Letting go the lines to a mooring, wharf, dock, buoy or another ship in order to move
away. Shore-side, the term refers to second-hand clothing.
From the Latin canal, referring to the movement of water, it is the area within a
body of water of adequate depth to be used for navigation. As used by bureaucratic
land-lubbers, 'the proper channels' do not necessarily assure a pleasant passage.
Chewing the Fat
Literally, eating the seaman's daily ration of tough, salt-cured pork or beef. Long before
refrigeration, cured meats were tough but durable and it took a lot of chewing to make
them edible. Has come to mean a friendly conversation (or talking too much, depending
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.
Prior to GPS and onboard computers, courses and distances were recorded on a slate. At the
end of each watch these were transcribed into the ship's log and the slate wiped clean for
the next watch. Has come to mean starting anew.
A small wooden fortress or barricade erected on the deck of a merchant ship when attacks
by privateers were expected. Small openings, called loopholes, allowed the sailors to fire
small weapons to protect the ship (and themselves, one would assume). Land-side, close
quarters has come to mean in close contact or a small area. Loophole, from the French louvre
(window), has come to mean a gap in the law.
Colors, True Colors, False Colors, Flying
The flag flown by a vessel indicating its nationality was referred to as her colors. Long
before radios, you can imagine how important this might have been, especially when engaged
in battle. False colors were sometimes flown to avoid capture or to approach
unsuspiciously (see bamboozle above). This was frowned upon in International Law, wherein
it is accepted as a 'ruse of war' only if the ship is in immediate danger.
Coxswain (pronounced cocks'n)
A coxswain was the helmsman of a ship's boat. Originally, small boats carried on ships
were known as cockboats or 'cocks', from whence the term derived. With the passing of time
the coxswain became the helmsman of any boat, regardless of size.
Possibly from the Dutch krengd, a crank was an unstable sailing vessel. Due to a
faulty design, the imbalance of her cargo, or a lack of ballast, a crank would heel too
far to the wind. Has come to mean irritable.
Crossing the Line
An ceremony performed onboard when passengers and/or crew cross the equator for the first
time. A special initiation ceremony in which King Neptune and various other mythological
characters participate. Owes its origin to ancient pagan rites.
Bluejackets (see above) treasure the certificate
which testifies that "in Latitude 00-00 and Longitude xx-xx," and usually
addressed to all Mermaids, Sea Serpents, Whales, Sharks, Porpoises, Dolphins, Skates,
Eels, Suckers, Lobsters, Crabs, Pollywogs and other living things of the sea,"
__(name)__ has been found worthy to be numbered as one of our trust shellback, has been
gathered to our fold and duly initiated into the solemn mysteries of the ancient order of
Cup of Joe
Navy lore: 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 officers'
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
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
Cut of His Jib
The term originated in the 18th century, when sailing navies could determine the
nationality of a sailing vessel by the shape of their jib, long before her colors could be
seen. (A jib is a triangular sail in the front of the boat.) Shore-side meaning is to
judge a person by outward appearance.
A ceremony held by British crews when they had been at sea four weeks and had worked off
their initial advance, usually one month's wages (and usually long gone). The term 'flogging
a dead horse' alludes to the difficulty of getting any extra work from a crew
during this period, since, to them, it felt as though they were working for nothing.
A fathom, the unit of measurement in most maritime countries for the depth of the sea, is
six feet. Sailors used the term to refer to throwing something overboard and it has come
to mean getting rid of something.
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 hot pitch'. Landlubbers, having no seafaring knowledge, assumed
it referred to satan and gave the term a moral interpretation.
Ditty Box or Ditty Bag
Possibly from the Saxon word dite, meaning tidy or from the English word dittis,
a type of canvas material. A small box or bag in which a sailor kept his valuables
such as letters, small souvenirs, and sewing supplies.
Doldrums, In the Doldrums
Between the tradewinds of the northern and southern hemisphere lies an area of calm winds,
close to the equator, called the doldrums. Since sailing vessels relied upon the wind, a
trip through the doldrums was often long, hot and boring.
Down the hatch
A toast that seems to have its origins in sea freight, where cargoes are lowered into the
hatch. First used by seamen, it is thought to date from the 1930s and has been attributed
to author P.G. Wodehouse.
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.
Even Keel, Keeled Over
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 (see above) were 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.
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
Flake, Flake Out
In order to keep the anchor chain of a ship in good condition, the chain would be laid out
up and down the deck (flaked) in order to locate and replace any worn or weak links. The
term is still in use, as the captain will often instruct the crew to flake out the anchor
line in preparation for anchoring. The anchor line is looped on deck in such a way that it
does not become fouled (tangled) when the anchor is dropped. So if someone calls you a
flake, you are either a weak link or about to disappear.
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
A light wind at sea that does not blow steadily from any one quarter. Variable.
An easily set extra sail used temporarily when running before the wind (wind coming from
behind). Has come to mean 'here today, gone tomorrow', or a less-than-stellar reputation.
The foot is the bottom of a sail, whether triangular or square, that is attached to the
boom to keep it stretched. A sail that is not attached to the boom is said to be footloose
and is very difficult to control as it moves with the wind. The term 'footloose and fancy
free' refers to the motion of a footloose sail.
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,
Rum diluted with water. Brandy was part of a sailor's daily rations in the Royal Navy
until the conquest of Jamaica in 1687 when rum replaced it. In 1740, Admiral Vernon
decided his fleet got a little too much rum and issued an order to have the daily ration
of one pint of rum diluted with water. Since Vernon's nickname was 'Old Grogram' because
of the material out of which his (apparently rather ostentatious) 'boat cloak' was made.
The watered down rum immediately became known as grog. Groggy is what happens to you when
you indulge in it (even watered down).
A sudden swell, which is the 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 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
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'.
Hotchpotch was a maritime term describing the method of equally dividing cargo and
property damaged when two ships have collided and both are deemed to be responsible.
Current usage of hodgepodge means 'a jumble'.
A large and unwieldy ship of simple construction and dubious seaworthiness. On shore, it
means big and clumsy.
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.
Knowing 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.