Below is an exstentive list put together by a chap called Brian Douglas Berlin

Brian has kindly agreed for the Miss to have his work to be available on the site. If you can add to missing phrases it will be gratefully accepted and included in this working document.

(I the First Wife will have to read carefully!)


Nautical Origin Vernacular Usage
A1 of a vessel, equipped to the highest standard, esp. as certified by a classification society; first-class  very good or well
Above Board, All Above Board                Anything on or above the open deck.A trick, common to warships and pirates alike, both of which had very large crews, was to keep all but a few of their men out of sight. At long distance, someone inspecting them with a telescope might be fooled into thinking they were seeing a peaceful merchantman with a small crew, and so no threat. The devious captain kept his men low behind the bulwarks — or below the top deck; a captain with nothing to hide would keep his crew “above board.”Some sources give this an etymology related to card playing, c.f. Bartlett (1848). On a ship you’re never “above board”; you’re either on deck, or below it. The citation given is “It is the part of an honest man to deal above-board, and without tricks “   If something is open and in    plain view, it is above board.


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.


Maintaining Distance

All at Sea
All Hands on Deck
All in a Day’s Work
Allow a Little Leeway
All Sewn Up, It’s
All Washed Up
Any Port in a Storm
Armed to The Teeth
As the Crow Flies Doubtful: 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.I never heard of any ship carrying crows to find land.  According to Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase was first used in 1800, a time when navigation was advancing in the west. Closest distance between two points (as opposed to driving distance, for example)

Back and fill, To

A nautical phrase, denoting a mode of tacking when the tide is with the vessel but the wind is against it.

  Metaphorically, to be irresolute.

Bad Name

Bail out

Remove the water from a swamped boat

  Helping out of one in diffuculty



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.

Batten down the hatches, To

“‘Tell me, Jack, just how would you explain the term battened down?’

“A piercing look showed Jack that although this was almost past believing he was not in fact being made game of, and he replied ‘First I should say that we talk very loosely about hatches, often meaning hatchways and even ladderways – “he came up the fore hatch” – which of course ain’t hatches at all. The real hatches are the things that cover the hatchways: gratings and close-hatches. Now as you know very well, when a great deal of water comes aboard either from the sea of the sky or both, we cover those real hatches with tarpaulins.’

“‘I believe I have seen it done,’ said Stephen.

“‘Not above five thousand times,’ said Jack inwardly, and aloud ‘And if it also comes on to blow and rain uncommon hard, we takebattens, stout laths of wood, that fit against the coaming, the raised rim of the hatchway, and so pin the tarpaulin down drum tight. Some people do it by nailing the batten to the deck, but it is a sad, sloppy, unseamanlike way of carrying on, and we have cleats.'”

[Patrick O’Brian, The Truelove, or, Clarissa Oakes, pp.124-5]

Make preparations, as in for a looming disaster

Beam Ends

bear down (also up, off)

  To sail downwind rapidly towards another ship or landmark.

  Bear down: move quickly toward someone, in a purposeful or an intimidating manner.  Take strict measures to deal with

  Bear up:  remain cheerful in the face of adversity

Bend on a Splice
Between or Betwixt Wind and Water
Big Wig

Bitter end, the

The end of the anchor line secured to a sturdy post on the deck called a bitt. The line was paid out in order to set the anchor. However, if the water was deeper than anticipated the rope would pay out to the bitter end . . . ooops.

The “bitter end” of any line is the loose, unsecured end.

“Meanwhile the bosun and his mates, together with the most experienced forecastle hands and tierers, roused out the best cable the Diane possessed, the most nearly new and unfrayed, a seventeen-inch cable that they turned end for end – no small undertaking in that confined space, since it weighed three and a half tons – and bent it to the best bower anchor by the wholly unworn end that had always been abaft the bitts: the bitter end. There was thought to be good luck attached to the bitter end, as well as greater strength.”

[Patrick O’Brian, The Thirteen Gun Salute, p. 299]

The Bitter End (this was mentioned but not explained. The free end of the rope (the part not in use) was often used as a “motivator”. Sailors were often motivated with a whipping from their shipmates with loose ends of rope. That was the end of the rope that often made sailors bitter.

No. The “bitter end” simply refers to the loose, unsecured end of any line, especially an anchor cable. It’s got nothing to do with the use of starters, which were distinct implements carried by petty officers, not simply the end of lines laying about. The alleged connection with starters is bogus.

“to the bitter end” used to say that one will continue doing something until it is finished, no matter what
Bilge or Bilge Water
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 is Thicker Than Water

Blood Money

Probable: Money paid to the family of the dead as recompense.

Doubtful: 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.

Blue Monday

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.

There’s a common WWI usage meaning a prison.

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.

Born with a Silver Spoon in His Mouth
Bottled Up
Braced Up

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.

Buoyed Up Using a buoy to raise the bight of an anchor cable to prevent it from chafing on a rough bottom. to cause (a price) to rise or remain at a high levelto cause to become cheerful or confident

By and large

“Captain Harris was already explaining by and large. With a piece of fresh Gibraltar bread and arrows drawn with wine he showed the ship lying as close as possible to the breeze: ‘. . . and this is sailing by the wind, or as sailors say in their jargon, on a bowline; whereas large is when it blows not indeed quite from behind but say over the quarter, like this.’

“‘Far enough abaft the beam that the studdingsails will set,’ said Whiting.”

“‘So as you see,’ continued Harris, ‘it is quite impossible to sail both by and large at the same time. It is a contradiction in terms. . .’

“‘We do say by and large,’ said Jack. ‘We say a ship sails well by and large when she will both lie close when the wind is scant and run fast when it is free.'”

By Guess and By God

An early form of navigation, relying upon experience, intuition and faith.

Has come to mean inspired guesswork.

By the Board

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

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.

Caboose a kitchen on a ship’s deck a railroad car with accommodations for the train’s crew


From the Latin carina (keel) or French carener. Prior to hydraulic lifts, hulls still needed to be cleaned, patched, caulked, etc. Careening is a deliberate heeling to one side in order to accomplish these tasks. Usually was done on a careenage, a steep, sandy shoreline.

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.

Today, the term means to continue with your work.


A shipwrecked sailor. Not, as often used, a sailor marooned or put ashore as punishment. To cast away was to commit a deliberate act to cause a ship to sink, to be lost or to make it necessary to abandon her. Cast Off. 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.

Casting Around

Cat out of the bag

“Vowles drew the cat from its red baize bag, phlegmatically took up his stance, and as the ship reached the height of her roll he laid on the first stroke. ‘Oh my God,’ cried Weightman, enormously loud.”
[Patrick O’Brian, The Truelove, p. 198]

As I understand it, the cat ‘o nine tails was normally kept in a cloth bag, and was only pulled out immediately prior to flogging, hence the phrase signifying that one has crossed some bright line of misconduct, etc. I also have a vague recollection of reading somewhere that the bag was sometimes brandished in front of a potential miscreant to warn him, somewhat like brandishing the mace before an unruly member of a legislature.

Another explanation: Scrubs would sell a suckling pig to someone, presenting them with a squirming sack, or “poke”. The unfortunate would then have bought a pig in a poke. When the poke was opened, he would find not a nice edible pig, but a cat; thus, letting the cat out of the bag reveals the deception. This seems to jibe with usage a little better.

To reveal a secret

Catch my drift


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.

Chew 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 who’s talking).


chock-a-block (chock full)

  If two blocks of rigging tackle were so hard together they couldn’t be tightened further, it was said they were “Chock-a-Block”.

  Meaning something is filled to capacity or over loaded.


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.

Clean Slate

Probable Origin: The general meaning is synonymous with a clean record. Probably from Locke’s “tabula rasa” (blank slate), referring to the mind as a black page upon which impressions were recorded.

Disputed Origin: 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.

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.

Clear the Deck

prepare for a particular even to goal by dealing with anything beforehand that might hinder progress

Close Quarters

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).  mean a gap in the law.

Land-side, close quarters has come to mean in close contact or a small area. Loophole, from the French louvre (window), has come to

Coast is Clear There is no danger of being observed or caught


sailing along the coast, esp. to carry cargo.  considered safer than going out to sea

Moving without using power

Cock Up

Colors, True Colors, False Colors, Flying Colors

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.

“Showing false colors” and being “above board” are related and both come from the sea. Flying a flag other than your own (false colors) in order to delay an enemy’s recognition is a practice with ancient origins. It is a perfectly legitimate trick of war, so long as one hoists his true colors just prior to firing his first shot.

Copper Bottomed Investment
Couple of Shakes


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.

Crackerjack exceptionally good, an exceptionally good person or thing

Crew cut

Crew cut refers to the monthly (at least) haircuts that would be offered.

[USS Constitution docent]

The hair, beard, and mustache must be worn neatly trimmed. The face must be kept clean shaved, except a mustache or beard and mustache may be worn at discretion. No eccentricities in the manner of wearing the hair, beard or mustache are allowed.

a short hair style

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.

Sailors 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 the deep.”

  Going too far


A fast warship

yacht designed for pleasure, smooth riding automobile, police car

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 was necessary.

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.

To depart in a hurry. To accept one’s losses and get out.

Cutting the Painter

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.

Davy Jones’ Locker
Dead Marine or Dead Soldier

Dead wood

People or things that are no longer useful or productive

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.

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 and the deep blue sea, between the

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.

Similar to “between a rock and a hard place”

Devil to pay, the

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.

‘Pay’ is related to the Old French ‘peier’, in turn from Latin ‘picare’ meaning ‘pitch’ , ie ‘tar’

“‘Why, the devil, do you see,’ said Jack, ‘is the seam between the deck-planking and the timbers, and we call it the devil, because it is the devil for the caulkers to come at: in full we say the devil to pay and no pitch hot; and what we mean is, that there is something hell-fire difficult to be done – must be done – and nothing to do it with. It is a figure.'”
[Patrick O’Brian, The Mauritius Command, p. 280]

Aboard wooden sailing ships. the devil was the name given to the seam formed at the juncture where the covering board that capped the ships sides met the deck planking. The seam was particularly difficult to caulk because of its length, because there was so little space in which to perform the awkward task, and because there was so little standing room between the devil and the sea.

[From the latest International Marine catalog announcing the publication of When a Loose Cannon Flogs a Dead Horse There’s the Devil to Pay: Seafaring Words in Everyday Speech by Olivia A. Isil]

Landlubbers, having no seafaring knowledge, assumed it referred to satan and gave the term a moral interpretation.

Dirty Dog


To unrig a vessel and discharge all stores.

To take something apart

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.

Dog House, In The Questionable: Being in the “dog house” was something the crews of slavers often had to tolerate on their trips across the tropics from Africa to the Caribbean. Many a slave ship master totally gutted his ship and to fit it out with as more benches or shelves on which to stow slaves. As a result, small hutches, slightly wider and longer than a man, and high enough to cover him when lying down, were built aft on the upper deck as sleeping places for crewmen. Trying to get some sleep in them on a hot, humid, airless night was, indeed, like being in the dog house — an unpleasant state of affairs.Probable: “Doghouse” was once a slang term for prison. Some refer to J.M. Robert’s “Peter Pan”, where the childrens’ father sleeps in the doghouse until they return. An unpleasant state of affairs

Dog’s body

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.

Emotionally down
Don’t Give Up The Ship

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.

A toast

Dressing Down Thin and worn sails were often treated with oil or wax to renew their effectiveness. This was called “dressing down”.   An officer or sailor who was reprimanded or scolded received a dressing down. Reprimand or scolding
Drogue Chute

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.

Dutchman’s Breeches

Even Keel

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.

Calm and steady
Fagged Out

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.

Faux Pas

Fend off

shortened version of defend

protect oneself from a blow, attack, or attacker; evade someone or something in order to protect oneself

Field day

Day for cleaning up all parts of a ship.

Field day (first citation 1747) originally meant a day of military exercise and review. The figurative sense appears mid-19th century.

An opportunity for action, success, or excitement, esp. at the expense of others


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 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.

First Rate

Implies excellence. From the 16th century on until steam powered ships took over, british naval ships were rated as to the number of heavy cannon they carried. A ship of 100 or more guns was a First Rate line-of-battle ship. Second rates carried 90 to 98 guns; Third Rates, 64 to 89 guns; Fourth Rates, 50 to 60 guns. Frigates carrying 20 to 48 guns were fifth and sixth rated. Of the best class or quality
Fish or Cut Bait

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. Being in agreement or harmony with, A good match

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.

Fluke (Fluky)

A light wind at sea that does not blow steadily from any one quarter.



An easily set extra sail used temporarily when running before the wind (wind coming from behind).

A large sail used only for sailing downwind and requiring rather little attention.

Has come to mean ‘here today, gone tomorrow’, or a less-than-stellar reputation.

Flying Colors

To come through a battle with flying colors means a ship has come through relatively unscathed and with here colors (flag) flying.

To come through an ordeal having done very well



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.

Forging ahead

Going ahead slowly.

Making progress in spite of difficulty.
Foul Up

Freeze the balls of off a brass monkey

This explanation has no basis in fact. — On ships, cannon balls were sometimes stacked in what was called a monkey, usually made from brass. When it got really cold the monkey would contract forcing some of the cannon balls to fall off.


Cold.  Does anyone actually say this?
Freshen the Hawser

From stem to stern

From the front to the back of a ship

Describes something in it’s entirety; throughout

Garbled Garbling was the prohibited practice of mixing rubbish with the cargo. A distorted, mixed up message was said to begarbled.
Get Into A Flap
Give Quarter

Go by the board, To

To go for good, to be completely destroyed or finished with, thrown overboard. When a ship’s mast is carried away it is said “to go by the board“, board here meaning the ship’s side.

Go overboard

To disembark into the water

To be very enthusiastic; react in an immoderate way

Good Deal, a Finding a “good deal” really comes from the shipbuilder rather than a sailor. Large timbers, free from defects and big enough to be cut into ship’s timbers, were hard to come by. Looking at a standing tree would not tell a lumberjack with certainty that it could be felled, trimmed, and shaped without some kind of defect like a knot, a crack, or a rotten spot showing up just where it wasn’t wanted. In the timber trade long ago, a cut wooden plank was called as a “deal;” so, when someone was lucky enough to have one of usable quality, he had a “good deal.” It’s still true today, but now we use the word “deal” to mean a sale or an opening action in a poker hand.
Grease the Stays or Skids
Great Shakes, No Doubtful: 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.There are multiple conjectured etymologies, but the cask one is doubtful. Some hypothesize a relation to dice games, and the outcome of the shake of the dice.

Great guns

Grin and Bear It


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.

Gunboat Diplomacy
Halcyon Days
Half Pints Children

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 and Fast Being “hard and fast” meant that one was aground: hard and fast (fastened, caught) on the rocks and unable to get clear. Inflexible, such as a hard and fast rule

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.

Haul up short


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.

Heading for the Rocks alluding to shipwrecks a source of danger or destruction

Headway, To Make

To get on, to struggle effectively against something, as a ship makes headway against a tide or current…

Make progress on a difficult task
Hell’s Bells

High and Dry

Situation of a vessel when she’s aground above the water mark

Dry – as in from a storm or above flood waters

Hit the Deck

Get down


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.

American heritage says “1426 (hogpoch), alteration of hotchpotch (c.1386), from a legal term in Anglo-Fr. (attested from 1292) for collecting of property in a common pot before dividing it, from O.Fr. hochepot “stew, soup,” first element from hocher “to shake,” from a Gmc. source (cf. M.H.G. hotzen “shake”).” The 13th Century cite suggests it predates sailing terminology.

Current usage of hodgepodge means ‘a jumble’.
Hold Off
Hooker British sailors got in the habit of referring to a particular prostitute as a “hooker”, indicating that although she had been around a while, she was still serviceableOriginally a tubby little fishing boat favored by the Dutch in the 18th century. Because they had long life spans and were no-nonsense working boats they tended to look a bit shabby and “well-used”. Prostitute
Horse Latitudes

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’.

Hot Shot

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.

American heritage says “1426 (hogpoch), alteration of hotchpotch (c.1386), from a legal term in Anglo-Fr. (attested from 1292) for collecting of property in a common pot before dividing it, from O.Fr. hochepot “stew, soup,” first element from hocher “to shake,” from a Gmc. source (cf. M.H.G. hotzen “shake”).” The 13th Century cite suggests it predates sailing terminology.

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.

Hunky Dory
I have not yet begun to fight

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.

I’m Alright Jack
In the Same Boat
In the Wake
Johnny Come Lately

Junk (Chunk)

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.

“assembled in a makeshift manner”, is attested since 1788. It comes from “jury mast”, a nautical term attested since 1616 for a temporary mast made from any available spar when the mast has broken or been lost overboard. The OED dubiously recorded a suggestion that this was short for “injury mast”, but recent dictionaries say that is probably from Old French ajurie=”help or relief”, from Latin adiutare=”to aid” (the source of the English word “adjutant”).

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.

Keel Over



Keep A Weather Eye Open
Keep Your Shirt On Shirts in the earlier days were rather expensive, so when a man was thinking of fighting someone he would take of his shirt. So if you had a grievance with a person and he began to take off his shirt (in other words, I don’t want to fight with you.)In their heyday, a thousand years ago, it was customary among Viking raiders to go into battle bare chested. The terror these marauders struck in many parts of the known world is legendary. It is fitting that we should make reference to their notoriety in the phrase “keep your shirt on.” Keep calm and under control
Kit and Kaboodle In the Royal Navy, “kit” is equipment, including uniforms, that is provided by the service. I believe that “kaboodle” was a slang phrase for personal items kept by the sailor (necessarily small in size and quantity because of little or no storage space/privacy). If one was transferred out, one was required to take all “kit and kaboodle.”


Knock Off

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.

Laid Up
Lay of the Land

Learn the ropes

alt. Show them the ropes


Lateral Movement of a ship to leeward.

The weather side of a ship is the side from which the wind is blowing. The Lee side is the side of the ship sheltered from the wind. A lee shore is a shore that is downwind of a ship. If a ship does not have enough “leeway” it is in danger of being driven onto the shore.

amount of freedom to move or act that is available; margin of safety

Listless When a ship was listless, she was sitting still and upright in the water, with no wind to make her lean over (list) and drive ahead. Lacking engergy
Loaded to the Gunn’ls

Loggerheads, At

A loggerhead is a long-handled iron instrument for heating liquids and tar, perhaps wielded as a weapon

“…They had been sparring, in a spirit of fun, with loggerheads, those massy iron balls with long handles to be carried red-hot from the fire and plunged into buckets of tar or pitch so that the substance might be melted with no risk of flame. ‘They are sober now, sir; and penitent, the creatures.'”

[Patrick O’Brian, The Commodore, p.12]

In violent dispute or disagreement (archaic)

Logging on

(disputed nautical origin)

Long Haul (Short Haul) Operation on  ship requiring the hauling of a lot (or little) of line.  the distance or route over which a thing is transported
Long Shot Mention of a horse leads to thoughts of betting and the daring gambler who bets on a “long shot.” In old warships, the muzzle-loading cannon were charged with black powder of uncertain potency that would propel the iron shot an equally uncertain distance with doubtful accuracy. A 24-pounder long gun, for instance, was considered to have a maximum effective range of 1200 yards, even though, under the right conditions, a ball might travel some 3000 yards. Similarly, a short, stubby 32-pounder carronade’s lethality faded fast beyond 400 yards. Thus, the odds were against a hit when one fired a “long shot,” just as it is unlikely that a horse the bettors rate at a hundred-to-one will win the race. Describes something that is unlikely
Look One Way and Row Another

Loop Hole

An arrow-slit in a wall.

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).  mean a gap in the law.

Land-side, close quarters has come to mean in close contact or a small area. Loophole, from the French louvre (window), has come to

Loose Cannon

A cannon having come loose on the deck of a pitching, rolling, and yawing deck could cause severe injury and damage.

An unpredictable or uncontrolled person who is likely to cause unintentional damage.

Loose Ends
Lose Their Way

Lower the boom

Put a stop to; treat severely.


Main Stay

A stay that extends from the maintop to the foot of the foremast of a sailing ship.

a thing on which something else is based or depends

(as in “he was the mainstay of our team”)

Make a Clean Sweep

the removal of all unwanted people or things in order to start afresh

Make Both Ends Meet
Married to the Gunner’s Daughter
Miss the Boat
Nipper The anchor cable was a nine-stranded cable-laid rope which came through the hawse-pipe, ran alongside the two capstans (on the main-deck), and was stowed down in the cable tier beneath the main deck. Nippers were short pieces of rope (stoppers) one end of which would be fastened to the ‘messenger’, the other end to the cable, and as the cable was hove in, and the ‘nippers’ reached the barrel of the larger capstan, small boys would ‘fleet’ them (i.e. untie and move them) and fasten them on again near the small capstan. It was from such circumstances that the word ‘nipper’ entered our language as the name for a small boy.
No Man’s Land

No room to swing a cat

During punishment all hands were called on deck to bear witness. In the case of a ship with a full complement on board this could make for a very crowded deck. In fact the deck could be so crowded that a cat o’ nine tails could not be used without hitting the observers so that there was no room to swing a cat.

Nosey Parker
Now You’re Talking
Off and On  Years ago, when a ship was in unknown waters and near land, a prudent master would, at sunset, sail back and forth, toward and away from the landfall, roughly maintaining his position until daylight would again permit him to see where he was going as he sailed into ever-shallower waters.Perhaps related to [Touch and Go]? “Off and on” means a condition of intermittence, more commonly spoken as “off-again, on-again.”

Offing, In The

Said of a ship visible at sea off the land. Such a ship is often approaching port, hence the phrase is used figuratively to mean ‘about to happen’…

Comes from the days of the tall ships. The offing was the sea just off shore. Wives, girlfriends, and other interested parties would scan the offing for ships coming in. When a ship was sighted “in the offing” it was of course almost here.

On an even keel

having the same draft forward and aft

of a person or situation: functioning normally after a period of difficulty

On another tack

Said to preface suddenly changing the subject
On the Right or Wrong Tack
On the Rocks

Over the Barrel

The most common method of punishment aboard ship was flogging. The unfortunate sailor was tied to a grating, a mast or over the barrel of a deck cannon.
Over the Yardarm The yardarms on a sailing ship are the horizontal timbers or spars mounted on the masts, from which the square sails are hung. (The word yard here is from an old Germanic word for a pointed stick, the source also of our unit of measurement.) At certain times of year it will seem from the deck that the sun has risen far enough up the sky that it is above the topmost yardarm. In summer in the north Atlantic, where the phrase seems to have originated, this would have been at about 11am. This was by custom and rule the time of the first rum issue of the day to officers and men (the officers had their tots neat, the men’s diluted). It seems that officers in sailing ships adopted a custom, even when on shore, of waiting until this time before taking their first alcoholic drink of the day. it’s lunch time and okay to have an alcoholic beverage.”That’s the usual meaning among landlubbers, though  some who tend to use it for the early evening, after-work period from about 5pm onwards. It turns up in various forms, of which the sun’s over the yardarm is probably the most common, but one also sees not till the sun’s over the yardarm as an injunction, or perhaps a warning.
Overbearing To sail downwind directly at another ship thus “stealing” or diverting the wind from his sails.


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

To take apart, thoroughly examine, and repair; to overtake.
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. defeat one’s purpose by trying to do more than is possible
Overwhelm Old English for capsize or founder.  To bury or drown beneath a huge mass. defeat completely
Parting Shot a final remark, typically a cutting one, made by someone at the moment of departure

Pipe down

A boatswain’s call denoting the completion of an all hands evolution, and that you can go below.

The Pipe Down was the last signal from the Bosun’s pipe each day which meant “lights out” and “silence”.

Means stop talking and be quiet.

plain sailing

Pooped, To be

We might use the word “pooped” to mean the same thing, but its seagoing origin is quite different. The rearmost, highest deck of a sailing ship was called the poop deck, from the Latin word “puppis.” If a ship were unlucky enough to be overtaken by a massive, breaking sea which drenched her from astern, she was said to have been “pooped.” When you think about it, the sea and shore uses of the word aren’t that different: in both cases, you’re washed out.

“…even worse, she lost some of her way at the bottom, whereas she needed all her speed to outrun the following seas, for if they were to overtake her she would be pooped, smothered in a mass of breaking water. Then ten to one she would slew round and broach to, presenting her broadside to the wind, so that the next sea would overwhelm her.”

[Patrick O’Brian, Desolation Island, p. 228]



Disputed: Port Outward, Starboard Home – when traveling to India from Britain and back – keeps your cabin on the shady side of the ship.

elegant, stylish


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