Ever wonder where some of our colloquialisms
come from? You will be surprised at how many of them were born
at sea. Here’s a sampling*:
A1: An accepted synonym
for first-class in everyday language. In naval terms, in Lloyd's
Register, "A1" is the mark of a wooden ship of the
first class, 'A' referring to the quality of her hull and '1'
to the quality of her equipment.
Above board: This term for
honesty originated in the days when pirates would hide most
of their crews below decks, to trick some unsuspecting victim.
A ship that displayed its crew openly on the deck, aboveboard,
was obviously an honest merchantman.
All hands on deck: Everyone
should gather together to their stations or positions and prepare
for action. It is used nowadays to mean "to gather together
for some task or other.
As straight as the crow flies:
British coastal vessels customarily carried a cage of crows.
These birds hate wide expanses of water and head, "as straight
as the crow flies," to the nearest land when released at
sea. This was useful to vessels lost in foggy coastal
weather before the days of radar. The lookout perch on
sailing vessels became known as the crow’s nest.
Bale out: The term is usually
used in the sense of getting out of some situation - particularly
a financial one. However, the verb to bale out, means to remove
water, and comes from the old name 'boyle' for a bucket.
Bamboozle: Today, when you
intentionally deceive someone, usually as a joke, you are said
to have bamboozled them. The word also was used in the days
of sail, but then it meant to deceive a passing vessel as to
your ship's origin or nationality by flying an ensign other
than your own—a common practice by pirates. From the 17th century,
it described the Spanish custom of hoisting false flags to deceive
Barge in: The word barge
has two nautical meanings. First as a term applied to a flag
officer's boat or highly decorated vessel used for ceremonial
occasions. The second usage refers to the more common, flat-bottomed
work boat which is hard to maneuver and difficult to control.
Hence the term "barge in."
Batten down the hatches:
The real hatches are the things that cover the hatchways: gratings
and close-hatches. A great deal of water can come aboard either
from the sea of the sky or both, so they used to cover those
hatches with tarpaulins. The crew typically took battens—stout
laths of wood that fit against the coaming (the raised rim of
the hatchway)—and pinned the tarpaulin down to cleats on the
Bigwigs: The senior officers
in the English Navy, who once wore huge wigs, were referred
to a "bigwigs."
Bitter End: If a sailor
were to pay out all of the anchor warp (chain or rope) until
he reached the bitter end, then he would have no more to give
out. The bitter end also refers to the end of the "starter"
(a short rope knotted at on end) used for punishment. We talk
nowadays of having reached the "bitter end" when we
mean that we can go no further in a task or other venture. The
landlubber's phrase "stick it to the bitter end" and
"faithful to the bitter end" are derivations of the
nautical term and refer to anyone who insists in adhering to
a course of action without regard to consequences.
Booby Hatch: A booby hatch
is a small, covered compartment under the deck, toward the bow.
Sailors were punished by confinement in the booby hatch. The
term has come to mean a mental institution.
All Above Board: "All
above board referred to the fact that boards or planking which
made up the decks are in plain view; hence, anything that was
stored above board was in plain view of everyone. Nowadays we
tend to use "going overboard" in the sense of going
to far in our reaction or in some venture. "All above board"
has come to be synonymous with honest dealings.
Carry on: In the days of
sail, the officer of the deck kept a weather eye constantly
on the slightest change in the wind so sail could be reefed
or added as necessary to ensure the fastest headway. Whenever
a good breeze came along, the order to "carry on"
would be given. It meant to hoist every bit of canvas the yards
could carry. Pity the poor sailor whose weather eye failed him
and the ship was caught partially reefed when a good breeze
arrived. Through the centuries the term's connotation has changed
somewhat usually meaning an order to resume work.
Clean Slate: It was the
custom in sailing ships to record the vessel’s courses, distances
and tacks on a log slate. The new watch would always start with
a clean slate if things had been growing fine, disregarding
what had gone before and starting anew. In a similar way, today,
we refer to a new beginning or a second chance in life as starting
with a "clean slate."
Davy Jones' Locker: Seamen's
slang for the bottom of the sea. There are several theories
as to the origin of the expression: One is that Davy Jones was
the owner of a sixteenth-century London pub where unwary sailors
were drugged and put in lockers, and then awoke aboard ship
to find they had been press-ganged into the Navy.
Devil to pay: Devil and
the deep blue sea: In traditional wooden ships, the sailors
had to caulk or pay the seams with hot tar between the planks
of the deck to prevent leakage into the bilge. The devil
seam was topmost on the hull next to the scuppers at the edge
of the deck and the longest and most difficult seam to caulk.
Hence, if there was the "devil to pay," then this
was the most difficult and dangerous job since the sailor might
be knocked down (scuppered) by a large wave and find himself
between the "devil and the deep blue sea." The former
phrase has come to mean that there will be a big price to pay
for a particular action; the latter now refers to being on the
horns of a dilemma.
In the doldrums: Doldrums
is the name of a place in the ocean that is located either side
of, and near, the equator. It is characterized by unstable trade
winds or even lack of winds for days, if not weeks, at a time.
A sailing ship caught in the Doldrums can be stranded due to
lack of wind. If the situation was bad enough, or if danger
threatened, the boats might be launched in order to tow the
ship until the wind picked up. Today, if we are in the doldrums,
we feel stagnated or even morose.
Mind your P's and Q's: Sailors
would get credit at the waterfront taverns until they were paid.
The innkeeper kept a record of their drinks, and he had to mind
that no Pints or Quarts were left off of their accounts. Today,
the term usually refers to manners.
Passed with flying colors:
This comes from sailing ships that, when passing other ships
at sea, would fly their colors (pennants, flags) if they wanted
to be identified. Nowadays we tend to mean by this phrase that
a person has passed an exam or test or trial with great marks.
Pipe Down: A boatswain's
call denoting the completion of an all hands evolution, and
that you can go below. This expression is now used to mean "keep
quiet" or "quiet down."
Port and Starboard: Originally,
the old sailing ships (like the Vikings), didn't have a rudder,
and were steered by a board on the right side. This came to
be the "steerboard" side or starboard. The other side
was called "larboard" at first, but since the side
with the board could not be against the dock, the left when
facing forward, it became known as the "port" side.
Round robin: The term originated
in the British nautical tradition. Sailors wishing to mutiny
would sign their names in a circle so the leader could not be
identified. Today the term is often used in sports and competitions
to denote a series of games in which all members of a league
play each other one time.
Scuttlebutt: A small drinking
ladle with scuttles or holes in it to discourage sailors from
idle chit chat (scuttlebutt) around the water barrel while their
water ration dribbled back into the barrel. Today the usually
refers to gossip or the latest news concerning a given situation
Shape up: A helmsman working
off a lee shore would point up and "shape up" to his
course in order to avoid the danger. In modern-day usage it
is used similar sense to "smarten up" or "pull
Showing your true colors:
Early warships often carried flags from many nations on board
in order to elude or deceive the enemy. The rules of civilized
warfare called for all ships to hoist their true national ensigns
before firing a shot. Someone who finally "shows his true
colors" is acting like a warship, which hails another ship
flying one flag, but then hoisted its own flag when the vessel
got within firing range.
Skyscraper: A small, triangular
shaped sail that was set above the mains on the old square-riggers
to try to scrape—catch—more wind in areas of calm air. The term
came ashore to represent anything that was tall enough to "scrape"
Slush fund: The fat obtained
by "scraping the bottom of the barrel" by the ship’s
cook and secreted away in his "slush fund" for selling
ashore to candle makers, tanneries, etc. The words now describe
a rainy-day fund or cash reserve. Another version of the term’s
derivation is that the grease (slush) from frying the salt pork
on a voyage was kept and sold when the ship returned to port.
The money raised was put into a "fund" for the crew.
Square meal: This expression
came from the meals served on square wooden platters used on
board ship. The platters could be easily stowed in racks between
meals. Any substantial meal is now described as a "square
Three Sheets to the Wind:
A term said of a man under the influence of drink. A ship with
three sheets in the wind would "stagger to and fro like
a drunken man". Conversely, a drunken man staggers to and
fro like a ship with three sheets in the wind.
To Know the Ropes: There
were miles and miles of cordage in the rigging of a square rigged
ship. The only way of keeping track of and knowing the function
of all of these lines was to know where they were located. It
took an experienced seaman to know the ropes.
Under the weather: Refers
to a sailor being in the uncomfortable position of having his
station at the weather bow and being subject to the pitching
of the boat and constant spray blown in his face. Used in the
modern-day sense of not feeling well or perhaps even of feeling
*Part of this listing was compiled with
the help of the Leicester Overseas website at