Nautical terms and phrases have found their way into so much of our everyday speech. Though some terms make it obvious, like when you refer to something holding you back as an anchor, or maybe how a few drinks made you feel three sheets to the wind, other phrases are not. These everyday terms have become so ingrained in our lives and removed from their nautical origins, it’s not always easy to tell. 

Let’s take a look at some of those old mariner terms, a few of which may seem obvious but many not so much.


An admiral is a senior ranking officer in the US Navy, and the word signifies a commander of a fleet, or part of a fleet, in all maritime nations. From the Arabic word amir meaning prince or leader.

Not moored, at the will of the wind and tide. From the middle English drifte (to float). Sailors used the word to describe anything missing or come undone. From this word came drifter , a person without purpose or aim in life.

This traditional greeting for hailing other vessels was originally a Viking battle cry.

Aye, Aye
Aye is old English for “yes.” The seaman’s reply “Aye aye, sir,” means, “I understand and I will obey.”



From the 17th century, it described the Spanish custom of hoisting false flags to deceive (bamboozle) enemies.

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 .

Before the mast
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.” Most ships today have cabins for their crew.

Between the Devil and the Deep
The devil was the longest seam of the ship, thought to be the first plank on the outer hull of a wooden vessel from stem to stern. When at sea and the devil had to be caulked, the sailor hung from a rope to do so. He was suspended between the devil and the sea –  a very precarious position, especially when the ship was underway.

The first uniform that was ever officially sanctioned for sailors in the Royal Navy was a short blue jacket open in the front. It is now used as a generic name for a Navy enlisted person.

Black Book
From the 1300’s – a collection of maritime laws and conduct that became known as the Black Book of the Admiralty. The punishments for offenses was harsh, to say the least. Drowning, starvation, and marooning were punishments for serious offenses such as repeatedly sleeping on watch. As used today, if you’re listed in someone’s black book, you have offended them in some way. Luckily for you, physical punishments no longer apply.

Blind Eye
In 1801, during the Battle of Copenhagen, Admiral Nelson deliberately held his telescope to his blind eye, in order not to see the flag signal from the commander to stop the bombardment. He won. Turning a blind eye means to ignore intentionally.

Blood Money
Originally known as bounty money, it was the financial reward for sinking an enemy ship. The amount of the reward, however, was not based on the size or importance of the ship but on the number of crew members killed.

From the Anglo-Saxon bat that meant a small ship or vessel. A generic term for a small, open craft. Many people use the term when, in fact, they mean ship.

Boatswain (pronounced bo’sun)
From the Saxon word swein which meant a boy or servant It is his/her responsibility to assure that all equipment on deck, i.e. anchor, rigging, sails, etc., functions properly and have suitable spare parts. In spite of the name, the ship’s boats are not usually his responsibility.

Boatswain’s Pipe
An unusually shaped whistle, it was used in ancient Greece and Rome to keep the stroke of galley slaves. The pipe was used in the Crusades to call English cross bowmen on deck for attack. A variety of tones can be produced, and each order had its own unique call. In time, the pipe came to be used as a badge of office by commanders. The pipe is still used, in the British and some other navies, for saluting visiting officers and other dignitaries.

Booby Hatch
A booby hatch is a small, covered compartment under the deck, toward the bow. Sailors were punished (perhaps by the Black Book) by confinement in the booby hatch. The term has come to mean (politically incorrectly) a mental institution, or to characterize some places I have worked.

Boot Camp
During the Spanish-American War, sailors wore leggings called boots, which came to mean a Navy (or Marine) recruit. These recruits trained in ‘boot’ camps.

Brightwork originally referred to polished metal objects and now is used to refer to varnished items made of wood, such as trim.

Brought Up Short
A sailing ship underway could only be brought to an emergency standstill by dropping the anchors. Not a pleasant experience. Used today to mean a person brought to an unexpected standstill by a sudden change of fortune or circumstance.

From the French boucan , or grill, for cooking dried meat. Originally referring to those who hunted and smoked meat, it expanded to include those who ate it (or stole it) as well. Predominantly in the Caribbean in the 1650’s, buccaneers differed from pirates in that they did not attack their own nation’s ships. Early groups were made up of adventurers of all kinds, excellent seamen all, many of whom made remarkable voyages around the world. Sir Henry Morgan organized them to capture Panama in 1671. The start of the European war in 1689 was the end of the buccaneers, though many went on to become “legit” privateers. Their romanticized legend lives on in the writings of Defoe, Masefield and Stevenson, and in Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Bees are Black . . .’ in which she refers to bees as “Buccaneers of buzz”.

A boat selling supplies or provisions to ships. Derived from the Dutch boomboat , a broad-beamed fishing boat. Or, possibly from bumbay , an old Suffolk word meaning quagmire. This word appeared in England in 1695 referring to scavenging boat regulations. These boats were employed to remove ‘filth’ from ships and also to carry fruits and vegetables for sale on board. (I didn’t make that up!)

By and Large

In the late 17th century if you were sailing close to the line of the wind you were sailing by. Sailing with the wind on quarter meant you were sailing large. So the meaning was “alternating close-hauled and not close-hauled.”

If you are sailing close hauled you are sailing into the wind, or as close as possible,  while not close hauled means the wind is hitting against the widest part of the ship. To go back and forth is to go by and large. 

These days the term means “to consider everything” and you can see how it corresponds to the nautical term which covered everything from into the wind to not.

By Guess and By God
An early form of navigation, relying upon experience, intuition and faith. Has come to mean inspired guesswork.

By the Boards
Beyond the wooden boards that make up the deck and ship’s planking. To throw over the side, or to pass by the side, of a vessel. To come aboard, on the other hand, means to come ‘on the boards (deck)’ of the vessel. (Still used today, though the wood is in short supply on most new boats.) By the boards has come to express a lost opportunity or to let something pass.


Dead Horse
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.

Deep Six
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.

Dutch Courage
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 vrybuite r (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.

First Rate

Today this means something of high quality or value, the term originated with ship building. The largest warships that had at least 100 guns, could carry a crew of over 800 and weighed at least 2,500 tons were classified as first rate vessels.

While we consider “second rate” to mean something inferior or poor quality today, it also kept with these ranking system and simply referred to a smaller class of ship that had 80 to 90 cannons, a crew of 700 to 750 and weighed up to 2,200 tons.

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 .

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 great value.

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, complain.

Grog, Groggy
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).

Ground Swell
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 Up
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.

Hot Chase
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, Hodgepodge
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’.

Hulk, Hulking
A large and unwieldy ship of simple construction and dubious seaworthiness. On shore, it means big and clumsy.


Idler, Idle
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.

Jury Rig
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.


Keel Hauling
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.



An amount of freedom to act or do something. In modern usage, you might say you need some leeway to finish a job or figure something out, which often means you need time or a little more freedom to accomplish the task.

In its nautical origins, leeway means the sideways drifting caused by the wind against the side of the ship. The wind pushes you leeward, or downwind, forcing you to travel leeway which is slightly outside of your intended path.

Long Shot

When you use longshot today you’re referring to pressing your luck. A long shot is something unlikely and you’re going to need some luck to pull it off.

The origins of the phrase come from the early days of cannons on ships. They were known to be incredibly inaccurate at a distance so if a cannon hit a target that was far afield it was a long shot, and considered lucky.

Loose Cannon

Someone who is unpredictable and potentially dangerous is a loose cannon.

The origin of the term is literally what it sounds like. On a ship at sea, a loose cannon was not just a serious risk, it was hard to control. Ship cannons could weigh between half a ton to about two and a half tons. If one was loose and rolling with the sea, you can imagine the risk.



Something a person or entity depends on. For instance, a bachelor may have pizza as a mainstay of their diet, while corn could be a mainstay of the farming industry in your area.

In the nautical sense, the mainstay is the stay, or line, which supports the mainmast from the top to the foot.


Stranded on an island or other isolated place. This term has some racist history as “maroon” was a term used to refer to fugitive slaves and seems to trace its origin to a Spanish term meaning wild or feral.

The act of marooning someone in a nautical sense means to abandon them on an island intentionally, although the word is now used to include when it might happen accidentally. The connection between the current usage and the historical one is related to the fact that you are lost in the wilds.


A friend or comrade. This is an old term that dates back to the 14th century and has Germanic origins. The word originally means something like “one who eats at the same table,” which would indicate someone you trust or have closeness with.

By the early 1500s this was a common term used by sailors to address one another and by the end of the century it had become a term to refer to officers on merchant vessels who carried out their captain’s orders. This meaning actually predates the other version referring to a romantic partner.


Not Enough Room to Swing a Cat

A small space. This phrase is not extremely common these days but it’s still in use as a colorful metaphor. Someone might use it to describe a tiny apartment, for instance.

The origins are a little murky but it’s believed to have derived from naval slang. Sailors were once punished for various crimes at sea by being whipped with a small, multi-lashed whip called a cat-o-nine-tails. In a small space, such as below deck on a boat, there wouldn’t be enough room to swing such a whip, hence the term.


Off to a Flying Start

Starting something very well or successfully. The idiom comes from racing sailboats as the vessels have to get underway before hitting the actual starting line.

If your vessel gets a favorable wind and fills the sails you’re flying at full sails as you start, which is as good as you can hope for. 

On the Right Track

Moving in the right direction towards a goal or success. The phrase relates to ship navigation. Originally “on the right tack” which dates back to the 1600s with “on the right track” became a more prevalent variation in the late 1800s.

Tacking a vessel involves changing its direction relative to wind, so a boat may tack starboard. If you are tacking correctly, you are heading in the right direction. Track seems to have replaced this as it’s a more common word and, to lay people, also makes more sense because track means path so the meaning ends up being the same.


To take apart and examine thoroughly, possibly also repairing in the process. You can overhaul a car engine by removing it, taking it apart and cleaning all the parts before reassembling it.

The nautical origin referred to ropes. Sailors could overhaul rope by pulling in the opposite direction it was drawn to create slack. This allowed the rope to be inspected and repaired or replaced if necessary.


Pass with Flying Colors

To succeed beyond expectations or to achieve something flawlessly. The phrase comes from the custom of ships returning from sea. If a ship returned from a victorious mission or victory, they would fly their flags fully unfurled.

Flags are also referred to as colors, so flying colors if flying your flags. To pass with flying colors would be to pass into port with all flags flying in victory. 

Pipe Down

Commonly used today as a way to tell people to keep quiet. Not as rude or absolute as “shut up,” rather to just lower your voice and settle down a bit.

The term comes from the use of the boatswain’s pipes dating back to the 16th century. One of the commonly used signals sent by the pipe told sailors that it was time to head below decks and settle into bed or “pipe down.”


Ride Out the Storm

To wait out a dangerous situation while staying relatively safe. This comes from a literal meaning in nautical terms. Sailors at sea had little option about how to endure severe weather and, when trapped in a storm, would literally have to ride it out until the weather calmed down again.

Round Robin

A tournament that allows every contestant to face off against every other contestant in turn.

The nautical origin of the term came from complaints being made by the crew about the captain or how the ship was being run that they wanted changed. The signers would add their names in a circle rather than in a typical top to bottom fashion so that, by the time the captain or person in charge got the document there would be no way to tell who started it so no one could be singled out as a ringleader.


Show Your True Colors

Showing your true colors means you are revealing what kind of person you really are, or what your motivations are after concealing them.

The idiom comes from ships at sea which would fly false flags that identified them as perhaps being friendly. Before engaging in combat, they would switch flags (colors) and show who they truly were, such as the ship of an enemy nation or a pirate. This was seen as an especially deceitful practice. 

Slush Fund

A stash or account of money that is usually associated with something illegal or at least underhanded. Most often it’s used to refer to money involved in political bribery or shady deals.

It comes from a fund of money that a ship’s crew would raise by selling something called slush. Slush was the term for the fat they scraped out of the cooking pots and sold to tallow makers. This slush fund was not part of the ship’s accounts and the crew could use it to buy small items for themselves at port.

Stem the Tide

Try to prevent something from getting worse. Modern usage often relates to a trend of something negative, such as trying to stem the tide of drug use amongst teens or stem the tide of shoplifting.

The origin of the phrase seems to refer to making headway against the tide in a vessel. There is some debate over the exact origins but there’s evidence that a nautical meaning may be the earliest.


Taken Aback

If you’re taken aback something has surprised you in the sense that things are playing out in a way you didn’t expect, rather than surprised by a jump scare in a movie, for instance.

The phrase’s nautical origins refer to the sails. A sudden gust of wind would blow the sails aback against the mast or spars, flattening them out.

Tide Over

Something that helps you out until things are better. In modern terms you might say having a snack will tide you over until dinner.

In nautical terms, the phrase comes from Captain John Smith’s “A Sea Grammar,” which was written in 1627. If the wind had died down rendering sails useless, boats could ride the tide until the wind picked up again.

Toe the Line

In the modern world, to toe the line means you are conforming to rules or doing what you’re told.

The origin of the phrase seems to date back to the British Navy, however. Sailors were ordered to line up for inspection along planks on the boat’s deck. Barefoot, their toes were literally supposed to be on the line so they were all neatly in order, doing as they were told.


Under the Weather

Feeling sick. Under the weather is a polite euphemism for feeling ill today. Its nautical origins stem from the tendency for poor weather to make some sailors feel nauseated.

On rough seas caused by bad weather, the motion of the boat could cause intense seasickness. The sailors who came down with this would be sent below deck to the spot on the ship that was the most stable in an attempt to ride it out. 


Something you cannot understand or believe. This comes from depth measuring on a ship.

A fathom is about 6 feet and sailors used to use a lead line, a length of line weighted on one end and marked every 6 feet, or one fathom, to measure depth. If they were in a place in the ocean that was beyond the length of the lead line to measure it was unfathomable and therefore something they couldn’t know.

Until the Bitter End

To continue something until it’s complete, even though it will likely not be pleasant. While this seems self-explanatory, this is somewhat deceptive. Bitter, in this case, refers to something other than what we commonly imagine.

The bitt on a vessel was a post or timber that lines were attached to. The bitter end of a line was the very end of the line attached to the bitt, after which there was nothing else. The word bitter now is taken to mean the adjective, something unpleasant or objectionable like the taste, and the meaning remains the same regardless.



An unexpected win or surprise that enriches you in some way. This is a curious one because you will see it on various websites claiming its nautical origins relate to a gust of wind in the sails of a boat. There is no evidence for this being true, but it is often repeated.

The true origin of windfall has a semi-nautical correlation. In reality, windfall referred to wood and fruit blown down from trees. This saved you the effort of harvesting such things and was a good thing. In a nautical sense, sailors in need of making repairs could take advantage of windfall trees much easier than chopping down new ones for timber. It’s a tenuous link, but applicable.