Nautical Phrases
"Ahoy!" - This old traditional greeting for hailing other vessels was originally a Viking battle cry.

As the Crow Flies - When lost or unsure of their position in coastal waters, ships would release a caged crow. The crow would fly straight towards the nearest land thus giving the vessel some sort of a navigational fix. The tallest lookout platform on a ship came to be know as the crow's nest.

At Loggerheads - 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 quarrelling crewmen.

b.p. is bow pulpit.  In the past, ships were measured from stern forward as in "Length.  b. p. 213.36 m" b.p. has been replaced by L.O.A. (Length Over All)
(thanks Brent Matthews)

Bear Down - To sail downwind rapidly towards another ship or landmark.

Before The Mast - Literally, the position of the crew whose living quarters on board were in the forecastle (the section of a ship forward of the foremast).
The term is also used more generally to describe seamen as compared with officers, in phrases such as "he sailed before the mast."

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea - The devil seam was the curved seam in the deck planking closest to the side of the ship and next to the scupper gutters, it was the longest seam of the ship. It ran from the bow to the stern. If a sailor slipped on the deck, he could find himself between the devil and the deep blue sea. Also,  When at sea and the "devil" had to be caulked, the sailor sat in a bo'sun's chair to do so. He was suspended between the "devil" and the "deep blue sea"... a very precarious position, especially when the ship was underway.

Binnacle List - A ship's sick-list. A binnacle was the stand on which the ship's compass was mounted. In the eighteenth century and probably before, a list was given to the officer or mate of the watch, containing the names of men unable to report for duty. The list was kept at the binnacle.

Bitter End - The end of an anchor cable is fastened to the bitts at the ship's bow. If all of the anchor cable has been payed out you have come to the bitter end. 

Booby Hatch -  Aboard ship, a booby hatch is a sliding cover or hatch that
must be pushed away to allow access or passage.

Buoyed Up - Using a buoy to raise the bight of an anchor cable to prevent it from chafing on a rough bottom.

Chewing the Fat - "God made the vittles but the devil made the cook," was a popular saying used by seafaring men in the 19th century when salted beef was a staple of the diet aboard ship. This tough cured beef, suitable only for long voyages when nothing else was cheap or would keep as well (remember, there was no refrigeration), required prolonged chewing to make it edible. Men often chewed one chunk for hours, just as if it were chewing gum and referred to this practice as "chewing the fat."

Cup of Joe - Josephus Daniels (18 May 1862-15 January 1948) was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Among his reforms of the Navy were: inaugurating the practice of making 100 Sailors from the Fleet eligible for entrance into the Naval Academy; the introduction of women into the service; and, the abolishment of the officer's wine mess. From that time on, the strongest drink aboard Navy ships could only be coffee and over the years, a cup of coffee became known as "a cup of Joe".

Cut and Run - If a captain of a smaller ship encountered a larger enemy vessel, he might decide that discretion is the better part of valor, and so he would order the crew to cut the lashings on all the sails and run away before the wind. Other sources indicate "Cut and Run" meant to cut the anchor cable and sail off in a hurry.

Cut of His 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.

D.W.T.- dead weight tonnage. Difference between a ship's light and loaded displacement.
(thanks Jose Gonzalez)

Devil to Pay - Today the expression "devil to pay" is used primarily to describe having an unpleasant result from some action that has been taken, as in someone has done something they shouldn't have and, as a result, "there will be the devil to pay." Originally, this expression described one of the unpleasant tasks aboard a wooden ship. The "devil" was the wooden 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 despised by every seaman.

Down The Hatch - Here's a drinking expression that seems to have its origins in sea freight, where cargoes are lowered into the hatch. First used by
seamen, it has only been traced back to the turn of the century.

Eight Bells - Aboard Navy ships, bells are struck to designate the hours of being on watch. Each watch is four hours in length. One bell is struck after the first half-hour has passed, two bells after one hour has passed, three bells after an hour and a half, four bells after two hours, and so forth up to eight bells are struck at the completion of the four hours. Completing a watch with no incidents to report was "Eight bells and all is well." The practice of using bells stems from the days of the sailing ships. Sailors couldn't afford to have their own time pieces and relied on the ship's bells to tell time. The ship's boy kept time by using a half-hour glass. Each time the sand ran out, he would turn the glass over and ring the appropriate number of bells.

Fathom - Fathom was originally a land measuring term derived from the Ango-Saxon word "faetm" meaning to embrace. In those days, most measurements were based on average size of parts of the body, such as the hand (horses are still measured this way) or the foot (that's why 12 inches are so named). A fathom is the average distance from fingertip to fingertip of the outstretched arms of a man.. about six feet.  Since a man stretches out his arms to embrace his sweetheart, Britain's Parliament declared that distance be called a "fathom" and that it be a unit of measure. A fathom remains six feet. The word was also used to describe "taking the measure of" or "to fathom" something. Today, of course, when one is trying to
figure something out, they are trying to "fathom it" or "get their arms around it."

Fly-by-Night -  A large sail used only for sailing downwind and requiring rather little attention.

Footloose - 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.

Freeze a Brass Monkey - Between a ship's guns were lip-edged brass trays called monkeys which held pyramid stacks of cannon balls. In cold weather,  the brass tray would contract faster than the iron cannon balls and the balls would go tumbling on the deck. In this case it was said to be "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey".  This is one of the stories going around regarding the meaning of this term.  A good many people disagree with it.

Garbled -  Garbling was the prohibited practice of mixing rubbish with the cargo. A distorted, mixed up message was said to be garbled.

Give (someone) 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.

Gone By the Board - Anything seen to have gone overboard or spotted floating past the ship (by the board) was considered lost at sea.

Gun Salutes - Gun salutes were first fired as an act of good faith. In the days when it took so long to reload a gun, it was a proof of friendly intention when the ship's cannon were discharged upon entering port.

Hoisted by One's Petard - The "petard" was a small cask of black powder used to prime cannon fuses. During battle a petard was stored alongside each gun. Occasionally, a careless crewman would set one off while lighting a fuse, thereby "hoisting" himself in the air. The expression was used by English sailors describing the inept French gunners.

Keel Hauling - A naval punishment on board ships said to have originated with the Dutch but adopted by other navies during the 15th and 16th
centuries. A rope was rigged from yardarm to yardarm, passing under the bottom of the ship, and the unfortunate delinquent secured
to it, sometimes with lead or iron weights attached to his legs. He was hoisted up to one yardarm and then dropped suddenly into
the sea, hauled underneath the ship, and hoisted up to the opposite yardarm, the punishment being repeated after he had had time
to recover his breath. While he was under water, a "great gun" was fired, "which is done as well to astonish him so much the more
with the thunder of the shot, as to give warning until all others of the fleet to look out and be wary by his harms" (from Nathaniel
Boteler, A Dialogicall Discourse, 1634). The U.S. Navy never practiced keel hauling.

Knows the Ropes - In the very early days, this phrase was written on a seaman's discharge to indicate that he was still a novice. All he knew about being a sailor was just the names and uses of the principal ropes (lines). Today, this same phrase means the opposite.. that the person fully knows and understands the operation (usually of the organization).

Let the Cat Out of the Bag - In the Royal Navy the punishment prescribed for most serious crimes was flogging. This was administered by the Bosun's Mate using a whip called a cat o' nine tails. The "cat" was kept in a leather or baize bag. It was considered bad news indeed when the cat was let out of the bag. Other sources attribute the expression to the old English market scam of selling someone a pig in a poke (bag) when the pig turned out to be a cat instead. Overbearing - To sail downwind directly at another ship thus "stealing" or diverting the wind from his sails.

No Great Shakes - When casks became empty they were "shaken" (taken apart) so the pieces, called shakes, could be stored in a small space. Shakes had very little value.

No Room to Swing a Cat - 
The entire ship's company was required to witness flogging at close hand. A ship with a full compliment of crew could crowd around so that the Bosun's Mate might not have enough room to swing his cat o' nine tails. 

Overhaul -  To prevent the buntline ropes from chaffing the sails, crew were sent aloft to haul them over the sails. This was called overhauling.

Overreach - 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.
Pooped - The poop is the stern section of a ship. To be pooped is to be swamped by a high, following sea.

Overwhelm - Old English for capsize or founder.

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.

Rummage Sale - From the French "arrimage" meaning ship's cargo. Damaged cargo was sold at a rummage sale.

S.O.S. - Contrary to popular notion, the letters S.O.S. do not stand for "Save Our Ship" or "Save Our Souls". They were selected to indicate a distress because, in Morse code, these letters and their combination create an unmistakable sound pattern. Of course, also popular to the Navy cuisine was an inexpensive meal consisting of ground beef and gravy over toast. This is also known as S.O.S., or "S_ _ _ on a Shingle."

Scuttlebutt -  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.

Shows His 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 man-of-war which hailed another ship flying one flag, but then hoisted their own when they got in firing range.

Slush Fund - A slushy slurry of fat was obtained by boiling or scraping the empty salted meat storage barrels. This stuff 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".

Splice the Main Brace - A sailing ship's rigging was a favorite target during sea battles since by destroying the opponent's ability to maneuver or get away you would be at an obvious advantage. Therefore, the first thing tended to after a battle was to repair broken gear, and repair sheets (sails) and braces (lines, improperly, ropes, passing through blocks and holding up sails). It was the custom, after the main braces were properly spliced, to serve grog to the entire crew. Thus, today, after a hard day (or, not so hard day), the phrase has become an invitation to have a drink.

Square Meal - In good weather, crews' mess was a warm meal served on square wooden platters.

Start Over with a Clean Slate - A slate tablet was kept near the helm on which the watch keeper would record the speeds, distances, headings and tacks during the watch. If there were no problems during the watch, the slate would be wiped clean so that the new watch could start over with a clean slate.

Taken Aback - 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. Come to describe a person  at a momentary loss, unable to act or even to speak. 

Taking the wind out of his sails - Sailing in a manner so as to steal or divert wind from another ship's sails.

The Devil to Pay - To pay the deck seams meant to seal them with tar. The devil seam was the most difficult to pay because it was curved and intersected with the straight deck planking. Some sources define the "devil" as the below the waterline seam between the keel and the the adjoining planking. Paying the Devil was considered to be a most difficult and unpleasant task.

Three Mile Limit - The original three-mile limit was the recognized distance from a nation's shore over which that nation had jurisdiction. This border of international waters or the "high seas" was established because, at the time
this international law was established, three miles was the longest range of any nation's most powerful guns, and therefore, the limit from shore batteries at which they could enforce their laws. (International law and the 1988 Territorial Sea Proclamation established the "high seas" border at the 12-mile limit.)

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. 

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.

Took the wind out of his sails - Originally it described a battle maneuver of sailing ships. One ship would pass close to its adversary on its windward side. The ship and sails would block the wind from the second vessel, causing it to lose headway. Losing motion meant losing maneuverability and the ability to carry on a fight. The term now is used to describe getting the best of an opponent in an argument.

Touch and Go - This referred to a ship's keel touching the bottom and getting right off again.

Under the Weather - If a crewman is standing watch on the weather side of the bow, he will be subject to the constant beating of the sea and the ocean spray. He will be under the weather. 

Wear Ship - Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary:  wear vt (7) to cause (a ship) to go about with the stern presented to the wind.  Note: I have a whaling ship log where the phrase "wore ship" appears many times.  Tom Tyler, University of Denver Library   and...... The term refers to a maneuver characteristic of a square rigged vessel.  Given the configuration of the sails, the best point of sail that could be achieved was a beam reach or slightly better. These vessels could not bring the bow through the breeze as a sloop rigged vessel could. The alternative to the tack, was to turn away from the wind, eventually jibing the vessel around and establishing course on the opposite tack. Naturally this is a costly maneuver in distance made good to windward and also in stress and strain on the ship itself. All yards and braces had to be shifted at the precise moment and such a maneuver typically required at least the full watch on deck and in some cases all hands to accomplish. The exact part of the ship or crew that took the "wear" is in question, though one might imagine everyone felt so after.  Jim Meyers

Whole Nine Yards - Yards are the spars attached at right angles across a mast to support square sails. (Yardarms are either side of a yard.) On a fully-rigged three-masted ship there were three major square sails on each mast. So if the nine major sails were all employed at the same time, the whole nine yards were working.

























E-mail Sailors Choice

Got a term we've missed?
E-mail us at Sailors Choice and let us know
Cruise back to SAILORS CHOICE
©Makai Promotions 1997-2009FP, Web-Design by Makai Promotions