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Nautical Notes

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 (bamboozle) enemies. 

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 deck—drum tight.

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 or person.

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 yourself together."

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" the sky.

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 meal."

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 slightly depressed.

*Part of this listing was compiled with the help of the Leicester Overseas website at