Common Phrases with Nautical Origins

Common Phrases with Nautical Origins

While looking into nautical superstitions for our last blog, I came across some rather interesting language. No, not that kind, although I’m sure it wouldn’t take too much effort to find those connections, I’m talking about the common terms we use today which have their roots in maritime history.  Here are some of my favorites.


Under the weather. Today this means you are not very well. On a ship, if you were under the weather it meant you were standing watch on the weather side of the ship and subjected to wind and rain, which surely would have been neither good for your health or general mood.

Son of a gun. This name was given to a child born on board a ship because the gun deck was considered the best place to give birth if required.

Son of a Gun

Son of a Gun


Pipe Down.  The last signal from the bosun each day was referred to as the ‘pipe down’ and indicated quiet and lights out.

Posh. POSH would be stamped on the upper-class tickets when traveling on P&O and stood for port out starboard home; the cabins situated thus were coolest when cruising in the Red Sea.

Footloose. Lovers of 80’s movies and Kevin Bacon will be interested to know that the term refers to the ‘dancing’ exhibited by the foot (the bottom part of a sail) if not adequately secure.

Groggy is a term used today to describe feeling muddled or confused but comes from the term sailors used to describe their rum ration, which, on the orders of Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon was diluted with water. Vernon was known as Old Grog as he was known for wearing cloaks made from grogram cloth which is a rough silk mohair mix often gummed.

Cut of his Jib. The jib is the foresail and warships often had theirs cut quite thinly. Hence a captain might spy an approaching ship and not like the cut of his jib. It’s easy to see why today it means not liking the look of someone.

Three sheets to the wind. When a vessel is three sheets to the wind, it will stagger aimlessly much like those intoxicated. A sheet is a rope which secures the sails otherwise they will flap or ‘be in the wind.' Hence a three-masted ship could be three sheets to the wind.

Oh, Sheets!

Oh, Sheets!


Leeway. The lee side of a ship is the one sheltered from the weather. The leeway, therefore, is the amount of space between the ship and the shore. So leeway has come to mean a margin of safety.

Windfall. This term has come to mean a fortuitous and unexpected bonus, usually cash. The term is derived from an unanticipated rush of wind from the land which increased the ships leeway.

Above Board. This has come to mean something is legitimate and most likely came from anything practiced in plain view on deck as opposed to shady hidden dealings, below deck perhaps?

Know the ropes.  Quite an obvious one this, but an experienced seaman would understand what the multitude or lines and ropes were for and how to use them; hence if you knew the ropes, you knew what you were doing.

Cut and run.  Most likely derived from cutting lashings on sails (of an unfriendly vessel you are lashed to) or cutting your anchor cable rather than spending time hauling it up. Either way, you were making a speedy getaway.

Blazer. Today this means any jacket, but it was derived from the crew of HMS Blazer whose jackets were a resplendent blue and white.

HMS Blazer

HMS Blazer


Mayday sounds like an odd thing to shout in distress until you realize that it is simply the anglicized form of  the French ‘m’aidez’ which means help me.

Perks. A shortened version of perquisites, a term used in the Navy, which denotes some advantages of rank.

Bitter End. Nothing to do with lemons; this refers to the end of the anchor line where it fastens to the bow which is called the bitt. Hence when you reach the end of the anchor line, you read the bitter end.

Scuttlebutt. A butt is a vessel in which liquids are stored and to get the liquid out; you would need to scuttle it i.e. drill a hole in it. The water cask or barrel was therefore known as the scuttlebutt, and as it was a place where gossip was exchanged, those juicy bits of chatter became known as scuttlebutt.

Toe the line. This has a number of possible origins. The space between each deck plank was referred to as a line, and it was along these, for alignment, that the ship's crew stood for inspection.  It’s possible that captains also used a ‘standing toes touching the line’ as a punitive measure too. Either of these scenarios would have resulted in ‘toe the line’ to take the meaning of behaving correctly or abiding by the rules.

As the crow flies. Today this means the most direct route or a straight line to a given place regardless of roads, however lost vessels coined the term. In the days before electronic navigational aids and satelitrickery, a crow would be used, the idea being that the released bird would fly directly to land and the crew would follow. Hence the name, ‘crow’s nest’ for the top most lookout point of the ship. 

Crow's Nest

Crow's Nest


Swing the lead. This saying means wasting time or being lazy and comes from pre-sonar days when the only way to measure the depth under the keel was to use a line weighted with lead. If you wished to prolong this task you would swing the lead instead of dropping it as it still looked like you were doing something.


Do you know of other commonly used phrases with maritime origins? Let us know in the comments below!


A couple more from my Navy Days – Rain locker, Swabby, Snipe, Skylarking. BT1/Retired over and out

Dana on

This was so interesting!! I have always been scared of sail boats. I like something that I can control easier. But , I live to watch them sail. It’s so smooth. Until it’s not. But I weather can disrupt any kind of boat. I loved all the things you gave what they meant . Didn’t know about that. And I watched Black Sails. Sorry. Thanks for the tour.

Kay on

Love this!

Penny Kogge on

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