Many phrases that have been adopted into everyday use originate from seafaring – in particular from the days of sail. Virtually all of these are metaphorical and the original nautical meanings are now forgotten. That association of travel and metaphor is significant in that the word metaphor derives from ancient Greek for ‘to carry’ or ‘to travel’. The influence of other languages and other cultures is evident in many of the long list of English phrases that have nautical origins.
It is an undoubted fact that seafaring is also the source of more false etymology than any other sphere. This can be attributed to the attractiveness of the romantic image of horny-handed sailors singing shanties and living a hearty and rough life at sea. After all, it sounds plausible that ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’ comes from brass ship’s fittings and that POSH means ‘Port out, starboard home’, but neither of these is correct. CANOE, the Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything, doesn’t really exist, but the number of these folk myths makes it seem as though they do…
It is lucky for us, in our endeavours to distinguish truth from falsehood, that activities at sea have been scrupulously recorded over the centuries, in insurance records, newspaper accounts and, not least, in ships’ log books. The term log-book has an interesting derivation in itself. An early form of measuring a ship’s progress was by casting overboard a wooden board (the log) with a string attached. The rate at which the string was payed out as the ship moved away from the stationary log was measured by counting how long it took between knots in the string. These measurements were later transcribed into a book. Hence we get the term ‘log-book’ and also the name ‘knot’ as the unit of speed at sea.
The below list is compiled from several different sources, and includes all the phrases and etymologies your captain found plausible. The words in bold italics have iron-clad documentation of their nautical origins courtesy of The Phrase Finder. The others just seem to make sense. Certain phrases, such as “as the crow flies”, don’t seem to make sense and therefore have been left out.
Anything on or above the open deck. If something is open and in plain view, it is above board.
all at sea
This dates to the time when accurate navigational aids weren’t available. Any ship that was out of sight of land was in an uncertain position and in danger of becoming lost.
Now means to stand apart or be indifferent, but it came from the Old Dutch word loef which meant “windward” and was used to describe a ship within a fleet which sailed higher to the wind and was thus drawn apart from the rest of the fleet.
An iron ball attached to a long handle was a loggerhead. When heated it was used to seal the pitch in deck seams. It was sometimes a handy weapon for quarreling crewmen.
…They had been sparring, in a spirit of fun, with loggerheads, those massy iron balls with long handles to be carried red-hot from the fire and plunged into buckets of tar or pitch so that the substance might be melted with no risk of flame. ‘They are sober now, sir; and penitent, the creatures.’ – The Commodore by Patrick O’Brian
A block and tackle is a pulley system used on sailing ships to hoist the sails. The phrase describes what occurs the system is raised to its fullest extent – when there is no more rope free and the blocks jam tightly together. Predictably this lead to its current meaning, “crammed so tightly together as to prevent movement”.
clean bill of health
A certificate signed by a port authority attesting that no contagious disease existed in the port of departure and none of crew were infected with a disease at the time of sailing. Shore-side, it means in good shape.
clear the deck
One of the things done in preparation for battle. Current usage similar to batten down the hatches.
In the 17th century the barriers that sailors laid across a ship’s deck in order to provide a safe haven from the enemy were called close-fights. By the mid 18th century that confined defensive space became called ‘close quarters’, i.e. close dwellings. This eventually came to mean ‘near enough to to be able to fight hand to hand’.
‘Copper-bottomed’ described ships that were fitted with copper plating on the underside of their hulls. The process was first used on ships of the British Navy in 1761 to defend their wooden planking against attack by Teredo worms a.k.a. Shipworms and to reduce infestations by barnacles. The method was successful in protecting ships’ timbers and in increasing speed and manoeuvrability and soon became widely used. Before long, ‘copper-bottomed’ began to be used figuratively to refer to anything that was certain and trustworthy.
cut and run
Most often thought to mean the cutting of an anchor line in an effort to make a quick getaway. Hard to imagine that many ship’s masters enjoyed routinely losing an anchor or two, so it is probably more likely referring to the practice of securing the sails of a square-rigged ship with rope yarns that could easily be cut away when a quick departure was necessary.
cut of one’s jib
Warships many times had their foresails or jib sails cut thinly so that they could maintain point and not be blown off course. Upon sighting thin foresails on a distant ship a captain might not like the cut of his jib and would then have an opportunity to escape.
deliver a broadside
A broadside was the simultaneous firing of the guns and/or canons on one side of a war ship. Quite a blow, as can be imagined. Today it means much the same type of all-out attack, though done (usually) with words.
devil to pay
Originally, this expression described one of the unpleasant tasks aboard a wooden ship. The devil was the ship’s longest seam in the hull. Caulking was done with pay or pitch (a kind of tar). The task of ‘paying the devil’ (caulking the longest seam) by squatting in the bilges was one of the worst and most difficult jobs onboard. The term has come to mean a difficult, seemingly impossible task. ‘The devil to pay and no pitch hot’. Landlubbers, having no seafaring knowledge, assumed it referred to satan and gave the term a moral interpretation.
‘Why, the devil, do you see,’ said Jack, ‘is the seam between the deck-planking and the timbers, and we call it the devil, because it is the devil for the caulkers to come at: in full we say the devil to pay and no pitch hot; and what we mean is, that there is something hell-fire difficult to be done – must be done – and nothing to do it with. It is a figure.’ – The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian
Thin and worn sails were often treated with oil or wax to renew their effectiveness. This was called “dressing down”. An officer or sailor who was reprimanded or scolded received a dressing down.
Dates to the 1600s Anglo-Dutch wars and was likely British propaganda claiming that the Dutch troops were so cowardly they wouldn’t fight unless fortified with copious amounts of schnapps. The term has come to mean false courage induced by drink, or the drink itself.
This phrase describes inch-by-inch progress and was first used in the 17th century, typically in nautical contexts and referring to slow advance by means of repeated small tacking movements.
A vessel that floats upright without list is said to be on an even keel and this term has come to mean calm and steady. A keel is like the backbone of the vessel, the lowest and principal centerline structural member running fore and aft. Keeled over (upside down) was a sailor’s term for death.
fall foul of/foul up
Foul is an often used nautical term generally meaning entangled or impeded. An anchor tangled in line or cable is said to be a foul anchor. A foul berth is caused by another vessel anchoring too close wherein the risk of collision exists. A foul bottom offers poor holding for anchors. A screw up!
A nautical measure equal to six feet, used to measure the depth of water at sea. The word was also used to describe taking the measure or “to fathom” something. Today when one is trying to figure something out, they are trying to fathom it or get to the bottom of it.
An ornamental figure placed on the front of a ship, under the bowsprit. Originally a religious and/or protective emblem. The custom continued but for purely decorative purposes. Hence the term figurehead – a leader with no real power or function except to ‘look good’ or appeal to a certain group.
Buccaneers were sometimes known in England as filibusters. From the Dutch for vrybuiter (freebooter) translated into French as flibustier. It is now used as a political term meaning to delay or obstruct the passage of legislation (as opposed to sailing vessels) by non-stop speech making.
Implies excellence. From the 16th century on until steam powered ships took over, British naval ships were rated as to the number of heavy cannon they carried. A ship of 100 or more guns was a First Rate line-of-battle ship. Second rates carried 90 to 98 guns; Third Rates, 64 to 89 guns; Fourth Rates, 50 to 60 guns. Frigates carrying 20 to 48 guns were fifth and sixth rated.
fits the bill
A Bill of Lading was signed by the ship’s master acknowledging receipt of specified goods and the promise to deliver them to their destination in the same condition. Upon delivery, the goods were checked against the bill to see if all was in order. If so, they fit the bill.
flotsam and jetsam
These are legal terms in maritime law. Flotsam is any part of the wreckage of a ship or her cargo that is lost by accident and found floating on the surface of the water. Jetsam are goods or equipment deliberately thrown overboard (jettisoned) to make the ship more stable in high winds or heavy seas. (Lagan are goods cast overboard with a rope attached so that they may be retrieved and sometimes refers to goods remaining inside a sunken ship or lying on the bottom.) The term flotsam and jetsam shore-side means odds and ends of no great value.
The bottom portion of a sail is called the foot. If it is not secured, it is footloose and it dances randomly in the wind.
from stem to stern
From the front of a ship to the back. Now describes something in its entirety.
To come through a battle with flying colors means a ship has come through relatively unscathed and with her colors (flag) flying.
‘Way’ here doesn’t mean road or route but has the specifically nautical meaning of ‘the forward progress of a ship though the water’, or the wake that the ship leaves behind. Way has been used like that since at least the 17th century.
give a wide berth
To anchor a ship far enough away from another ship so that they did not hit each other when they swung with the wind or tide.
The nautical origin of this one should be fairly self-evident
A sailing vessel gripes when, by poor design or imbalance of sail, it tends to end up with its bow into the wind when sailing close-hauled. The sails flap around, forward progress is halted and she is very hard to steer. On land, the term means to complain, complain, complain.
In 1740, British Admiral Vernon (whose nickname was “Old Grogram” for the cloak of grogram which he wore) ordered that the sailors’ daily ration of rum be diluted with water. The men called the mixture “grog”. A sailor who drank too much grog was “groggy”.
A sudden rise of water along the shore. It often happens when the weather is fine and the sea behind it appears calm. Said to occur when undulating water from a far away storm reaches the shoreline where friction causes the swell. In common use, the term groundswell means a growing change in public opinion.
half seas over
A ship run aground on reef or rock with seas breaking over her. Not much can be done in this situation. The expression has come to mean a person so inebriated as to be incapable of steering a steady course.
hand over fist
Hand over hand was a British term for the act of moving quickly up a rope or hoisting a sail, which was a matter of pride and competition among sailors. It is thought that American sailors changed this term to ‘hand over fist’, and the term now means to advance or accumulate rapidly.
hard and fast
A ship that was hard and fast was simply one that was firmly beached on land. Has come to mean ‘rigidly adhered to – without doubt or debate’.
Hard is another often used nautical term. To put the helm hard over is to put it as far as it will go in that direction. Hard and fast describes a vessel firmly aground and unable to make progress and has come ashore to mean rigid. ‘Hard up in a clinch and no knife to cut the seizing’, the term from which hard up derives, was a sailor’s way of saying he had been overtaken by misfortune and saw no way of getting clear of it. Shore-side, the term means in need.
Long before fraternal organizations, hazing was the practice of keeping the crew working all hours of the day or night, whether necessary or not, in order to deprive them of sleep and to make them generally miserable. In the 19th century, many captains used this practice to assert their authority. Hazing has come to mean the initiation of a newcomer to a group by humiliating and harassing him or her, thereby asserting the authority of the group.
hit the deck
The prudent thing to do when subjected to a French broadside… Not that Captain Aubrey would dream of doing it.
high and dry
This term originally referred to ships that were beached. The ‘dry’ implies that, not only were they out of the water, but had been for some time and could be expected to remain so.
A principle of naval warfare, though without basis in law, that allowed a fleeing enemy to be followed into neutral waters and captured there if the chase had begun in international waters. The term hot pursuit derives from this ‘principle’.
A large and unwieldy ship of simple construction and dubious seaworthiness. On shore, it means big and clumsy.
in the offing
This phrase is quite simple to understand once you know that ‘the offing’ is the part of the sea that can be seen from land, excluding those parts that are near the shore. Early texts also refer to it as ‘offen’ or ‘offin’. A ship that was about to arrive was “in the offing”, therefore imminent, which is how the phrase is used today.
Idler was the name for those members of a ship’s crew that did not stand night watch because of their work. Carpenters, sailmakers, cooks, etc. worked during the day and were excused from watch duty at night. They were called idlers, but not because they had nothing to do, simply because they were off duty at night.
Old rope no longer able to take a load, it was cut into shorter lengths and used to make mops and mats. Land-side, junk is all that stuff in your garage you know you’ll need right after you throw it away.
A temporary repair to keep a disabled ship sailing until it could make port, such as a jury sail erected when the mast was lost or a jury rudder as an emergency means of steering when the ship’s rudder was damaged.
A severe naval punishment during the 15th and 16th centuries. The victim, presumably a delinquent sailor, was dragged from one side of the boat to the other, under the bottom of the boat (keel). Tossed over one side and pulled up on the other, he was usually allowed to catch his breath before suddenly being tossed overboard again. Keel hauling lost favor at the beginning of the 18th century, to be replaced by the cat-o-nine-tails. The term still means a rough reprimand.
See even keel.
know the ropes
This is pretty obvious if you’ve ever seen a tall ship. It was such an important skill on sailing vessels that an honorable discharge from service was marked, at one time, with the term ‘knows the ropes’. Land-side it still means a person with experience and skill. Also learn the ropes and show them the ropes.
The weather side of a ship is the side from which the wind is blowing. The Lee side is the side of the ship sheltered from the wind. A lee shore is a shore that is downwind of a ship. If a ship does not have enough “leeway” it is in danger of being driven onto the shore.
When a ship was listless, she was sitting still and upright in the water, with no wind to make her lean over (list) and drive ahead.
Operation on ship requiring the hauling of a lot of line. Also seen in short haul, an operation requiring little line.
In old warships, the muzzle-loading cannon were charged with black powder of uncertain potency that would propel the iron shot an equally uncertain distance with doubtful accuracy. A 24-pounder long gun, for instance, was considered to have a maximum effective range of 1200 yards, even though, under the right conditions, a ball might travel some 3000 yards. Similarly, a short, stubby 32-pounder carronade’s lethality faded fast beyond 400 yards. Thus, the odds were against a hit when one fired a long shot.
A cannon having come loose on the deck of a pitching, rolling, and yawing deck could cause severe injury and damage. Has come to mean an unpredictable or uncontrolled person who is likely to cause unintentional damage.
A stay that extends from the maintop to the foot of the foremast of a sailing ship. Currently, a thing upon which something is based or depends.
no room to swing a cat
The entire ship’s company was required to witness flogging at close hand. The crew might crowd around so that the Bosun’s Mate might not have enough room to swing his cat o’ nine tails.
on your beam ends
The beams here are the horizontal transverse timbers of ships. This phrase came about with the allusion to the danger of imminent capsize if the beam ends were touching the water. Currently means ‘to be in a bad situation’.
over the barrel
The most common method of punishment aboard ship was flogging. The unfortunate sailor was tied to a grating, mast or over the barrel of a deck cannon.
To sail downwind directly at another ship thus “stealing” or diverting the wind from his sails.
To prevent the buntline ropes from chaffing the sails, crew were sent aloft to haul them over the sails. This was called overhauling.
If a ship holds a tack course too long, it has overreached its turning point and the distance it must travel to reach it’s next tack point is increased.
Old English for capsize or founder.
A boatswain’s call denoting the completion of an all hands evolution, and that you can go below. It was the last signal from the Bosun’s pipe each day which meant “lights out” and “silence”.
The rearmost, highest deck of a sailing ship was called the poop deck. If a ship were unlucky enough to be overtaken by a massive, breaking sea which drenched her from astern, she was said to have been “pooped.” When you think about it, the sea and shore uses of the word aren’t that different: in both cases, you’re washed out.
…even worse, she lost some of her way at the bottom, whereas she needed all her speed to outrun the following seas, for if they were to overtake her she would be pooped, smothered in a mass of breaking water. Then ten to one she would slew round and broach to, presenting her broadside to the wind, so that the next sea would overwhelm her. – Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian
press into service
The British navy filled their ships’ crew quotas by kidnapping men off the streets and forcing them into service. This was called Impressment and was done by Press Gangs.
A butt was a barrel. Scuttle meant to chop a hole in something. The scuttlebutt was a water barrel with a hole cut into it so that sailors could reach in and dip out drinking water. The scuttlebutt was the place where the ship’s gossip was exchanged.
‘What are you a-thinking of, sir?’ cried his steward? ‘Don’t you see he is bleeding like a pig from under his bandage?’ Killick whipped into the quarter-gallery for a towel and thrust it under Dutuord’s head. ‘Now I must take all them covers off and soak them this directly minute in fresh cold water and there ain’t no cold fresh water, which the scuttle-butt is empty till Chips comes back and shifts the hand-pump.’ – The Wine-Dark Sea by Patrick O’Brian
ship-shape and bristol fashion
A reference to the precise nature of shipbuilding (and maintenance) as well as the exemplary work that came from Bristol shipyards.
shiver my (or me if you’re a pirate) timbers
One meaning of shiver, which is now largely forgotten, is ‘to break into pieces’. That meaning originated at least as early as the 14th century and is recorded in several Old English texts. So, the sailor’s oath shiver my timbers, is synonymous with (if so and so happens then…) let my boat break into pieces.
Currently, To pass time by playing tricks or practical jokes; indulging in horseplay.
Yet the Surprise, lying there in the road, had three midshipmen aboard, and what they lacked in intelligence they made up for in physical activity. R_____, having but one arm, could no longer go skylarking, hurling himself about the upper rigging regardless of gravity, but his messmates N_____ and W_____ would hoist him by an easy purchase to astonishing heights, and from these, having still one powerful hand and legs that could twist around any rope, he would plunge with infinite satisfaction. He was at the masthead, negligently holding the starboard main topgallant shrouds with the intention of sliding straight down the whole length of the topgallant backstay, well over a hundred feet, when his eye, wandering towards San Lorenzo, caught the odd spectacle of a very small boat trying to tow a much larger one… – The Wine-Dark Sea by Patrick O’Brian
A small triangular sail set above the skysail in order to maximize effect in a light wind.
A slushy slurry of fat was obtained by boiling or scraping the empty salted meat storage barrels. This stuff called “slush” was often sold ashore by the ship’s cook for the benefit of himself or the crew. The money so derived became known as a slush fund.
son of a gun
When in port, and with the crew restricted to the ship for any extended period of time, wives and ladies of easy virtue often were allowed to live aboard along with the crew. Infrequently, but not uncommonly, children were born aboard, and a convenient place for this was between guns on the gun deck. If the child’s father was unknown, they were entered in the ship’s log as “son of a gun”. Probably a sanitized version of “son of a bitch”, despite the various folk etymologies.
…both had been bred to the sea from their earliest years – Bonden, indeed, had been born between two of the Indefatigable’s lower-deck guns… – Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian
a square meal
In good weather, crews’ mess was a warm meal served on square wooden platters.
On square-rigged vessels, the state of the sails when properly trimmed. Currently, arranged or dealt with in a satisfactory manner.
A dangerous situation where the wind is on the wrong side of the sails pressing them back against the mast and forcing the ship astern. Most often this was caused by an inattentive helmsman who had allowed the ship to head up into the wind.
taking the wind out of his sails
Sailing in a manner so as to steal or divert wind from another ship’s sails.
Changing watches with the turn of the hour glass.
three sheets to the wind
A sheet is a rope line which controls the tension on the downwind side of a square sail. If, on a three masted fully rigged ship, the sheets of the three lower course sails are loose, the sails will flap and flutter and are said to be “in the wind”. A ship in this condition would stagger and wander aimlessly downwind.
At first glance, this would seem to be an obviously nautical term. Today it means to make a small bit of something, usually money, last until a supply comes in, as in borrowing some money to tide you over till payday. However, the meaning has changed over the years. Once upon a time, shipscould move under sail power, or in the absence of wind, float along with the tide, called a tide over. One could say the floating would tide the ship over until wind came again to move it along.
toe the line
When called to line up at attention, the ship’s crew would form up with their toes touching a seam in the deck planking.
[Amos Dray] shaded his mouth with his hand and in a deep rumble whispered, ‘Toe the line, my dears.’
The two little pudding-faced twin girls in clean pinafores stepped forward to a particular mark on the carpet, and together, piping high and shrill, they cried, ‘Good morning, sir.’ – Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian
The current meaning, ‘to reveal yourself as you really are’, actually came about because of the opposite phrase “false colors” – from the 17th century referring to a vessel which sailed under a flag not her own. This tactic was used by almost everyone as a ruse de guerre, but the rules of gentlemanly behavior (and possibly actual legal rules) required one to raise one’s true colors before opening fire on another ship.
try a different tack
The direction in which a ship moves as determined by the position of its sails and regarded in terms of the direction of the wind (starboard tack). If one tack didn’t bring the ship up properly, one could always attempt another.
turn a blind eye
From Admiral Lord Nelson’s awesome display of badassery at the Battle of Copenhagen. When the signal was given to stop fighting, Nelson held his spyglass to his blind eye and insisted he didn’t see the signal. He then proceeded to kick butt, of course.
under the weather
Keeping watch onboard sailing ships was a boring and tedious job, but the worst watch station was on the “weather” (windward) side of the bow. The sailor who was assigned to this station was subject to the constant pitching and rolling of the ship. By the end of his watch, he would be soaked from the waves crashing over the bow. A sailor who was assigned to this unpleasant duty was said to be “under the weather.” Sometimes, these men fell ill and died as a result of the assignment, which is why today “under the weather” is used to refer to someone suffering from an illness. A related theory claims that ill sailors were sent below deck (or “under the weather”) if they were feeling sick.
warning shot across the bow
From the literal practice of firing a warning shot across another ship’s bow to encourage the captain to strike without engaging.
A sudden unexpected rush of wind from a mountainous shore which allowed a ship more leeway.
Courtesy of Longtail, cvanthul, Gibbons Burke, Brian Berlin, Fort Ogden, Mental Floss, The Phrase Finder and a large number of listswains. Introduction courtesy of The Phrase Finder. And if you want to get really in depth, check this out.