Nautical Terms and Phrases in Everyday Use
but not in the way originally intended!

Ahoy, matey! Welcome aboard, seasoned sailors and landlubbers alike, as we set the mainsail and embark on a great nautical adventure through the English language! Our journey will cover weird and wonderful nautical terms and phrases that pepper our everyday conversations, expressions whose roots lie deep in the briny waters of historical maritime traditions – yes, indeed, welcome to the world of nautical jargon!

Old wooden sailing vesselWhen ships were made of wood and men were made of steel...

It might surprise you that many common nautical terms and phrases we use daily originated from seafaring lore and nautical jargon. Fact is, sailors have given us a veritable treasure chest of terms, phrases, and idioms that have navigated their way into our everyday language. Let's weigh the anchor and dive right in.

Nautical Terms and Phrases - They're not always a complement!

Broad at the Beam is one such phrase. It's a ship term referring to the widest part of the ship's hull. When we talk about someone being "broad at the beam", we're talking about their generous physique! Likewise, By and Large was used to describe a ship's ability to sail well both into the wind (by) and with the wind (large). Today, we use it to mean 'in general.'

Imagine you've made a sharply worded comment intended as a warning to someone. You've essentially fired "A Shot Across The Bow." This phrase comes from naval warfare, where a ship would fire a warning shot to get an opponent's attention without causing damage.

Ever suspicious of someone's intentions and wish they were "Above Board?" meaning honest, not secretive or misleading. Historically, this referred to goods secretly stored below deck on a ship to hide them from customs officers.

Ever felt confused, disoriented, and "All At Sea?" Originally, it meant a ship that had lost its bearings and was directionless - much like we feel sometimes!

Utilizing "Another Day, Another Dollar" to motivate oneself at work? Well, that phrase probably emerged from sailors, always eager for their pay after a long day on the high seas!

Ever been through a crisis and felt relief at finding a solution, no matter how imperfect? That's "Any Port in a Storm," an age-old seafaring term. Ships caught in threatening weather would seek shelter wherever they could, even if it meant venturing into unknown or unsuitable ports.

Ever wondered how birds navigate their way home or to warmer climes? They fly the most direct route or "As the Crow Flies," a phrase coined by early navigators who carried caged crows that, when released, would fly directly towards the nearest land, serving as a nautical compass.

Crow being released from cage on old sailing shipWe'll be watching you...

"Batten Down the Hatches" sound familiar? Well, that meant to prepare a ship for bad weather or an upcoming storm literally. In everyday life, it means to prepare for a challenging situation.

How about when you clink glasses with your mates and say, "Bottoms Up"? Sounds like a fun evening out, right? In 18th and 19th century England, navy recruiters would trick men into service by slipping a King's Shilling into their beers. Unaware till their drink was finished, they were then conscripted. To counteract this, bar owners introduced clear-bottomed glasses, urging patrons to say "Bottoms up!" and inspect their pints before drinking..

Selling a product en masse or "Chock a Block"? That phrase described the blocks of a pulley system hauling up the heavy sails of a ship jammed tightly together due to a fully hoisted sail.

Ever been at "Loggerheads" with someone? It refers to a type of tool on ships used in disputes between sailors!

Felt "Groggy" after a few drinks? That one's named after a less-than-appetizing brew of watered-down rum known as grog, which would leave sailors feeling a bit wobbly as they staggered about the ship!

Ever "Push the Boat Out" to celebrate something special? That comes from the ceremony of launching a new vessel. Simultaneously, "Go Overboard" is also a nautical term meaning to literally fall over the side of a ship, used now to describe doing something in excess.

Next time you see a "Skyscraper," know that it was not always a towering city building. Originally, it depicted the highest sail on the mast of large ships. Likewise, the term "Slush Fund" now used for sketchy political dealings once meant a collection of money created from selling leftover cookery oils from the ship's kitchen.

Feeling "Under the Weather?" This phrase references sailors who felt seasickness while on watch on the weather side of a ship. If it got too much, they'd be excused to go below deck.

Ever been in a situation where things were so crammed and tight you could hardly move? That’s precisely what the sailors meant by Chock a Block, except that they were referring to the blocks of their tackle being jammed close together. A "Clean Bill of Health", on the other hand, wasn’t just about a sailor being fit; it also referred to a ship not carrying any infectious diseases at the port it departed.

You know when someone shouts "Clear the Deck!" it means to prepare for action or remove obstacles. This command basically originates from the order given on a warship to clear away for action. The expression Close Quarters, on the other hand, came from the small spaces in a wooden warship where hand-to-hand fighting took place during battles. Nowadays, we use it to refer to a small or cramped space.

The expression "Copper Bottomed" refers to something reliable and trustworthy, much like the durable ships lined with copper to prevent damage by sea creatures. Ever been angry and simply wanted to "Cut and Run?" That's a direct take from the procedure of quickly cutting the ship’s anchor cable to make a swift escape. Equally dramatic is the phrase "Dead in the Water", which literally means your ship isn't moving – a hopeless situation indeed!

Now let's say you wanted to "Deal a Broadside", that means a severe verbal attack. Why? Because during naval battles, the most destructive way to fire cannons was across the width or ‘broadside’ of a ship. "Devil to Pay" was the grueling task of caulking the ship's longest seam (or "devil"). Today it means the tough consequences to face.

Old seaman 'paying the devil'Paying the Devil

A favourite among the list is "Dutch Courage", which refers to the courage that flows in with a few drinks – a nod to the rivalry between the English and Dutch sailors of yesteryears. As for "Dressing Down", it doesn’t involve sartorial issues. Instead, it refers to the process of applying oil to sails to protect them, which had the side effect of making them look like they’ve been reprimanded or ‘dressed down.’

These nautical expressions might leave you "In the Doldrums," a term for areas of the ocean where wind is scarce, leaving sailing ships stranded. Nowadays, it's used to describe feeling in a rut or down in the dumps.

But there are many more nautical terms and phrases that hold similar detail and charm. For instance, did you know that the phrase "On Your Beam Ends", referring to a state of desperation, originally meant a ship tilting so much that its beams, the horizontal timbers, were almost vertical?

Even more interesting are expressions such as "Son of a Gun", meaning an impressive or surprising character, that originated from the rough living on board navy ships where sometimes, children were born in unexpected places, like between the canons (the guns).

Cat O' Nine TailsCat O' Nine Tails

The phrase "no room to swing a cat" has an unclear origin, although it's generally used to describe a very small or cramped space. But one popular belief is that "cat" in this instance refers to the "Cat o' Nine Tails", a type of whip used in the British Royal Navy. The cat o' nine tails was used to discipline sailors, and the process required enough room to swing the whip freely. Hence, the phrase "no room to swing a cat" would indicate a very tight space where it would be impossible to conduct such a punishment.

Or the popular "Shiver Me Timbers", an expression of surprise or disbelief, inspired directly by the impact of cannonballs hitting a wooden ship.

Or "Show your True Colors" Now means to reveal one's true nature. Historically, ships would fly false flags until they were close enough to their enemies, then show their 'true colors'.

Or "Cut and run" meaning to leave quickly and abruptly, often to avoid a problem or difficulty. Initially, it described the hasty departure of a ship, where the anchor cable had to be cut for quick sailing.

Or perhaps "Three sheets to the wind" used to describe someone who's very drunk. Historically, if a ship's sheets (ropes) were loose, the ship's navigation would be as unsteady as a drunken person's walk.

While these nautical terms and phrases have evolved and moulded themselves into the fabric of our everyday lives, they carry within them the rich history, tales, and living conditions of sailors, their ships, and their voyages. They are a nostalgic reminder of the sea-faring world and a testament to the versatility and adaptability of language.

So next time when you're "Running a Tight Ship" by managing a business efficiently, think of the nautical world where such expressions originated. Or perhaps you're weathering a difficult situation, recall that you're just "Sailing Close to the Wind", just like the brave sailors of the past relying on their skills in a risky situation. And no matter how much you find yourself 'overwhelmed' in your life, remember, it's just an echo of those nautical days when a ship was swamped by high waves and submerged under the water.

And here's a few more nautical terms and phrases that most of todays sailors will be familiar with...

I wrote this article using GPT-4, OpenAI’s large-scale language-generation model, as a research assistant to develop source material. I wrote the final draft in its entirety and believe it to be accurate to the best of my knowledge.

Dick McClary, creator and owner of sailboat-cruising.com

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