotation when we talk about the origin of the idiom.
In the glory days of sail, the British Royal Naval often had the ship’s ablutions at the rear or side of the ship. It basically consisted of a plank in the shape of what we now refer to as a toilet seat. It hangs over the water and the sailor would do his business through it. What was needed was a method of cleaning oneself after the deed was done. The solution was a rope that was frayed at the end. The frayed bit was just submerged and towed behind or next to the ship but in reach of the sailor in question. He would lift the rope (the tow rag) out of the water and clean himself with the frayed end, after which the tow rag was lowered back into the water to be cleaned and therefore ready for the next sailor.
To turn a blind eye
Current meaning: Pretending not to notice something.
Current usage: “The referee was accused of turning a blind eye to the infringement.”
To turn a blind eye, you refuse to acknowledge something that you know is true. This expression possibly came from Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronté. He was known for his brilliant tactics and strategy but was also blind in one eye. In the first Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker ordered a retreat and had the order signalled by flags to Nelson’s ship. However, Nelson ignored the signals. An account from one of his fellow officers states that Nelson put the telescope to his blind eye and reported not to have seen any signals, shortly after which they won the battle.
Current meaning: Someone finding themselves in a bad situation.
Current usage: “John’s investment went south and now he finds himself in dire straits.”
Finding yourself in dire straits means you are in danger. The connection to a nautical beginning is relatively straightforward. ‘Dire’ is derived from Latin. Latin words often have an array of meanings depending on the context, but dire can mean terrible, dreadful, or fearful.
Couple this with the conditions encountered at sea when sailing through troubled waters, and we can quickly see that sailors would refer to channels that are heavily affected by tide, wind, current and swell as dire straits.
Current meaning: In very good order.
Current usage: “Mum made sure the living room was shipshape before the guests arrived.”
The word shipshape is obviously of nautical origin. Because of the limited space available on ships, sailors were compelled to keep their quarters in a neat and orderly fashion to avoid things rolling about on heavy seas. In today’s language, we simply are saying to keep things neat, clean, and organised. The rarely used idiom ‘shipshape and Bristol fashion’ has a similar meaning, and refers to the port of Bristol, which was an exemplary port in its day.
Down the hatch
Current meaning: A friendly encouragement to drink.
Current usage: “He picked up his glass and shouted ‘down the hatch!’”
Bottoms up and down the hatch are both drinking expressions that find their origin in the maritime industry. When cargo is loaded onto ships it disappears through the hatch of the ship. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the ship consuming the cargo and perhaps hence the idiom.
Son of a gun
Current meaning: Used positively to praise someone.
Current usage: “He’s a pompous son of a gun, but his heart is in the right place.”
You thought a son of a gun was just a tough fellow. Perhaps its origin is somewhere in the mid-west in ‘them gun-slinging’ days, but originally, it was a nautical term for a child of uncertain parenting. When women were on-board ships they were often there for extended periods of time due to the long voyages and slow pace of the square-riggers. Naturally, some of these women gave birth during their voyage. This was often facilitated between two of the guns as it offered some limited privacy. If none of the sailors owned up to being the father, the captain would enter the birth into the ship’s log and denote that the child was a ’son of a gun’, that is father unknown.
Current meaning: A person who is unpredictable or hard to control.
Current usage: “So this guy I know proved to be a bit of a loose cannon.”
Yes, another maritime expression. Cannons on the old ships were heavy and in rough seas could do unspeakable damage to ship and crew if not secured properly. At around 1,000 kilograms each, it was essential not to have loose cannons on the gun deck.
Dead in the water
Current meaning: Something failed, and it will be difficult to rectify.
Current usage: “John’s plans to build a bridge between France and England were dead in the water.”
When something is moving neither forward nor backwards without any progress, it is said to be dead in the water. Like ‘down in the doldrums’ it denotes stagnation. A ship dead in the water is simply a ship that has lost all propulsion and is positioned in the same spot for a prolonged period.
Take a different tack
Current meaning: To try an alternative way of achieving something.
Current usage: “After the first take-over failed, the directors took a different tack.”
Figuratively, if you take a different tack, you are trying an alternative approach to solve a problem. In sailing, this is no less true. Tacking is a sailing manoeuvre that allows a sailing boat to sail as much into the wind as the boat and physics will allow. The bow is turned toward the wind so that the direction the wind strikes the bow changes from one side to the other. This is done repeatedly to achieve the desired bearing. For example, sailing up a narrow channel against the prevailing wind. However, the connection to the figurative meaning really is found in racing where a technician on a sailing boat reads the weather conditions and potentially spots more favourable conditions on different parts of the course. He or she would advise the skipper who may have to tack to realise the advantage.
Current meaning: Go away.
Current usage: “There is nothing for you here so shove off.”
Shove off is a nautical term that describes a boat moving away from the shore. In today’s language, we use it to tell someone to go away in an unflattering manner, that is, ‘get on your bike’.
I’ll take that on board
Current meaning: To consider or accept a suggestion or idea.
Current usage: “I will take your advice on board and let you know my decision tomorrow.”
“Your business requires more cash-flow to succeed.” “Okay, thanks for that advice, I’ll take it on board.”
A common idiom which is certainly derived from shipping meaning that you will consider an idea. Literally, you may take something on board a vessel to be stowed and taken on a journey.
Current meaning: To wait and not take any action.
Current usage: “Hang tight, I will be there in a minute to deal with the situation.”
To hang tight is to remain in the same position either physically or figuratively. The ambulance is on its way so hang tight. The stock price will recover so hang tight.
Naturally, we need to bring this back to a nautical origin, otherwise what is the point of being in this list? In 1854 in Bentley’s Miscellany ‘hang tight’ is relevant to a rope that controls the jib boom. He encourages the rope to hang tight and not fail, to enable him to sail away from his enemy. Is this the origin of hang tight?
Welcome on board
Current meaning: General greeting after joining something.
Current usage: “Welcome on board John, I’m sure you will like working here.”
A variation of the ‘on board’ series with a different meaning, but with a similar origin. In essence a welcoming gesture to an organisation or group.
Go by the board
Current meaning: To abandon something that you previously planned.
Current usage: “Due to lack of funds, her education went by the board.”
‘Go by the board’ means to abandon or reject something you previously supported. As in: “Now that granny has died, will her birthday party go by the board?”
It was used in nautical terms when someone fell overboard when working in the rigging and cleared the deck into the water.
Everything is hunky-dory
Current meaning: Everything is okay.
Current usage: “Everything was hunky-dory after the funding was approved.”
Everything is going well and without frustration. That may well ring true for the US sailor visiting Japan. There are two theories here:
The Japanese term ‘honcho dori’ freely translates into ‘main street’. When sailors enjoyed their R&R in the little back streets of Japanese ports, it was important for them to find their way back to their ship before the ship set sail. As most main streets lead to the docks, it is believed that finding honcho dori (the main street) made everything okay as the street would lead them to the ship and hence everything would be honky-dory.
There is another school of thought that argues along similar lines, with the main street (honcho dori) also at the centre of the story. However, this second possible origin of the idiom differs from the first by arguing that in many of the Japanese ports, the main street accommodates a certain adult entertainment industry popular with the sailors. So, getting to honcho dori made everything honky-dory.
Current meaning: Defending yourself against somebody or something.
Current usage: “He managed to fend off the thief with his baseball bat.”
We still fend off when we are trying to avoid our vessel from running into other vessels or the jetty. In order to do this, we make use of several fenders.
We also use it as an idiom to distance or defend ourselves from both verbal and physical attacks.
Get on board
Current meaning: Getting on the same page or supporting something.
Current usage: “Get on board or start looking for another job.”
The last of the ‘board’ variants is get on board, which in nautical terms simply means to get onto the ship. The idiom and figurative meaning is simply that you agree and participate in a concept or plan. For example:
“At first, I didn’t like John’s idea for an additional shop, but after he explained the benefits I got on board and fully supported the concept”.
Davy Jones’ locker
Current meaning: Generally, any bad place associated with death.
Current usage: “He never returned from his trip, and it is suspected he is in Davy Jones’ locker.”
Davy Jones’ locker is a metaphor for the bottom of the sea. It signifies the demise of sailors and ships that drowned and sunk respectively. As an idiom, it is used to denote a very bad place at best.
Allegedly, Davy Jones was the proprietor of a pub in London where unsuspecting sailors were drugged and put in boxes (lockers) and then awoke aboard a ship to realise they were now in the Navy. See ‘pressed into service’.
Making up leeway
Current meaning: To recover lost ground or time.
Current usage: “After a bad start, she is making up leeway and should finish first.”
Making up leeway is a simple idiom that means that you have fallen behind and are attempting to catch up. For example: “We made the wrong decision and now we are so far behind that I don’t think we can make up the leeway on our competitors.”
A nautical term from the 1600s, it refers to a ship drifting off its course towards the downwind (leeward) side.
Give me some leeway
Current meaning: To provide someone with the freedom to move or act.
Current usage: “Give me some leeway! You are such a micro-manager!”
The expression give me some leeway means to ask for some freedom, some latitude if you like. As stated before, leeway in nautical context is the sideways drift of a ship to leeward of the desired course.
Current meaning: A sailor at heart.
Current usage: “This limey has been living on his sailboat for 40 years.”
“She won gold in the Olympics in the Laser Radial class. I swear that girl was born a limey.”
Meaning that we think that this girl was born a sailor or is a born sailor.
The term Limey was given to sailors in the British Royal Navy in the 1800s because it was common practice to issue limes to avoid scurvy on their long voyages. The vitamins in the lime were said to have a beneficial effect.
Rats deserting a sinking ship
Current meaning: To abandon a project or enterprise when it is likely to fail.
Current usage: “Before the vote was counted, you could already see the rats deserting the sinking ship.”
Rats deserting a sinking ship is a saying among sailors explaining that before the ship sinks, the rats will abandon her. It is believed that the rats knew something the crew didn’t, so although rats could pose a major problem on ships, deserting rats were seen as a very bad omen.
When we use the phrase now, we often see the rats as neglectful individuals that profited off a failed enterprise.
Chewing the fat
Current meaning: To chat with someone in a casual and sociable way.
Current usage: “When Smithies caught up with his mate Billie, they chewed the fat until the early hours.”
A sailor’s rations were not a culinary smorgasbord of fresh produce. Fresh meat was an issue due to the lack of refrigeration, so low-quality pork or beef was often dried and salted to preserve it. A kind of jerky if you like. It was consumed more often than not below deck when the sailors had some spare time. The social setting combined the consumption of dried meat with the telling of tall tales. Hence, today we use chewing the fat where we have a casual conversation, some gossip or other verbalisation of what goes on in the world.
Current meaning: Take something (a machine) to pieces.
Current usage: “The engine was dismantled ready for cleaning and rebuilding.”
Originally, a naval term to strip a ship of its rigging, equipment, and fortifications before it was scrapped. Today, when we dismantle something, we simply take it apart.
Current meaning: Confused or fooled.
Current usage: “When the magician turned over the queen of spades the audience looked bamboozled.”
It was common practice for pirates in the late 1600s and early 1700s to fly a nation’s flag to allow them to approach other ships without suspicion. At the last minute, the pirates would hoist the Jolly Roger to strike fear into the hearts of their unsuspecting victims. See also ‘Showing your true colours’.
Knock seven bells out of someone
Current meaning: To give someone a severe beating.
Current usage: “Before he could protest, John got seven bells knocked out of him.”
The idiom to knock seven bells out of someone is predominantly used in Great Britain and indicates that someone was beaten up (either physically or metaphorically) to within an inch of their life.
The ship’s bell was used to communicate a lot of stuff, but one thing sailors paid extra attention to was the amount of time left on their watch. Often, sailors operated on a ‘4 hours on – 4 hours off’ roster. Each half-hour, the bell would indicate that the shift was a little closer to concluding. So, at the seventh bell, there was not a lot of time left to work. Therefore, the idiom focusses on this concept to denote that if you knock seven bells out of someone, you nearly finish him off.
A shot across the bow
Current meaning: To give someone a (final) warning.
Current usage: “The judge fired a shot across the bow of the defense lawyer after which he piped down.”
In modern-day language, a shot across the bow means you give someone a warning. As in:
“This is the second time you are late so consider this as a shot across the bow. Next time you will lose your job.”
In the navies around the world, a shot across the bow was often used to change the actions of another ship. For example, if a ship was ordered to stop using international signals and it refused to do so, a shot was fired just in front of the ship (across the bow). This was a warning and clearly communicated to the other ship that it was in range of the cannons and if they did not comply the cannons would fire next at the ship itself.
Current meaning: To stir things up.
Current usage: “Rather than complying, the suspect started to make some waves.”
This expression stems from the 1900s and suggests that it was more comfortable to have your boat in still waters. Waves created by other boats would make it less comfortable or with heavily laden boats even dangerous. So today we use the expression to point out that someone is actively and intentionally causing trouble. For example:
“After John had a negative performance review, he started making waves to undermine management.”
Current meaning: When things are going well.
Current usage: “After the first subject, the university course was plain sailing.”
This very old idiom derives its origin from early navigation, where there was an assumption by sailors that the earth was flat. Consequently, all navigation techniques were based on this flat earth theory and hence they based their navigation calculations on a ‘plane surface’ rather than a spherical surface. In the 1600s, scholars made no distinction between ‘plain’ meaning ‘simple’ and ‘plane’ meaning ‘flat’, and those two words were used interchangeably. So today, plain sailing simply means without incident or complications. As in:
“It was plain sailing for John on his first day at work as he used the IT systems in his previous job.”
Facing a strong headwind
Current meaning: Expecting hard times ahead.
Current usage: “The merged new company faces a strong headwind.”
Originating from the years of sails, a strong headwind meant the ship needed to alter course or wait it out for better conditions. Either was costing time and money and therefore synonymous with hard times ahead.
To the bitter end
Current meaning: To finish something no matter what.
Current usage: “Although half the battalion was gone, the lieutenant fought on to the bitter end.”
Let’s follow this through to the bitter end, at which point we realise that the ‘bitter end’ is the end of a rode (for example an anchor chain or rope) located at the opposite side of the anchor. The bitter end is usually attached to a bollard (or bitt) which is a strong point on a boat to which the anchor rode is attached. It is usually the very last link in the anchor chain.
Give it a wide berth
Current meaning: To keep one’s distance from someone or something.
Current usage: “We all could see that he was in a foul mood, so we gave him a wide berth.”
No surprise here. Sailors needed to anchor in harbours all the time and were provided with a berth – a space where they were allowed to anchor. Other boats never really knew how long their anchor rode was or what the movement of the tide would be. So, to be safe, these sailors gave the anchored boat a wide berth so not to cause any potential collisions.
Through thick and thin
Current meaning: Persisting under all conditions, no matter how challenging.
Current usage: “Their marriage was strong, and they stuck together through thick and thin.”
No matter how difficult the situation, we can always hoist a sail, right? The expression ‘through thick and thin’ finds its origin in sailors simply running both thick and thin ropes through blocks and pulleys to hoist sails no matter what the circumstances…
Current meaning: A sailor.
Current usage: “She is marrying a Jack Tar so she will only see him 3 out of 12 months.”
Jack Tar was often used in the 1700s to describe a sailor below the rank of officer. It originated because tar was a common substance used in the waterproofing and preserving of just about anything on the old sailing ships. For example, hemp ropes were treated with tar and even the clothing the sailors were wearing was often tarred to improve the resistance against water. It doesn’t take much to realise that the smell of tar was extremely prevalent. So, we can still use the idiom today.
Letting the cat out of the bag
Current meaning: Revealing a secret.
Current usage: “After 1 year she let the cat out of the bag and declared she was getting married.”
If we let the cat out of the bag, we mean to say that we revealed a secret carelessly and often by mistake. However, in the early days in the British Royal Navy, the cat was something different altogether and referred to the ‘cat of nine tails’ (Cat-O’-Nine-Tails) – a whip consisting of nine pieces of rope each having several small knots. Sailors were tied up and whipped on their bare backs for relatively trivial matters to preserve discipline on the ship. Some argue that it got its name from the scratch-like wound it left on the sailor’s backs.
We are all in the same boat
Current meaning: To be in the same horrible situation as other individuals.
Current usage: “Don’t complain to me because we are all in the same boat…”
He is always complaining about the weather, but we are all in the same boat. So, we all endure the same hardship. It originates from risk assessment perhaps by insurance companies in the 17 century. As passengers were all in the same boat, the risk was seen to be equal amongst all passengers.
Ships that pass in the night
Current meaning: A quick relationship without consequence.
Current usage: “They were on opposite sides of the street, passing each other like ships in the night.”
The saying dates back at least 150 years. It appears in Tales of a Wayside Inn, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
“Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another, Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.”
Running the gauntlet
Current meaning: To move through a dangerous crowd.
Current usage: “The King ran the gauntlet after the crowd demanded revolution.”
In modern language, running the gauntlet simply means that you are under heavy criticism by your colleagues or the wider community. It originated from naval practices where a sailor was punished for stealing from his peers. When caught and proven guilty, the thief had to walk the length of the deck between two rows of his fellow sailors beating him with knotted ropes. The practice was widely adopted throughout most of the military as a form of peer punishment.
Not enough room to swing a cat
Current meaning: Being restricted or not having enough space.
Current usage: “The hotel room was so small that you couldn’t swing a cat.”
There is not enough room to swing a cat in this kitchen! We now clearly mean that the kitchen is cramped and too small. Again, the cat we are referring to is the Cat-O’-Nine-Tails. That is, it literally refers to a space so small, that the bosun was unable to swing his whip effectively to inflict the punishment ordered by the captain.
Tapping the Admiral
Current meaning: Steal a small amount of booze in the hope the missing quantity will not be noticed.
Current usage: “Someone must have tapped the admiral because this bottle was half full an hour ago!”
Okay, this one is a bit obscure and to be honest, rather disturbing. So, in modern-day language, if you are ‘tapping the Admiral’ you are stealing booze often by using a straw or any other similar act. If you steal just a small amount, nobody will be the wiser.
Now, remember Lord Nelson and his glorious demise at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 where his fleet defeated the French and Spaniards off the coast of Spain? So, he died during the battle and the rest of the fleet wanted to bring their hero back to England, but they were a long way from home and corpses do not last very long in the sun, so a solution needed to be found:
“I have an idea, let’s double him over and stuff him in one of the barrels of brandy so the alcohol will preserve him, and all will be okay.”
“Smithies, that is a great idea, make it happen.”
Up to now, the story is a bit bizarre, but it was 1805 after all so what the heck, let’s just accept it.
But then the story becomes a bit creepy because when they arrived in Gibraltar to take a still fine-looking Horatio out of the barrel, they discovered that the brandy was gone. Looking around for answers to solve this mystical disappearance of alcohol, they found most of the crew looking relatively happy with themselves and with rather glazed-over eyes. Okay, they were drunk. So, to cut a long story short, the brandy was, in all likelihood, sucked out of the barrel during the trip by the crew and that is simply too disgusting to ever forget!
He turned the corner
Current meaning: Achieve a crucial point and start to make positive progress.
Current usage: “The economy has turned the corner and things are looking much better now.”
We turn the corner when we go from something bad to something better. The first usage of the phrase was arguably spoken by sailors on their way home from India whilst going around the Cape of Good Hope at the most southern part of Africa. They turned the corner and were on the home straight.
Fudging the books
Current meaning: To cheat particularly in accounting.
Current usage: “Fudging the books was easy as there was no accountability or spot checks.”
Once upon a time (the introduction of this idiom should alert you to its validity), there was a Captain called Fudge. There are in fact records of the existence of a Captain Fudge in the late 1700s. However, from here the tale loses some credibility as it pronounces Captain Fudge to be a bit of a ‘creative accountant’ and a pathological liar. It is said that the good Captain would off-load some of the ship’s cargo in France with proceeds going into his own pockets, then manipulate the books to show that there was no cargo missing. Now, it simply means that something is put together dishonestly.
Armed to the teeth
Current meaning: Being heavily armed.
Current usage: “The robber showed up at the bank armed to the teeth.”
Being armed to the teeth originates from the Caribbean in the age of piracy. Having a flintlock pistol as the pirate’s main weapon was an issue as it could only be fired once. Naturally, he would carry many loaded flintlock pistols, but eventually, he would need something else. Whilst using his pistols, a pirate would carry his knife in between his teeth so he could have easy and instant access to it as well as looking rather intimidating.
Today, we use the idiom to denote that someone is well-armed either literally or sometimes figuratively.
For example: “When Smithies entered the courtroom, he was well prepared and armed to the teeth with rebuttals.”
Having a field day
Current meaning: Having a joyful or productive experience.
Current usage: “Everything was going Mary’s way, so she was having a field day.”
Having a field day may mean just going to spend some time in the field, like a school excursion. As an idiom, and more likely, it is a great time or a great deal to do, at somebody else’s expense. For example:
“Smithies had a field day after discovering that the captain’s wife filed for divorce.”
The expression arguably came from maritime maintenance where a workday was designated for the maintenance or cleaning of ship’s equipment and stores.
The sun is over the yardarm
Current meaning: It is time for a drink.
Current usage: “I’m ordering us a couple of beers because the sun just passed over the yardarm.”
Okay, you want a beer, but it is a bit early. You can say “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere in the world” or make similar excuses. The sun is over the yardarm is just one more excuse to start drinking earlier than is socially accepted.
It possibly originates from the habits of Officers in the Navy. If the sun would rise above the uppermost spar, it was time for morning tea (read rum break). Cheers!
Go with the flow
Current meaning: To conform to rules and agree with people.
Current usage: “Just go with the flow and learn our procedures first before starting your reforms.”
A very commonly used idiom which is self-evident in terms of its origin. Specifically in the age of sail, but also relevant in today’s shipping industry, going with the flow of the tides made the voyage quicker as well as more comfortable. Today we say go with the flow to suggest relaxing and taking the path of least resistance.
Showing her true colours
Current meaning: To show what one is really like.
Current usage: “She seemed nice at first, but she showed her true colours when things didn’t go her way.”
“So, captain, that looks like a commercial vessel flying the French flag, so I guess it is time for some killing and plundering?”
“You bet Smithies, we hate the French as much as the Spanish so let’s go.”.
However, within reach of her guns, the ‘commercial vessel’ opened her gun ports and raised her true colours: the Spanish Naval flag. Smithies had seen better days.
This practice was rife with pirates as well. Whilst pretending to be commercial vessels loaded with goodies from the continents, they raised the Jolly Roger at the last moment to overwhelm privateers or small naval ships.
As an aside, a ship ‘wears’ the flag whereas the owner of the ship ‘flies’ the flag. Also, rather than saying ‘raising’ the colours one says the colours are ‘made’.
See also ‘Bamboozle’.
Current meaning: An individual who is blamed for another’s mistake.
Current usage: “If this fails, he will be the whipping boy, as management will never take responsibility.”
To be the whipping boy means that you are blamed or punished for the faults or incompetence of others. Often associated with a boy educated alongside a prince.
In sailing, whipping means the protection of the end of a rope to prevent fraying. It is both a knot and a method. In essence, a twine is wrapped around the end of a larger rope. It was a very junior task. When done incorrectly the junior sailor would, by today’s standards, be severely punished.
Go the whole nine yards
Current meaning: To use everything at your disposal to achieve your aim.
Current usage: “He needed this job and went the whole nine yards to get it.”
Today we use this idiom relatively often. We want to express that whatever we are talking about was complete, comprehensive and includes everything.
The expression stems from the era of square-riggers. These ships had three masts and often carried three yards (main sails) on each mast, disregarding sky and moon sails etc. Hence, when all mainsails were up it would give you the full 9 yards. This gave maximum speed and manoeuvrability and was all that the ship had to offer.
Cracking on – get cracking
We use the term ‘cracking on’ or ‘get cracking’ relatively often when we want to encourage someone to start or speed up procedures respectively. Cracking on in maritime terms means simply to add more sails and the process of adjusting sheets. The cracking referred to the luffing of the sails until the sheets were hauled in enough to stop the ‘cracking’.
Fish or cut bait
Current meaning: Don’t procrastinate or be indecisive.
Current usage: “The CEO promised HR reforms for years. Now it is time to fish or cut bait.”
Fish or cut bait should be the procrastinator’s war cry but it is not, and this is why procrastinators procrastinate. Simple, right? Take Arnold Rimmer in the science fiction sitcom Red Dwarf. He was the personification of the procrastinator particularly when it came to studying for his Astronavigation Exam. One could have said, fish or cut bait referring to his endless preparation of study techniques and processes without actually ever studying for the test.
Does it have its origin in the maritime industry? Since we are talking about fishing we can be reasonably certain that it is.
Lower deck lawyer
Current meaning: A pretentious know-it-all.
Current usage: “He quoted the legislation and acted like a real lower deck lawyer.”
If someone calls you a lower-deck lawyer then that someone thinks you are a know-it-all with a bit of knowledge just enough to be dangerous. Sailors who acted as if they knew all the regulations and rules were often referred to as lower-deck lawyers.
Flogging a dead horse
Current meaning: Trying to achieve something that is not possible.
Current usage: “He tried hard to get the car going again but he was flogging a dead horse.”
There is some credible evidence that ‘dead horse’ refers to the payment of crew’s wages one month in advance to entice sailors to sign on for the next voyage. Often crew members would spend their one month’s advance on wild women and booze well before the ship sailed.
This led to a feeling that in the first month at sea the sailors paid off their earlier debt rather than earning wages and making money. Hence their work ethic during that first month at sea was less than enthusiastic if not a little resentful.
After the first month, a pennant was raised in the rigging depicting a dead horse in celebration of clearing their debt.
Today we simply use the idiom ‘flogging a dead horse’ or ‘beating a dead horse’ to say that whatever we are doing is a waste of time and will never have the desired outcome.
Come up through the hawse-pipe
Current meaning: Climb the corporate ladder starting at the very bottom.
Current usage: “The editor of the Post came up through the hawse-pipe, starting his career as a copy boy.”
A hawse-pipe is found in the bow of larger vessels through which the anchor chain runs. On these bulky ships one could climb the anchor chain and crawl through the hawse-pipe to access the ship often illegally or at least under dubious circumstances.
Following on from that, there were two ways of receiving a commission as an officer in the British Navy. Usually, the wealthier families could simply buy a commission at any rank, or sailors could go through the proper channels to begin their officer career path and work their way up within the commissioned ranks. A third way to become an officer was to ‘come up through the hawse-pipe’, meaning that you started as a simple deckhand, worked your way up through the non-commissioned ranks and then finally made the change from non-commissioned officer to a commissioned officer. In today’s language, we can say that someone came up through the hawse-pipe if they climbed the corporate ladder from the very bottom. For example, a newspaper mogul that started off as the copy-boy.
Current meaning: A benefit, such as goods or services, that you are given because of your job.
Current usage: “Some of the perks of the job are a company car and free flights.”
Naval officers had a relatively small salary, which was subsidised by perks (short for perquisites). This could be a percentage of the spoils of war or any benefits either in money or in kind.
In today’s language, it is used outside the Navy in any situation where one stands to receive a benefit other than their usual salary. For example, if you work in a clothing store you will enjoy perks such as free or heavily discounted clothing.
At a rate of knots
Current meaning: Something going very fast.
Current usage: “His car travelled at a great rate of knots.”
“Smithies is travelling at a great rate of knots in his new Porsche”.
A well-used idiom to express that something is going fast. Literally, the greater the rate of knots by a ship, the more nautical miles it will travel per hour.
Current meaning: To enter a room without being invited.
Current usage: “He barged into the office and demanded to see the CEO.”
As we know, a barge is a vessel with a flat bottom which at best is a bit hard to manoeuvre. They are often large with a momentum that is not easy to stop. Barges are not elegant ships with great lines but clumsy floating containers. You ‘barge in’ if you suddenly and rudely interrupt or disturb someone. For example:
“I’m happy to listen to you but don’t barge in right now.”
Swinging the lead
Current meaning: To pretend that you are not well to get out of a job you do not like doing.
Current usage: “Little Johnny was swinging the lead as he didn’t want to go to school that day.”
Perhaps a bit more obscure and less used in modern language but still a good example of an idiom finding its origin in the nautical realms. It is used to denote a lazy person who doesn’t do his job or shirks his responsibility.
In actual fact, swinging the lead is the forerunner of our depth sounder. A tapered cylinder-shaped piece of lead attached to a rope was thrown as far forward of the ship as possible and let sink to the seabed. The lead was then retrieved by pulling up the rope which had knots every 6 feet or 1 fathom. The knots were counted and told the sailor the depth at that specific location. Often the leads had hollow bases, so some of the seabed would come up to the surface lodged in the hollow, which provided information about the seabed’s makeup. There is only one issue with this explanation which is that there is no evidence that any sailor in those days used the phrase ‘swinging the lead’.
Related: ‘sound off’
Tell it to the Marines
Current meaning: Someone that tells a fib.
Current usage: “I earn $700 per hour!” “Sure, tell it to the marines.”
‘Tell it to the Marines’ has the same meaning as ‘pull the other one’, that is, I do not believe you.
In the mid-1600s, the idea of bringing marines on naval ships took hold. Naturally, there was a great rivalry between the sailors and these marines, both having different skill sets. Sailors argued that the Marines were a bit ‘thick’ and hence the expression ‘tell that to the Marines’ was born, suggesting that the Marines were stupid enough to believe it. I’m sure there must be an idiom returning the favour, but I could not find it.
Current meaning: Something or someone that is very reliable.
Current usage: “The new John Deere harvester is copper-bottomed.”
In the 1700s, shipbuilders applied copper sheets to the bottom of their ships to mitigate the problem of marine growth. Marine growth on the hull of a ship slows the ship down and as we know ‘time is money’ or in Navy terms the increase in speed and manoeuvrability could win the battle. Today, when we say that something is copper-bottomed, we refer to the quality and trustworthiness of the thing, be it an idea, a person or anything else. For example, “That idea of John’s is shipshape and copper-bottomed. I can’t see it failing.”
Give me some latitude
Current meaning: To give someone the freedom to make their own choices.
Current usage: “He is a real micro-manager. I which he would give me some latitude.”
To give someone some latitude is to give them a bit of space and freedom to achieve their goals rather than micro-manage them. It is a nautical idiom in as far as ships were able to navigate using latitude and longitude to pinpoint their location on the chart. Lines of latitude measure the north-south position of a ship between the poles. Lines of longitude, or meridians, run between the North and South Poles, and measure a ship’s east-west position. Note that meridians are related to time-zones while latitude is more related to temperature as you move closer to, or further from, the equator.
Current meaning: A general welcome when joining a group or thing.
Current usage: “Welcome aboard; we are happy you are joining the team.”
It is a well-used idiom that finds its origin in the 1500s where passengers or VIPs were greeted aboard a ship. Most likely from the French “à bord” meaning the same thing. Closely related to ‘all aboard’.
By and large
Current meaning: On the whole and everything considered.
Current usage: “Humans have, by and large, been the prominent species after the age of the dinosaurs.”
Today we use ‘by and large’ to mean generally speaking; everything considered. However, the expression has a nautical origin. It used to refer to a sailing vessel’s ability to sail well close to the wind (by) as well as the ability to sail well with the wind behind you (large).
Current meaning: Not sociable or forthcoming; off-standing and isolated.
Current usage: “He was well-mannered but somewhat aloof.”
If you are aloof you are acting in a way that can be seen as unfriendly or not very forthcoming. But did you know that its origin can be found in sailing? In essence, keeping or staying aloof referred to steering the sailing vessel away from a lee shore or obstacle, usually as much into the wind as the ship was capable of. The ‘moving away’ is now interpreted as keeping your distance in both a physical and emotional sense.
Hand over fist
Current meaning: To do something very quickly.
Current usage: “He was making money hand over fist after joining the city council.”
To do something quickly is to do it ‘hand over fist’. It finds its origin in sailors having to adjust sails very quickly to respond to adverse wind changes. This was often done by several men pulling on the same sheet (rope) and literally putting their hand over their fist repeatedly until the sheet was adjusted correctly.
Current meaning: To abandon something or give up on it.
Current usage: “The CEO stopped short of ordering abandon ship after the latest sales figures.”
‘Abandon ship’ is an official command ordered in the face of disaster, which usually translates into the ship’s imminent sinking. It is a bit like the fire alarm in an office building where each crew member has specific jobs to do as part of the evacuation plan. However, in the early days of sailing, and in the face of battle, it would mean a quick jump overboard before the powder blows.
In today’s speak, we simply refer to a hopeless situation that we are retracting from.
Current meaning: Someone that prefers being on the land rather than on a boat.
Current usage: “When the yacht heeled over it became clear that Mary was a landlubber.”
Landlubber comes from a late 17th-century combination of ‘land’ and ‘lubber’, the latter meaning a clumsy and/or stupid person. Sailors used the word in a denigrating manner to describe people who prefer being on land rather than be on the sea. Today we use landlubber in a less denigrating manner. For example:
“John hung over the railing for half of the passage. He is definitely a landlubber.”
At close quarters
Current meaning: To engage in a confined space.
Current usage: “After entering the house, the police exchanged gunfire at close quarters.”
Originally a nautical term stemming from ‘close-fights’. It refers to the confined spaces in a ship between bulkheads where sailors could make their last stand and engage the enemy boarders. Not to be confused with closing on the enemy, it simply refers to close combat in confined spaces. Today we use it to denote a situation where a fight takes place in a cramped space or position.
To cut and run
Current meaning: To leave in a hurry.
Current usage: “The robbers could hear the sirens, so they cut and run, leaving some of their loot behind.”
If you cut and run, you are getting away in a hurry. Cut and run is most likely a nautical term literally referring to sailing away in such a hurry as to cut the anchor rode and leave the anchor behind (cut) then sail with the angle of the wind most favourable to achieve maximum speed (run).
Edging your way forward
Current meaning: Slowly advancing with something.
Current usage: “The soldiers were edging their way forward to the hilltop.”
Edging forward refers literally to moving in a direction more sideways than forward and denotes slow progress.
It finds its origin in sailing where early sailing ships were notoriously bad at sailing close to the wind (close hauling) and had to tack constantly to achieve some progress on a specific bearing.
All hands on deck
Current meaning: Used to signal that the involvement of all participants is necessary.
Current usage: “It was all hands on deck getting ready for the big feast.”
When we need to get things done, we say ‘all hands on deck’, denoting that everyone needs to assist in the task ahead. This is not so different in nautical terms. The order ‘all hands’ or the longer version ‘all hands on deck’ was given to all crew and officers of all ranks to assemble on the deck for a task, a briefing or any other activity that required all ship’s personnel to be involved.
He is sailing close to the wind
Current meaning: To do something that is risky or only just legal or appropriate
Current usage: “He was sailing a little close to the wind when he made those remarks about his daughter.”
Sailing close to the wind refers to taking risks. As in:
“he sailed pretty close to the wind when he flew his drone further with only 5% battery life left”.
In sailing terms, you are sailing close to the wind when you are close-hauled. We are trying to achieve a bearing that is as close into the wind as our boat and physics allow us which is around 30 degrees from having the wind dead on the nose. When we are close-hauled, we run the risk of entering the ‘dead zone’, where we are said to be ‘in irons’. The boat loses momentum and eventually stalls and moves backwards.
Under the weather
Current meaning: Being slightly ill or in despair.
Current usage: “He was under the weather and had to cancel the appointment.”
Being under the weather means you are feeling sick. The term is definitely nautical because, since the 1600s, sailors that were feeling sick would be sent below deck to seek some protection from the weather.
Current meaning: Feeling light-headed often, but not necessarily, induced by alcohol.
Current usage: “He was feeling a bit groggy after a night on the town.”
Most people associate grog with alcohol and feeling groggy is therefore feeling a bit befuddled often due to the festivities enjoyed the previous night.
The origin of grog and feeling groggy are a bit more complex and it takes a rather long path towards an explanation. Let’s have a go anyway. Meet the Old Grog, Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757) who was a well-decorated sailor in the Royal Navy and known for his prudent attitude towards the rationing of rum. In order to get the sailors under his command less intoxicated and perhaps to help the budget, Vernon watered down the ship’s rum, to the dismay of his men. Working further backwards from here you may ask why they called him ‘Old Grog’? In essence, he loved to wear clothing made from coarsely woven material referred to as grogram or grosgrain or coarse-grained or simply grog.
So, the connection is clear. A guy wearing coarsely woven jackets made of grog deserves the nickname Old Grog, who then dares to water down the sailors’ rum. Grog – rum – feeling groggy; you get the idea.
Grog tubs were found on almost all navy vessels and contained the men’s rum rations. Stealing from it was punished by having to run the gauntlet.
In the offing
Current meaning: Things that are happening in the future or are in the pipeline.
Current usage: “There are several tax hikes in the offing if the opposition were to get in.”
Meaning that it is not happening in the next few moments but imminent, nonetheless.
Used to describe that part of the sea that could be seen from shore, that is, that part of the sea visible from beyond the breakers to the horizon. It gets its nautical meaning from the fact that ships often had to delay entering a harbour because of tidal conditions. The ships waited offshore in the area called the offing until they could ‘take-off’ or ‘be off’ towards their anchorage or mooring within the harbour.
I can’t fathom it
Current meaning: The inability to understand something.
Current usage: “I had the strangest maths question on my exams this morning. I just couldn’t fathom it.”
We are all familiar with this idiom and the fact it uses the word ‘fathom’ leads us directly to a nautical origin.
Literally, a fathom is a measurement of 6 feet, used when referring to the depth of water. Sailors used to ‘swing the lead’ to figure out the depth of the waters under the keel of their ships. The fathom is, in essence, the arms-length of a person. As not all arms are the same, the fathom had different meanings depending on the size of the ship, ranging from 5 to 6 feet. Over the years, it has morphed into something that denotes that you can’t get to the bottom of it – get a full understanding.
Mal de mer
Current meaning: Being seasick or sick in general.
Current usage: “He is looking a bit green. I think this landlubber suffers from mal de mer…”
Mal de mer is of French origin and simply translates to seasickness. Nautical? I guess so. There is nothing like mal de mer. The first 4 hours you are afraid you are going to die; the next four hours you are hoping you will. Now also used to denote that you are not feeling 100%.
All at sea
Current meaning: Someone who is a bit confused or doesn’t know how to move forward.
Current usage: “He skipped the four lectures and found himself all at sea during the tutorial.”
If you find yourself in a state of confusion you may say that you are ‘all at sea’. The term has its beginnings in early navigation. Ships that found themselves out of sight from land, had some difficulty in accurately navigating. It is easy to see how the idiom found traction in our modern language.
Full to the gunwales
Current meaning: When something is really full.
Current usage: “900 students packed the lecture theatre to the gunwales.”
The expression ‘full to the gunwales’ suggests that there is not a lot of space left – choc-a-block if you like. The word gunwales is pronounced ‘gunnels’, which is also how most people (wrongly) spell the word. ‘Gunwales’ combines the words ‘gun’ + ‘walls’ and is used to describe the top outside of the ship above the gun ports. In modern-day sailing, we talk about the outermost top edge of a boat hull, usually where the deck and hull come together. On smaller boats, we also think of gunwales as the rubber moulded strip that protects the outer edges of our boat.
Current meaning: Something that is crammed full of people or things.
Current usage: “The booklet is chock-a-block with handy tips.”
Like ‘full to the gunwales’, chock-a-block also denotes that there is no more room left.
The expression came most likely from sailors hoisting something like sails or cargo with a block and tackle pulley system. When the two opposing blocks came together, they were said to be chocked, that is, the block was choked: chock-a-block.
Run a tight ship
Current meaning: Efficient and controlled way to run a business or organisation.
Current usage: “He ran a tight ship and brought the budget back into surplus.”
To run a tight ship means to run a well-controlled operation or a disciplined business. The expression ‘run a tight ship’” dates only from the mid-1900s and denotes a ship that is in good condition and well-managed.
Current meaning: To get on your way.
Current usage: “After the meeting we all knew what to do when the manager called anchors aweigh.”
Aweigh – not away. In nautical terms, it signifies the moment where the anchor is free from the seabed. The idiom now just means that we are getting on our way, leaving.
Similarly, ‘chucks away’ has a similar meaning in an aeronautical context, and refers to the removal of the blocks in front and behind a plane’s wheels holding the plane in place so the plane can take off – an expression originating from the Battle of Britain.
Raising a red flag
Raising a red flag was used as early as the 1400s by pirates or in battle in general to signify “no quarters”. It simply means that the aggressors flying the red flag were signalling that no prisoners would be taken. I.e., all crew would be killed if they lost the battle. Conversely, if the ship and crew surrendered without a fight, all crew would be spared.
Today we raise a figurative red flag when we see danger, or we want to caution someone of imminent risk. For example, “Johno should have raised the red flag when he saw Smithies order his eight Tequila…
Clean bill of health
Current meaning: Agreeing with or approving something.
Current usage: “The treasurer gave the budget a clean bill of health, achieving the first surplus in decades.”
The saying ‘a clean bill of health’ originated from the 1800s where the crew of a ship was examined by a health official and the ship was given a clean bill of health if no infectious diseases were found. The ship then had to submit this ‘bill’ before docking at the next port.
Today we associate it with both medical and economic well-being.
On your beam ends
Current meaning: Someone who is in imminent danger.
Current usage: “The financial broker was on his beam ends after losing $2,000,000.”
When you are on your beam ends it means that you are in imminent danger. For example:
“Two months after he was diagnosed with leukaemia, Smithies was on his beam ends. Luckily, he is in remission now.”
On a large square-rigged sailing ship, the beams are the horizontal timbers from which the sails are suspended. Naturally, when the ends of these beams are close to or touching the water, the ship is heeling dangerously and is in danger of capsizing and sinking.
Current meaning: Ration or plan the use of goods due to a shortage in supply.
Current usage: “Those 5 litres of water need to tide us over until Monday.”
Tiding over refers to making limited supplies last for the foreseeable time where supplies may be limited:
“The six-pack of beer will need to tide us over until Smithies arrives with the carton.”
Originally, ‘tide over’ simply referred to sailing ships that found themselves without wind and used a combination of anchors and tidal movements to try to navigate into harbours.
Shiver my timbers
Current meaning: An expression of surprise reacting to a potentially dangerous situation.
Current usage: “Well shiver my timbers, that was a loud thunderclap.”
To look at the meaning of ‘shiver my timbers’ (shiver me timbers if you want to sound like a proper pirate), it is useful to look at the old use of ‘shiver’ which denotes something falling apart or disintegrating. When you hear someone say:
“I promise I will look after your cat. Shiver my timbers, I will”, then you are witnessing an oath something like ‘on my mother’s grave’. This makes sense as sailors use this oath because breaking it would cast upon themselves the prospect of their ship disintegrating and sinking.
Stem the tide
Current meaning: To stop things from happening either partially or fully.
Current usage: “Inflation is going mad. I hope the Government can stem the tide.”
When you stem the tide, you stop something. As in:
“Border closures have stemmed the tide and seen COVID numbers drop significantly.”
‘Stem’ refers to stopping or restraining, which finds its origin in the Norse language ‘stemma’ meaning ‘to dam’. Tide is obviously nautical in nature so this one is in.
At the helm
Current meaning: Being in charge or in command.
Current usage: “With John at the helm, the company is sure to succeed.”
When you are ‘at the helm’ you are in charge and in command. For example:
“After George took the helm, the company never looked back”.
We all know the helm is the steering mechanism of a boat and can include a simple handle or tiller, or the wheel in large boats. The phrase is therefore synonymous with taking the wheel.
Don’t rock the boat
Current meaning: Saying or doing something to disrupt a stable situation and distress people.
Current usage: “He is keeping quiet because he doesn’t want to rock the boat.”
It requires little research to understand that rocking the boat means to disturb the situation. The idiom ‘rock the boat’ was phrased by William Bryan, a US politician. He said:
“The man who rocks the boat ought to be stoned when he gets back onshore.”
Clearly was talking about those that agitated and rebelled against his ideas. And who can forget the Hues Corporation song ‘Rock the Boat’.
Walking the plank
Current meaning: Someone being forced to resign.
Current usage: “He had to walk the plank after his major corporate blunder.”
If you must ‘walk the plank’, your boss has just given you an ultimatum to resign. As in:
“After John showed up late again, he left for good. He wasn’t fired but I think he was forced to walk the plank”.
A metaphoric idiom that goes back to the ultimate punishment used in the 1600s, where the accused sailor was forced to walk off the end of a plank placed on the side of the ship. This custom was mainly used among pirates and resulted simply in the accused drowning at sea.
On the right tack
Current meaning: Following the correct line of reasoning.
Current usage: “He is selling all his gold stock and I think he is on the right tack.”
On the right tack means that your reasoning is leading to the correct conclusion or outcome. As in: “He argues that the house prices are going to rise after we have another drop in interest rates. He might be on the right tack.”
In sailing, we often have to sail on a bearing that is directly into the wind. Bearing off or bearing away will point the boat less into the wind delivering more speed but causes the distance we need to cover to increase. The technician on a sailboat will advise the skipper on the best route to take and advises if the boat is on the right tack.
Push the boat out
Current meaning: Spending your money on lavish goods and services.
Current usage: “He just won the lottery so I’m sure he will now push the boat out.”
If you push the boat out, then you act lavishly in your spending or celebrations.
“Smithies really pushed the boat out when he ordered French champagne last night.”.
In a literal sense, you would help a boat owner to push his boat out into the water as it may be too heavy for the sailor to achieve on his own. An old act of generosity not unlike giving someone with a flat battery a push to start their car.
Show a leg
Current meaning: To get up and out of bed.
Current usage: “Show a leg John, the taxi will be here in 30 minutes…”
After rousing a sailor, he was asked to show a leg. One of his legs would protrude from his hammock to show that he was awake and understood that it was time to get up and perhaps take over the watch. In today’s language, we say ‘show a leg’ for the same reason. We need someone to get up and out of bed.
Touch and go
Current meaning: Something that is possible but very uncertain.
Current usage: “After the accident, it was touch and go whether he would pull through.”
Things are ‘touch and go’ when the successful outcome of things hangs in the balance and could go either way.
“Collingwood was 4 points behind with 1 minute left on the clock. Although they ended up winning, it was touch and go for a while.”.
The idiom is connected to sailing because of Admiral Smyth in his Sailor’s Wordbook where the idiom was first printed.
“Touch-and-go, said of anything within an ace of ruin; as in rounding a ship very narrowly to escape rocks, or when, under sail, she rubs against the ground with her keel, without much diminution of her velocity.”
When your ship comes in
Current meaning: Becoming affluent and/or successful.
Current usage: “His ship came in two days after buying his first lottery ticket…”
When your ship comes in means you become rich and successful, as in:
“Smithies will pay all his gambling debts as soon as his ship comes in.”.
Literally, ship owners would have invested a lot of capital in the ship, its crew, and the voyage all in pursuit of a profit. When the merchant’s ship arrived, he would have the means to sell the merchandise and realise his profit.
Current meaning: To act overly enthusiastic.
Current usage: “She clearly went overboard when he bought 10,000 toilet rolls in response to COVID.”
If you ‘go overboard’ then you are acting in an enthusiastic or immoderate manner. Literally, you fall off your boat.
Current meaning: A harsh verbal reprimand.
Current usage: “After he sold the stock too late, the manager keelhauled John for doing so.”
Today we still use the term ‘keelhauled’ if someone received a severe verbal chastising. As in:
“As John finished his speech, he knew he failed as the crowd keelhauled him”.
Yes, another rather cruel practice was to keelhaul the accused. It finds its origin in maritime practice from as early as the 1600s and comes from the Dutch word ‘kielhalen’, which freely translates to ‘to haul someone under the keel of a ship’.
The process was rather rudimentary, where a rope was deployed under the ship from port to starboard and then brought back on board. The sailor’s bound hands were tied to the end of this rope. The other end of the rope was then attached to the sailor’s bound feet, so forming a loop around the hull of the ship. The accused was then thrown overboard whilst the crew hauled in the rope on the opposite side of the ship forcing the accused to be dragged underwater and under the hull. It was up to the captain to introduce a pause or not depending on the severity of the crime or the cruelty of the captain. Eventually, the accused would surface on the other side of the ship and be hauled back on board.
It must be noted that the ships from that era were most likely covered with barnacles, so the injuries of the accused were often severe with cuts and abrasions, if they did not drown in the first place. The practice fell out of favour in the 1800s.
Footloose and fancy-free
Current meaning: A person that is not in a long-term relationship.
Current usage: “He was again footloose and fancy-free after he broke up with his girlfriend”
The bottom of a sail is called the ‘foot’ and is controlled by a rope called a sheet. When you lose control of the sheet the sail starts to flap around uncontrollably… This out-of-control flapping or luffing of the sail is referred to as the sail being footloose.
Today, we call someone footloose and fancy-free if they are not constrained by being in a relationship.
Current meaning: Some who is exhausted.
Current usage: “John was pooped after mopping the floor of the town hall.”
It is not known when pooped was used for the first time under its modern meaning: exhausted. For example:
“After running for 3 kilometres, Smithies was pooped and couldn’t take another step.”
The origin of pooped is less ambiguous. It comes from the noun ‘poop deck’, which was situated at the back of the ship and in turn, derives its meaning from the French word ‘la poupe’ (stern) and/or from the Latin “puppis”.
It was in many cases the roof of the captain’s cabin and was often the highest deck on the ship. In early naval times, pooped meant that the poop deck was swamped by a wave from a following sea.
Sorry to disappoint.
Knowing the ropes
Current meaning: Having the right level of knowledge and experience for a job.
Current usage: “He was recruited quickly because it was clear that he knew the ropes.”
When you know the ropes, you have enough experience and knowledge to get the job done. Seeing the connection to a nautical origin is too easy here; or is it? Sailors need to know rope terminology and the practical application of the numerous ropes on a ship. Lines, sheets, cunningham, top lift, halyards…the list is endless. It is a credible and likely origin and is definitely documented. But here come the Italians claiming that knowing the ropes is an expression that has its origin in the theatre. Fair enough, there are tons of ropes behind the scenes, but I think we can claim this one without blushing.
Did you know that there are actually very few ropes on a ship that are called ropes?
- The bell-rope is the small, often ornate rope attached to the clapper.
- A common rope on yachts is the bold rope on the leech of the sail for ‘shaping’ the sail.
- A towrope, simply for towing.
- A footrope used to stand on whilst taking in sail on the old square-riggers.
- Manropes, which you often find on either side of rope-ladders used to board ships.
Current meaning: To complain constantly about something.
Current usage: “He clearly had a gripe against me but for no reason.”
In sailing terms, ‘gripe’ describes when a sailing vessel shows a tendency to turn into the wind whilst close-hauling and where the vessel starts to point into the ‘dead zone’, in which forward movement is halted. This is often caused by an imbalance in sail choice and is also referred to as ‘weather helm’. It results in the person on the helm having to work hard trying to compensate for this lack of natural balance. We use ‘gripe’ to describe someone who complains, grumbles, moans and groans a lot, not unlike the person on a weather helm.
Loose lips sink ships
Current meaning: Beware of careless talk.
Current usage: “I warned him not to spread rumours because loose lips sink ships.”
During WWII, the War Advertising Council put out posters to make people aware that their general conversations could be overheard by German sympathisers. A simple discussion about your husband returning on a specific day and time gave spies the intelligence that was then passed on to the Germans who would act by lying in wait for the ship’s arrival for the purpose of sinking it. Today we mean to say that anything you say may be used against you.
Drifting through life
Current meaning: Leading an existence with very little direction, planning or ambition.
Current usage: “After his wife died, he drifted through life with little purpose.”
Being adrift in maritime terms means that you are at the mercy of the wind and currents. Today we may describe someone without any purpose in life to be a drifter: someone without a permanent home or steady job.
Current meaning: Without direction or control.
Current usage: “The company has come adrift after the resignation of the CEO.”
Clearly, not a desirable position to be in. Hence, since as early as the mid-1600s, adrift has take on a figurative meaning simply denoting that we no longer support something or someone. For example, The company’s board set the new reform plans adrift. As we have seen above, it could also denote a person wandering around life without any direction or purpose. For example, After losing his job, John’s life was adrift.
To bear down
Current meaning: Confront someone or something in a resolute or threatening manner.
Current usage: “The Germans bore down on the last English resistance.
During naval battles, an attacking ship will try to bear down on an enemy ship meaning it had the wind behind her resulting in the ship increasing speed and therefore manoeuvrability. It gave her a better opportunity to come alongside the enemy ship and deliver her firepower. Today, when we ‘bear down’ we exert a concentrated effort on a person using authority and swift action.
Current meaning: To get into trouble because of non-compliance with rules, regulations or the law.
Current usage: “He fell foul of his commitments to the board.”
If you fall foul of something, then you would have failed in meeting some requirement. For example, falling foul of the law.
There are several nautical examples where fall foul is used, including but not exclusively:
- Ships need anti-fouling to have a clean hull.
- When the anchor rode becomes entangled it is said to be fouled.
- When one ship hinders the advancement of another ship; it falls foul of it.
Current meaning: A leader without real power.
Current usage: “The King is the figurehead of government.”
A figurehead is found near the prow of many old sailing vessels. It is often a very ornate wooden carved bust or a full-length figure. It is mostly there for aesthetic purposes and has no real bearing on the performance of the ship.
In today’s language, we refer to someone in charge without real power as a figurehead. For example, a monarch in a democracy, the Governor General or a CEO of a company controlled by the board.
The origin of the ship’s figurehead was not purely aesthetic but also used as a religious symbol to protect the ship and all that sailed on her. Sailors believed that the ship was an entity unto itself and that it would guide them through troubled seas. The ship therefore needed eyes in order to perform this rather wishful notion.
A dressing down
Current meaning: To verbally reprimand someone.
Current usage: “After failing to turn up for work, they received a dressing down from the CEO.”
“Smithies received a proper dressing down from the captain after he failed to secure the bowline properly.”
We use this idiom to tell people in no uncertain terms, often with aggression and belligerence, that their performance was inadequate or inappropriate.
Originally, a ‘dressing down’ referred to a process where old and worn sails we rejuvenated with oil and wax to increase their performance. Likewise, a sailor underperforming receives a similar, although verbal, dressing down in order to increase his performance. See also ‘delivering a broadside’.
Current meaning: Someone in often violent dispute or disagreement.
Current usage: “Romeo and Juliet’s family were at loggerheads for as long as anyone could remember.”
“Those two have been at loggerheads for many years.” Meaning that they had some serious disagreements that are still not settled.
The etymology of loggerhead is a bit fluid and has changed over the years many times with new meaning added, ranging from a blockhead (dumb person) to a type of turtle. But what we are interested in is a type of tool used in the late 1500s to seal tar in seams on a deck. The tool could best be described as a ‘hot poker; as we know it today. It was, in essence, a steel bar which may have been picked up in anger once or twice as it presents itself as a formidable weapon for close combat or for settling gambling debt disputes.
In any case, it follows that being at loggerheads draws its meaning from the use of this nautical tool as a weapon.
Other than a tool, the loggerhead was also used as a cannon shot. A steel bar was attached to a cannonball which, when fired, would spin violently during its trajectory towards the enemy causing destruction and mayhem on impact.
Now used to heat rum-based cocktails Those Navy boys know how to party.
Current meaning: Money paid in compensation for murder or money paid to a hired killer
Current usage: “After the killer finished his job, he came to collect his blood money.”
When we think of today’s meaning of blood money, we may refer to a financial gain at the expense of someone. It could be a price paid to a hired killer. Compensation paid to the family of the victim of a murder or perhaps the most famous example of blood money – the thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas.
It stems from maritime origin but there are two schools of thought about where exactly it originated from:
The money received by those recruiting crew for the navies of the world were said to be paid in blood money. This was because most of the recruiting techniques were unconscionable at best (see ‘shanghaiing’, ‘press into service’ and ‘bottoms up’).
Others claim it to be the reward privateers received for the capture or sinking of enemy ships.
All sewn up
Current meaning: When something is finalised.
Current usage: “After the contract was signed the deal was all sewn up.”
Today we use this idiom to express that something is all done and completed.
In the age of sailing ships, there was no refrigeration and therefore sailors that died on the voyage needed to receive their burial at sea. The crew would roll the dead sailor in his hammock which was weighted down by some heavy objects so it would sink. The hammock was then sewn closed (all sewn up), and the body was committed to the sea.
Interestingly, the last stitch when sewing up the hammock was through the nose of the dead sailor: just to ensure he was indeed dead.
Current meaning: An increase in a specific opinion among the general population.
Current usage: “There is a groundswell of support to raise unemployment benefits.”
Today, we use the word ‘groundswell’ to denote a political or social agitation or movement. It is often a change in public opinion for the better. Originally, sailors used to use groundswell to show a sudden rise in water which could have been caused by a far-away storm or earthquake. This swell was gradual and slow-moving but imminent and persistent.
Current meaning: A positive unexpected financial gain.
Current usage: “He found a gold coin on the docks. This windfall didn’t come soon enough.”
Windfall is one of those idioms that draws its origin from several schools of thought. The general consensus is that fruit that falls to the ground due to a windy day was free for anyone to collect. Others may argue that it is a wind coming down a hill towards the shore providing a sailing ship more leeway. Also, there are some who argue that during the height of the British Navy, oak trees could only be sold to the Navy for a price considered below market value. However, the law allowed a fallen tree uprooted by a heavy wind to be sold to anyone and therefore fetch a better price.
Current meaning: To make things work using MacGyverism.
Current usage: “He jury-rigged a phone charger by using a potato and a lemon.”
Jury rigging is synonymous with a makeshift repair with materials that are at hand. You may say it is the same as MacGyverism for those that remember the MacGyver TV series. Originally, a ‘jury’ was a temporary mast that was rigged to replace a damaged or lost mast.
Current meaning: The best of the best.
Current usage: “Her essay for her doctorate was first rate”
First-rate ships were ships with a minimum of 100 cannons. There was a scale that rated ships from first-rate (100+ cannons) to sixth-rate (20 to 28 cannons). Coming back to first-rate ships, they were referred to as a ship-of-the-line. They were used to engage with the enemy broadside and in essence, produced more firepower than an average country’s artillery corps. So, when we refer to a first-rate item, we mean to say that there is none better.
Current meaning: When individuals share a burden one after the other.
Current usage: “The only way to sustain CPR is to take turns. “
Take turns means that we all have a go at something sequentially to lighten the individual burden of the task.
It stems from ‘the watch’ where sailors had watchkeeping duty aboard ships so that the ship could sail 24 hours per day. Each watchkeeping period was normally one hour. This one hour was measured with an hourglass. When the watchkeeper was relieved by the next, the hourglass was turned over to start the next watchkeeping period.
Current meaning: Extremely tall building.
Current usage: “Most new skyscrapers are now built in Asia.”
In the late 1600s, sailing ships used to rig a skyscraper or skysail, which is a sail on the very top of the masts, in order to sail the ship in light winds. It needed to be controlled like any other sail on the ship and deploying it needed someone that didn’t easily shy away from heights. The etymology of skyscraper is not 100% confirmed but the above origin sounds good enough for at least consideration.
Putting a new slant on things
Current meaning: Having a different angle, outlook, or perspective toward something
Current usage: “The Indian cook put a different slant on roasting pork.”
In sailing the slant is the angle of the vessel, or pitch. Most vessels have an optimal slant which becomes important when racing. There are also arguably different slants for different conditions so we can see that sailors would try to put a different slant on the vessel in the prevailing conditions to improve her speed.
Today we use the idiom to mean changing the way we see things or looking at things from a different perspective.
Current meaning: Sharing the expenses of a meal.
Current usage: “He asked her if she wanted to split the bill and go Dutch.”
Going Dutch means sharing the expenses of what could often be a dinner. In today’s world, a first date may decide to go Dutch so there is no expectation of post-meal activities. It is a considered and conscious decision based on fairness and equity. Not so in the 17th century when the English and the Dutch were constantly at war over trade routes. The English considered the Dutch a stingy bunch and coined the phrase ‘going Dutch’ with a negative connotation.
Give me some slack
Current meaning: Treating someone in a less punitive or condemning way.
Current usage: “He only started work here 3 hours ago so give him some slack…”
Hoisting cargo was done with pulleys and ropes and often by two or more sailors. To undo the knots to release the cargo, the sailor would ask for some slack so he could undo the knot more easily.
Current meaning: Items with neither value nor purpose.
Current usage: “The second-hand shop was filled with junk with the occasional treasure.”
In the age of sailing, there were numerous ropes on a ship. These ropes would deteriorate over time but still provided some value after some re-purposing (I do not think this term was used in those days).
Old ropes could be used again as caulking material to waterproof decks and hulls or to make into boat mops and all sorts of other tools. However, junk was synonymous with a rope that was useless for its original purpose.
Today, junk means simply old or discarded articles that are considered useless or of little value.
Current meaning: A person that likes to spread rumour and gossip.
Current usage: “Mary couldn’t keep a secret as she was a real scuttlebutt.”
The scuttlebutt was a barrel that held the drinking water for sailors on a sailing ship. The scuttle was the opening so sailors could ladle out the water for consumption. Sailors used to prolong the time around the scuttlebutt because it was easier to stand around and drink some water compared to scrubbing the decks. It followed that it became the main place on a ship where they could talk to each other about rumour or gossip. The water-cooler: has anything changed in 300 years?
Current meaning: An often-lazy person trying to avoid work.
Current usage: “The workforce was idle for a week due to union action.”
Ship’s crew had several duties, some of which needed to be performed during the night, such as watchkeeping etc.
However, some crew professions were seen as idle, which meant that they did not need to work during the night, for example, cooks. These crew members were called ‘idles’.
Clear the deck
Current meaning: To remove unnecessary items to focus on the objective.
Current usage: “After the merger, the deck was cleared for major expansion.”
Clear the deck is a Naval command which is given before imminent enemy engagements. Any loose items were stowed away to prevent them from damage or becoming flying objects in the heat of battle. Today we just mean to make some room or prepare for a course of action by dealing with anything that might hinder your progress.
Current meaning: To bite off more than you can chew.
Current usage: “The last acquisition by the company was clearly an overreach.”
In sailing, you overreach if you stay on a specific tack for too long. This means that you have gone further than the most efficient route. Perhaps you are now hindered in reaching your next mark in the most efficient manner.
We can also overreach where we take on too much or go beyond what is wise or reasonable.
Toe the line
Current meaning: To agree with a principle after disagreeing with it.
Current usage: “He finally toed the (party) line and voted in favour of the bill.”
Today we ‘toe the line’ when we accept the authority, policies, or principles of a particular entity, especially if we do not want to. For example:
“Although Smithies did not agree with the current policy of reduced rum rations, he eventually toed the line in order to maintain a good relationship with the captain.”
Literally, when bare feet sailors in the 1600/1700s Royal Navy had to stand at attention for inspection or other more formal occasions, they were lined up in neat ranks and files. To achieve this, the deck was marked with distinct lines which were often based on the caulking lines between deck planks. The sailors used these lines to form an orderly rank by touching the line with their toes thus lining up very straight.
That’s a balls up!
Current meaning: A total failure and disaster.
Current usage: “Organising the birthday party turned out to be a total balls up…”
That project was a total balls up, that is, a disaster. A well-used idiom in today’s language.
It originates from the days of sailing ships where ‘balls’ (and other shapes) were hoisted into the rigging to communicate all types of issues. Even today under the Colregs (international regulations to avoid collisions at sea), three balls up means the vessel is aground.
He hasn’t got a clue
Current meaning: Being ignorant.
Current usage: “The first-year apprentice didn’t have a clue.”
There are normally three ends on a sail – the head, the tack and the clew. The clew is attached to the sheets that control the sail so if it fails the sail will not only be useless, but it will also become uncontrollable and dangerous: clewless. To rectify this situation, the sheets need to be ‘clewed up’ again.
In today’s language, if someone ‘hasn’t got a clue’ then they are ignorant about something. You can ‘get clued up’ to rectify this ignorance.
Current meaning: A line or course having abrupt alternate right and left turns.
Current usage: “The soldier zigzagged his way down the field to avoid being shot.”
A sailing vessel needs to tack back and forth into the prevailing winds to make headway. This was referred to as zigzagging. Now used more broadly, we can say that: The skier zigzagged down the mountain”.
Delivering a broadside
Current meaning: A verbal roasting.
Current usage: “After he discovered the mistake, he delivered a broadside to the accounting staff.”
Ships-of-the-line were specially designed to come broadside of an enemy ship and deliver as much firepower in the shortest time possible. This strategy was based on the fact that size does matter and particularly the number of guns. Due to the nature of the ship’s shape, all larger guns were deployed to the side of the ship (broadside), so the ship needed to come broadside to apply maximum devastation to the enemy. See also ‘a dressing down’. Today, receiving a broadside very much follows the same principle although the cannons are replaced with verbal ammunition.
Fits the bill
Current meaning: Something is fit for the job at hand.
Current usage: “The new sorting machine fits the bill as its output is much better than the old one.”
This is about a bill of lading, which is a contract between the seller and the shipper showing that goods have been received by the shipper. It specifies the goods, the quantity and their condition. It also stipulates the delivery time and other details. On delivery, the buyer would check the goods against his order and against the bill of lading. If all was okay, the goods were said to ‘fit the bill’. Nothing much has changed in today’s shipping process. The bill of lading is as relevant now as it ever was. The term is an idiom because we now use it to denote that all is good.
From bow to stern
Current meaning: Fully inclusive with nothing left out.
Current usage: “He cleaned the garage from stem to stern.”
Literally, it means from the front of a ship to the back. It can also be used to describe something in its entirety, from front to back, from one end to the other end, fully…
Current meaning: Someone who deliberately postpones things.
Current usage: “He delayed the vote again by demanding that there was more debate required .”
The Caribbean Sea in the 17th and 18th centuries was full of buccaneers. They were a type of privateer who prayed on the Spanish merchants and delivered a service that was no different to piracy other than that the British Navy condoned their business model. The Dutch pioneered the practice. Someone involved was called a “Vrybuiter” (pirate) and subsequently translated into French as “Flibustier”. Today, a Filibuster is a politician that delays or obstructs legislation or policy by perpetually debating the issue.
Over a barrel
Current meaning: Finding yourself in a bad situation that you cannot get out of.
Current usage: “The loan shark had him over a barrel.”
When sailors were punished, they were often tied to a mast, railing or over a barrel. Today, we find ourselves ‘over a barrel’ or ‘over the barrel’ if we are in a bad situation and are not in a position to better it.
For example: “The offer on my cafe was extremely low but the COVID situation has me over a barrel.”
Current meaning: The main driver one depends on.
Current usage: “Sugarcane is the mainstay of Queensland.”
The mast is held up by stays and shrouds. This is also known as the standing rigging. The shrouds also serve as rope ladders to allow the crew to climb. A stay that runs from the top of the mainmast to the bottom of the mainmast is called the mainstay. The idiom is used to denote a person or thing on which something else is based or depends on.
Current meaning: In top condition.
Current usage: “The new car was in A1 condition.”
If something is ‘A1’ it is in excellent condition. For example: “Smithies bought a new apartment, which was in A1 condition.”
It stems from 1760 when Lloyd’s of London inspected merchants’ vessels in order to rate them in terms of their seaworthiness and general condition. Naturally, A1 was the highest rating.
Current meaning: Food that falls onto one’s shirt goes unnoticed until someone points it out.
Current usage: “John came back from lunch wearing his canteen medals with pride.”
Canteen medals is an old naval term for having stains down the front of your shirt caused by spilling food or drink. Today we can say that “After feeding, the baby was wearing a fair amount of canteen medals, which were quickly cleaned by mum.”
Please mind your Ps and Qs
Current meaning: Mind your manners and be on your best behaviour.
Current usage: “We are off to church so mind your Ps and Qs.”
Today we use this idiom to make sure that someone behaves in a manner acceptable for the occasion.
However, mind your Ps and Qs was originally used to record sailor’s beer tab. Pints and quarts were recorded by the bartender until such time as the sailor got paid. It was therefore easy to overspend, so sailors needed to mind their Ps and Qs.
Flotsam and jetsam
Current meaning: Relatively useless stuff.
Current usage: “The shop was filled with flotsam and jetsam.”
When we say, ‘flotsam and jetsam’ we refer to bits and pieces without much value or use. The expression originates from maritime law and is a legal differentiation between goods discarded from ships.
Flotsam refers to any items that were not deliberately set overboard. For example, where a ship is shipwrecked and debris floats to the closest shore. If you find flotsam, then you own it.
Jetsam on the other hand refers to any items that were deliberately set overboard. Ownership of the items will stay with the original owner. This could happen, for example where the captain may discard some cargo to reduce weight and save the ship in a heavy storm.
Whistle for the wind
Current meaning: Someone trying to change something without the prospect of success.
Current usage: “His promotion ambition was nothing more than whistling for the wind.”
Sailors of old had lots of superstitious ideas and whistling for the wind was one of them. Sailors believed that when they were down in the doldrums (without wind or the prospect of wind) they could whistle for the wind in the hope of creating wind. Following on from that idea, you will never hear a sailor whistle when there is a storm brewing.
The idiom morphed somewhat to say ‘whistle in the wind’, meaning that we wish for something we can’t have. For example: “When Smithies applied for the post of first mate he was whistling in the wind.”
In his wake
Current meaning: To leave others behind.
Current usage: “She left the competition in her wake.”
In his wake, meaning things left behind by someone or something. For example: “Smithies’ love life was rather fluid, leaving a trail of broken hearts in his wake.” It may also indicate that you are ahead of the pack. For example: “During the 2000 summer Olympics 400 metres, Cathy Freeman left her competitors in her wake.” Literally, a wake is a wave pattern produced by a ship’s hull as it moves through the water and displaces volumes of water.
Current meaning: A specific hour in the day where drinks are sold at a discounted price.
Current usage: “I will see you at the local at 5 pm when happy hour starts.”
To draw more customers in, bars often have a “happy hour” where they offer drinks at a reduced price. It is a marketing strategy to increase business. Let’s face it, who hasn’t been to a happy hour…
The origin of “happy hour” comes from the early 1900s where US Navy personal came together for pure entertainment reasons. This could take the form of sporting events, dancing and other activities which had very little to do with the consumption of discounted drinks. However, as we know, time does strange things to how we use the English language…
Current meaning: An initiation ritual.
Current usage: “He received a hazing when he was initiated into the fraternity.”
Hazing is a very old sailor’s tradition and can be best described as an initiation ceremony of such a kind you may expect at a fraternity at university. These initiations were sometimes brutal, particularly a specific ceremony when a new sailor first crosses the equator.
“When Smithies joined the company, the boys from the second floor organised a hazing from which he is yet to recover.”
Hazing is outlawed in most jurisdictions around the world but still happens regularly. From our friends at the Department:
“Hazing is defined as any conduct whereby a military member or members, regardless of service or rank, without proper authority causes another military member or members, regardless of service or rank, to suffer or be exposed to any activity which is cruel, abusive, humiliating, oppressive, demeaning, or harmful.”
Between wind and water
Current meaning: Being extremely vulnerable or in a precarious situation.
Current usage: “His drug addiction meant that he lived his life between wind and water.”
Between wind and water is that part of a ship that is sometimes above the waterline and sometimes below it. For example, the swell may be such that the ship is bobbing up and down dramatically exposing some of the normally submerged hull and then submerging some of the hull that would sit otherwise above the waterline. In the early days of naval warfare, it was recognised that when enemy cannon balls would penetrate this specific part of the ship it could easily lead to flooding and eventually sinking the ship. It is therefore not hard to see that this vulnerability morphed into the idiom it is today.
Current meaning: A tournament in which each competitor plays in turn against every other.
Current usage: “Mary played in a round-robin tournament and came second.”
In sports, we have round robins, meaning that all participants will play all other participants and the one with the most points wins the competition, as opposed to a sudden-death competition such as the Australian Tennis Open. It stems from mariners who were extremely unhappy with the ship’s captain and served him with a piece of paper called a round robin which had on it all the names of the crew that supported the complaint. However, the names were written in a circle so the captain could not figure out who the leader was.
An Albatross around your neck
Current meaning: A heavy weight of remorse that becomes a barrier to success.
Current usage: “Her failure to qualify became an albatross around her neck, crushing all her confidence.”
To have an Albatross around your neck is synonymous with an annoying burden. You can say: “This useless dingy is an Albatross around my neck.” We all know an Albatross is a large sea bird. However, sailors in the 1600s believed that the Albatross was an embodiment of dead sailors. Chasing an Albatross off the deck or killing one was considered bad luck. I guess not dissimilar to cows in some parts of India.
Current meaning: To get married.
Current usage: “She’s getting hitched to her college sweetheart.”
A hitch is a means by which a rope is made fast. It stems from the 1760s and is without a doubt nautical.
There are several types of hitch knot including a cow hitch and a simpler clove hitch. Now we describe the act of marriage as getting hitched.
Current meaning: Something that pays great rewards but has little to no chance of success.
Current usage: “The success of that project was always going to be a long shot.”
A long shot means that there is little chance of success but if achieved will reap great rewards. “He put his last $100 bill on number 21 hoping this roulette long shot would get him back in the game.” In Nelson’s days, the cannons used we notoriously inaccurate. Although not helped by the lack of steadiness of the ship, the range and bearing were an educated guess at best. To fire at close range means you are also in close range of the enemy. It was, therefore, helpful to fire a long shot that had little chance of success but a great payoff if it hit its mark.
Current meaning: Often just short of money
Current usage: “After losing his wallet, he was pretty hard-up for the rest of the week.”
When you are hard-up you need something badly. This could be financially, or any other situation where your needs are not met. For example, “Smithies was hard-up after he lost his job.” Sailors used to say they were hard-up to express that they were overwhelmed with ill fortunes and had no way of bettering their lives.
Current meaning: In pursuit of something or someone.
Current usage: “The police in hot chase were looking for the robbers.”
A hot chase finds its origin in naval warfare. Ships of nations that were not at war couldn’t challenge each other in international waters. Similarly, suspected smugglers could not be challenged when showing the colour of a foreign nation. However, ships that ventured into territorial waters could be challenged and even when chased into international waters were still fair game. Today, the saying ‘hot pursuit’ is used more often but still stems from the time of sailing ships.
Sling one’s hook
Current meaning: Getting on your way.
Current usage: “John slung his hook and drove away angry and upset.”
When you sling your hook, you are getting on your way. You can say: “After an argument, Smithies’ girlfriend told him to sling his hook.” One can argue that the origin of this idiom is nautical because sailing ships sling their hook (another word for anchor) just before the ship sets off.
Current meaning: A person’s driving record mainly for taxation purposes.
Current usage: “He noted the kilometres in his logbook so he could claim the expense.”
The ‘common log’ was used to measure the speed of a sailing vessel. A piece of wood attached to a rope with several knots in it at specific measured intervals was let out behind the ship. A combination of time and the number of knots let out showed the ship travelling at X number of knots, which was then recorded in the ship’s logbook.
Current meaning: To abandon a course of action.
Current usage: The CEO jumped ship after the royal commission pointed to severe breaches of the law.”
There are two schools of thought behind the idiom ‘jump ship’ or ‘to jump ship’. When a ship is in danger of sinking, the command ‘abandon ship’ may be given, after which the sailors jumped off the ship. A more likely explanation is that sailors jumped off the ship simply to escape from it. This was specifically the case where sailors were shanghaied or pressed into service involuntarily. Today, jumping ship means that you give up on, or leave something often suddenly and without warning.
Current meaning: Finding yourself without the means to move from somewhere.
Current usage: “During the bus strike, she found herself stranded in the city.”
Figuratively, you can be stranded when you get stuck, left helpless and without the means to move from somewhere. For example: “Smithies picked up a hitchhiker who seemed stranded at the side of the road.”
The word originates from the Dutch word ‘strand’ meaning beach. Being stranded was simply that your ship had run aground on a beach.
Take someone down a peg or two
Current meaning: To tell someone that they are not as valuable as they may believe.
Current usage: “John was taken down a peg or two after telling the CEO he was wrong.”
There are two potential origins of this idiom, both stemming from maritime practices.
We mentioned the scuttlebutt before to describe the barrel on board a sailing ship in which the drinking water was stored. Water was sometimes rationed, and each sailor was given a number of pegs (a unit of volume). If a sailor did something wrong, he may be punished by reducing his ration of drinking water.
It is also argued that the flag signalling system sits at the core of this well-used idiom. The colours were raised using pegs and the colours were only taken down as a sign of surrendering which must be the low point of the battle.
Using the idiom today, we mean to imply that someone needs to realise that they are less talented or important than they may think they are. For example: “When Smithies declared that he could be a great leader, the captain took him down a peg or two, reminding him of the last time he was in charge of the sloop.”
Current meaning: Empty bottles.
Current usage: “Get these dead marines off the table.”
This idiom refers to an empty liquor bottle. It is synonymous with ‘“dead one’ or ‘dead soldier’ which all mean pretty much the same thing. For example: “It was disheartening to find all these dead marines on the floor even after I told you to clean up after your party”. The origin is a bit vague but there is some evidence that the term was ‘marinized’ by William IV, then still the Duke of Clarence, in the late 1700s when he ordered his servants to remove the dead marines to make way for the next round of drinks.
Current meaning: To cause a plan or proposal to fail.
Current usage: “The board scuttled the CEO’s plan for expansion.”
Scuttle, as opposed to ‘scuttlebutt’ has a definitive meaning in the maritime business. It means the deliberate sinking of a ship. The verb scuttling, therefore, involves the creation of a hole in the ship’s hull situated under the waterline, resulting in the flooding of the hull and subsequent sinking of the ship. Ships are often scuttled to create a dive destination as it creates a man-made reef attracting aquatic species. In history, there are also many examples where ships were scuttled to form a barrier or blockade to avoid enemy ships entering harbours. In today’s language, you can use scuttle to explain the deliberate undermining of a plan or a proposal.
Having both oars in the water
Current meaning: To be mentally balanced.
Current usage: “He had both oars in the water and took the company to new heights.”
Clearly, ‘boaty’ speak by reference to the oars and meaning that you are calm and collected and moving forward with purpose. Conversely, the saying ‘not having both oars in the water’ means the opposite, shown by the fact that when you only have one oar in the water you will go in circles.
Current meaning: A general sign that there is something wrong and help is needed.
Current usage: “The CEO’s mayday was ignored by the board with catastrophic consequences.”
‘Mayday’ is the globally recognised voice radio signal for ships and people in serious trouble at sea. The word comes from the French ‘m’aidez’ which means ‘help me’ and was first introduced at Croydon Airport in London by a radio officer named Frederick Mockford because SOS was not well understood over voice radio.
Where voice is not practical, an S.O.S. Morse code will pretty much have the same meaning. However, contrary to popular belief, the letters SOS have no literal meaning such as ‘Save Our Souls’ or ‘Save Our Ship’.
The distress call ‘mayday’ may be used only if the boat is in imminent or serious danger and immediate assistance is required. For less serious matters, the call ‘PAM PAM’ is used.
As an idiom, we may use mayday to denote some type of trouble we find ourselves in.
Current meaning: To sabotage a plan.
Current usage: “The weather scuppered our plans for a bush walk.”
Scupper originated as old seafarer’s slang for injured or killed. A scupper is literally an opening from which excess seawater can drain from the deck back into the ocean. Being washed through a scupper was a bad thing and hence the slang meaning. The scupper is also now adopted in the building industry where it serves a similar purpose in channelling water from the roof through a hole in the facade of a building. Today it is used to mean destroying something like a plan or idea. It is also used to denote sinking your own vessel. As in: “Smithies scuppered his boat to claim on the insurance,”
Current meaning: To strengthen or support something.
Current usage: “After the chef died, the manager tried to bolster the morale of the staff.”
A bolster is a piece of wood applied in many places on wooden sailing ships. They are designed to prevent chafing. It can also be a piece of softwood installed on the trestle-trees to prevent them from getting nipped by the rigging. Today we use the word bolster to mean support or strengthen. For example: “After the captain died, Smithies tried to bolster the crew’s morale by volunteering to act in the position of captain. If anything did bolster morale, it was the laughter that followed.”
Current meaning: A very short haircut.
Current usage: “The first thing they did when he joined the army was give him a crew cut.”
A very short hairstyle given to the crew of a ship. It further developed in the 1940s where reference is made to the term ‘crew cut’ chosen as the preferred hairstyle by boat crews of Harvard and Yale universities.
Cup of Joe
Current meaning: A cup of coffee.
Current usage: “During the long night, John needed a cup of Joe just to stay awake.”
A cup of Joe stems from American Navy folklore. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Josephus Daniels (Joe) as Secretary of the Navy. Not long after his appointment, and to the horror of the officers, Joe Daniels abolished the long-standing tradition of serving alcohol on ships. This was known as ‘General Order 99’.
From that point onwards, a cup of coffee was the strongest beverage available and hence, a cup of coffee became synonymous with a cup of Joe. The idiom quickly spread through the rest of the defence force.
Blood is thicker than water
Current meaning: To value family before friends.
Current usage: “His father appointed him CEO because blood is thicker than water.”
When we say ‘blood is thicker than water’ we mean to say that we value our family relationships above anything else. For example: “When the captain’s son was given the promotion over Smithies, it was clear that blood will always be thicker than water.” The earliest mention of this can be found in the German language in the late-1100s ‘blut ist dicker als wasser’, but really entered our language in the late 1800s after Josiah Tattnall, a U.S. Navy Commodore, decided to go against the U.S. policy of neutrality when he witnessed the British being attacked at Taku Forts at the mouth of the Pei Ho River. Tattnall clearly saw the British as kin more so than the Chinese.
Any port in a storm
Current meaning: Not to be picky about the type of assistance available.
Current usage: “She can date anyone she likes but tonight it looks like any port in a storm.”
In adverse circumstances, we welcome any source of relief or escape. Any port in a storm stems from sailors sailing to the nearest port when a storm was developing.
Current meaning: To offer your opinion often without being requested to do so.
Current usage: “The meeting was out of control when everyone started to sound off at once.”
To gauge the depth of the water, sailors used a swinging lead tied to a rope with knots denoting the depth of the water. They would shout out the depth to the officer in charge, who was often at the aft of the ship. This was called ‘sounding off’. Today, we sound off if we express our opinions in a brash and/or vigorous manner.
Current meaning: An adventurous and daring individual.
Current usage: “To go on a holiday like that you need to be a swashbuckler…”
Swashbuckler and buccaneer are often used synonymously, especially in Hollywood movies. They show a pirate (either licensed by a government or not) with a good heart, such as Jack Sparrow. The term ‘Swashbuckler’ has changed a bit over the years with its meaning mellowing from a negative to a more endearing one. One that seeks adventure. We can use it today to say for example: “The staff’s reply was no less than a swashbuckler’s retort.”
Calm before the storm
Current meaning: The expectation that a situation will go from calm to chaotic.
Current usage: “All three babies were asleep but that was just the calm before the storm.”
Sailors were the first to understand the meteorological conditions of storms. They knew instinctively and through experience, that warm moist air is pulled into a storm system, which leaves a low-pressure vacuum at its front. This low-pressure system is the calm a ship would find itself in before the high-pressure would hit.
Today we say ‘calm before the storm’ when we expect something to change from smooth to chaotic.
Current meaning: Driving recklessly.
Current usage: “The go-cart careened around the corner.”
We use the word careen or careening to show that someone is driving a vehicle recklessly and, in the worst case, getting the vehicle on two wheels. It stems from the French ‘carener’ and was simply a method of performing maintenance on ship’s hull by laying the ship on its side, aided by the low tide. The ship was sailed to a careenage at high tide and when the tide receded, the ship’s hull would be exposed, and work could begin.
In the black books
Current meaning: To fall out of favour.
Current usage: “He was in the CEO’s black books after losing the investment money.”
In the time of Edward III of England in the early 1300s, there existed a volume of law that held admiralty rules. It was a collection of maritime laws and conduct and was known as the Black Books of the Admiralty. It governed some of the punishments of the time, which were cruel and inhumane at best. Today, if you are in someone’s black books it will mean that you are out of favour with someone. For example: “Smithies was in the captain’s black books when he steered the ship 60-degrees off-course.”
Current meaning: Someone important.
Current usage: “The visitor was a bigwig so all staff were on their best behaviour.”
Don’t act like you are a bigwig. In other words, stop pretending you are more important than you are. An idiom with negative connotations which derives its meaning from early 18th-century dress code by the elite within the Royal Navy. It seems the higher the rank and the more substantial the wealth, the bigger the wig. Sailors referred to these high-ranking officers as bigwigs and they were very much disliked by all other ranks.
Current meaning: A leader or prominent person within an organisation.
Current usage: “The new CEO became the leading light of the company.”
When approaching a harbour or port, there is often a narrow channel that needs to be navigated. To assist sailors, two lights were placed one behind the other. If the ship was on course the two lights lined up and they were assured that the ship was in the centre of the channel and safe from running aground. We now use ‘leading light’ to point out a leader or someone that inspires us.
Current meaning: Trapped in a place from which you can’t escape.
Current usage: “When his car broke down, he was marooned on the deserted road.”
It became common practice in the early 1700s to punish someone by way of abandonment on a deserted island. That person would more often than not be the (ex) captain after a mutiny. Today we simply mean to say that someone or something is stranded.
There she blows
Current meaning: Announce the arrival of something or someone. Current usage: “There she blows said John when the waitress finally came out with the food.”
There it is! We say ‘there she blows’ sometimes to announce the arrival of something that we expected for a long time. For example: “When Smithies’ wife asked for an additional allowance, he hailed there she blows!”
Originally, it was the whaler in the crow’s nest that hailed ‘Thar she blows’ when spotting a spout of water, making the crew below aware that a whale was nearby to be hunted down and killed for its oil.
What a cock-up
Current meaning: Something that went wrong.
Current usage: “That menu is a total cock-up.”
When the old sailing ships came into port, space was of the essence. Any spars (wooden poles like yards, booms, bowsprit etc.) that were positioned outside the breath of the ship needed to be secured so they would not stick out and impede other ships or cranes and equipment on the dock. This was referred to as ‘cocking up the spars’, and was a process that was carried out most times a ship came into port. Today, a cock-up describes something that is done wrong or badly. For example: “Smithies handed over the stock-take figures to the captain. After having a quick look over the numbers, the captain shook his head and declared both the stock-take, and Smithies personally, as a total cock-up”. See also ‘balls up’.
Start with a clean slate/wipe the slate clean
Current meaning: Starting again without regard to what happened in the past.
Current usage: “The slate was wiped clean after John took full responsibility of his cock-up.”
Old sailing ships used to record their movement on a slate. This included things like the ship’s course, tacks made, the speed where applicable and other information that was recorded during the watch. When the watch was released, all information was handed over to the new watch. After analysing the data, the slate was wiped clean in order to record relevant data of the new watch, that is, it was used as an aid to a handover brief.
Today, when we wipe the slate clean and start with a clean slate, we are meaning to say that there is a new beginning with past issues being forgotten. For example: “Smithies did really badly on his knot tying test last year, but the captain offered him another opportunity by letting him start with a clean slate.”
On an even keel
Current meaning: Someone functioning effectively and rationally.
Current usage: “The manager was on an even keel despite being overworked.”
A vessel that is sailing smoothly and level is said to be on an even keel. We now use it simply to say that a situation is under control, well-balanced and running smoothly.
Moving into uncharted waters
Current meaning: Venturing into something that requires a high degree of caution.
Current usage: “The typewriter company started making vehicles and hence moved into uncharted waters.”
It is clear that moving into uncharted waters was a dangerous prospect for sailors because one did not know the depth of the water, dangerous currents or other facts that charts could provide. It is therefore easy to see the connection between the literal meaning and the idiom we use today to denote the need for caution.
Current meaning: Something large or bulky.
Current usage: “He was a hulk of a man.”
A hulk can describe a large ship that is of dubious construction or less than seaworthy. It can also be an old ship that has been stripped of all its valuable assets and is now just moored permanently for purposes such as storage, accommodation or even a prison. A hulk in today’s language is someone that is very large, awkward, and clumsy. Think of ‘The Incredible Hulk’ or ‘Hulk Hogan’.
That ship has sailed
Current meaning: An opportunity missed.
Current usage: “He tried to reconcile but she said that ship has sailed.”
When we say: ‘That ship has sailed’ we mean to say that some opportunity has passed. You can use it in a sentence like: “Smithies refused 100,000 shares in Google when the company floated but now that ship has sailed.” Its origin stems from the fact that sailing ships once cast off were almost impossible to turn around and re-dock due to tide and wind conditions. So, when the ship sailed off, there was no more opportunity to board it.
Enough to sink a ship
Current meaning: Denotes a large amount of something.
Current usage: “He ordered enough star pickets to sink a ship”
Sinking a ship by overloading it is not that easy to do. If something is said to be enough to sink a ship it is enormous or very large or in any case more than enough. Also, the alternative, ‘enough to sink a battleship’ is used for the same reason. For example: “Smithies brought enough food to the BBQ to sink a ship.”
A sinking ship
Current meaning: Something that is about to fail.
Current usage: “The business was a sinking ship after it was suspended from trading.”
The literal meaning of a sinking ship requires no explanation. Idiomatically, we refer to a sinking ship as stopping your involvement in an enterprise or business which is on a path to imminent failure. For example: “The CEO of Video Easy knew he was on a sinking ship when Netflix entered the market.”
Current meaning: Getting someone out of a precarious situation.
Current usage: “John’s business failed but his dad bailed him out.”
Bailing out the water was a common practice in the age of sailing as the ships were notoriously leaky. It kept ships afloat. Bailing pumps are still used for this purpose today. Figuratively, if you bail someone out it means you help them get out of a sticky situation. For example: “After the financial crisis, the government bailed out several banks despite the fact that extravagant bonuses were given to executives.”
Reef the sails
Current meaning: Preparing for harder times ahead.
Current usage: “The treasurer reefed the sails on the upcoming budget.”
If you reef the sails, you most likely do so to slow your boat down and make it less responsive to the wind. This is often done to reduce sail area and thus prepare for more stormy situations. Outside sailing, it means to slow down or prepare for harder times. For example: “After the election was over, Smithies reefed the sails and relaxed for a bit.”
To hit rock bottom
Current meaning: When it seems that things could not get any worse.
Current usage: “After his divorce, he hit rock bottom.”
When you hit rock bottom, you are finding yourself in a situation that can simply not get any worse. “When Smithies’ shares were declared worthless, he hit rock bottom.” A ship would hit rock bottom where she got stuck on rocks on a high tide. The situation was therefore pretty grim with little chance of recovering the ship.
Current meaning: To get rid of something or someone.
Current usage: “Deep-six that idea or your career will be over.”
To receive a deep-six meant that you would get a burial at sea. Because of the long voyages in the age of sail and the lack of refrigeration, sailors were almost always buried at sea. As an idiom, we are saying that we want to dispose of someone or something. For example: “After a public backlash, the Minister was advised to deep-six his new policy.”
Off to a flying start
The beginning of a yacht race is a flying start, as opposed to a start of the 100-metre sprint, which starts with the competitors in a stationary position. Although there are many sports that have a flying start like harness racing, yacht racing is said to be the origin of the idiom. It is extremely important to position yourself well and have impeccable timing to cross the start line as close to the starting time as possible. We can use ‘off to a flying start’ when we experience an auspicious beginning of something. For example, “Collingwood was off to a flying start but still managed to lose the final.”
Lower the boom
Current meaning: Stopping something in its tracks.
Current usage: “The minister lowered the boom on the new policy.”
“Smithies lowered the boom on John when he delivered the knock-out punch.” So, lowering the boom means to stop someone by physical force or verbal chastising. In sailing terms, the boom is arguably from the Dutch ‘boom’ (tree) and is used to extend the foot of a sail. Lowering the boom will effectively stop the ship.
Ride out the storm
Current meaning: To overcome a difficult situation by addressing it head-on.
Current usage: “Her boss was unreasonable, but she decided to ride out the storm.”
To ride out the storm means to manage and survive a situation you experience. For example: “The Labor Party is doing badly in the polls but all they can do is ride out the storm.” Riding out a storm is a nautical expression that signifies that the vessel’s captain has chosen not to seek shelter but to persist with his current course of action irrespective of the risk.
The coast is clear
Current meaning: It is safe to go somewhere or do something without being hindered.
Current usage: “John’s mother-in-law went to the shop, so the coast was clear for him to enter.”
‘The coast is clear’ dates back as far as the 1500s and literally meant that the coastline was free of enemy forces. Sailing ships could hug the coast closely without fear of being fired upon. “Smithies had a good scan of the coastline and told the captain that from what he could see, the coast was clear.”
Current meaning: Someone or something moving quickly and with purpose.
Current usage: “They continued full sail even though there were many concerns.”
Someone who has ‘full sails’ is going quickly. For example: “Cathy was running full sails when she won the 400-meters.” In nautical terms, it means the sailing ships had all their sails up to achieve maximum speed to reduce the time of the voyage.
Release the Kraken
Current meaning: To take severe actions.
Current usage: “The CEO released the Kraken to stamp out fraud within the company.”
When Zeus, in the movie The Clash of the Titans, declared “Release the Kraken!” He had only one thing on his mind; destruction. The Kraken finds it origin in maritime superstition as a mythical creature and was first “seen” at the coast of Norway. A colossal man-killing octopus that attacks ships, and kills all on board. Poets like Alfred Tennyson described it in part as:
Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee…
Today the urban meaning can also mean that you are announcing the imminent possibility of passing wind. Release the Kraken…
At a loose end
Current meaning: Someone who has little or nothing at all to do.
Current usage: “After John retired, he was at a loose end.”
In the context of seafaring, if a sailor was unoccupied and had little to do, the captain would assign tasks. It was not uncommon for sailors to be assigned checking loose ends. This meant checking all sheets, halyards, and any other ropes or rigging that were deployed to see if they were in good order and not ragged or frayed. Perhaps it had more to do with the expression ‘busy hands make idle minds’ so sailors did not have the time to plan that mutiny.
Things are going south
Current meaning: A situation is deteriorating.
Current usage: “Things went south quickly after the new CEO changed the marketing strategy. ”
Although not determinative, the expression arguably comes from the maritime industry for two reasons. Firstly, one can associate going north and south on a chart with going up or down respectively. So therefore going south is synonymous with going down. Secondly, before charts were available for all coastlines, sailors understood that venturing into uncharted waters was more risky than sailing familiar routes. It is well known that charts developed around the sea faring European nations first and slowly developed in places further south. So sailing into these new southern waters was dangerous and getting shipwrecked was a real possibility.
Full steam ahead
Current meaning: To proceed with eagerness without being hindered.
Current usage: “After the law was past the reforms went full steam ahead.”
First to be phrased by Admiral David Farragut in the 1860 where he declared at the battle of Mobile Bay “Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead!” The idiom as we know it now was established shortly thereafter and is used generously in modern speak. It simply means that we have no reason to delay things and that we are proceeding as quickly as we possibly can.
Having a whale of a time
Current meaning: To have a great or enjoyable experience.
Current usage: “The kids were having a whale of a time in Disneyland”
In the 1800s when whaling was at its peak, sailors often spoke about the size of the whales they hunted down. After several nips of rum, the size and ferociousness of these beasts would increase exponentially. Irrespective of this, we can agree that whales can be large and soon none-whalers where associating whales with being large. So, you can call someone a whale of a man to denote he is large (or fat) but the most used expression is associated with having a great time. For example, “Smithies had a whale of a time during some well-deserved R&R in Amsterdam.”
René Nusse is an author of fiction and non-fiction books. Born in The Hague in the Netherlands he lived most of his life in Australia.
When not writing, he can be found sailing or instructing others in the art of sailing…