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Our previous post about marine myths and superstitions got a lot of response, leading us to write this one on the origin of nautical phrases. We talked about “knock on wood” and “ship shape” already. Here are some other commonly used expressions that came from sailors and seafaring.

Above board – Pirates were known to hide much of their crew below deck. Ships that displayed their crew openly were thought to be honest and known as “above board.”

Chew the fat – Before refrigeration, cured meats were tough but durable and it took a lot of chewing for sailors to make them edible.

Cut and run – A ship needing to make a hasty departure might cut its anchor rope and run before the wind.

Down the hatch – This drinking expression has its origins in sea freight, where cargo is lowered into the hold.

Hand over fist – It comes from the act of hauling a rope or line, which all sailors were expected to do quickly and continuously.

Miss the mark – If a sailboat misses a buoy or “rounding mark” in a regatta, it must complete a 360-degree circle as a penalty before continuing.

Over a barrel – A common method of punishment on a ship was flogging, which was often done with the unfortunate sailor tied over the barrel of a deck cannon.

Shake a leg – This was the order given to sailors to put a foot from their hammocks and “rise and shine.”

Show his true colors – Early warships often carried flags from many nations in order to deceive enemies. However, honor called for them to hoist their true flags before firing a shot.

Three square meals – English seafarers were served their meals on a square wood platter so they wouldn’t break any dishes in foul weather. (Thanks to David C. for submitting this one!)

Toe the line – When a crew was ordered to line up at attention, the sailors knew to stand with their toes touching a particular seam to ensure neat alignment of each row.

There are lots of other nautical phrases out there, many needing no explanation, like “any port in a storm,” “close quarters” and “know the ropes.” What are some of the nautical expressions that you find yourself using in your daily life, or what are some others that you’ve heard?

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11 Responses to Fun with Nautical Phrases

  1. David says:

    Randy, there was a time when I published something like this. We had a book of old nautical phrases to play with, so we used it.

    We also had a Q&A section where I would answer questions for boaters called “Ask Dave”. I enjoyed that time and this brought back memories. Just a comment from a former Claims manager and Yacht/HP Underwriter.

  2. Cahterine says:

    I enjoyed reading “Fun with Nautical Phrases” As sailors we use many of these terms, know what the term means, but not necessarily its origin.

    Also, as a racing sailor, your explanation of “Miss the Mark” specifically caught my attention.

    Miss the mark – If a sailboat misses a buoy or “rounding mark” in a regatta, it must complete a 360-degree circle as a penalty before continuing.

    If a boat misses a mark in a regatta, no number of penalty turns will correct the mistake – the boat will be scored DNF (Did Not Finish) because a boat finishes when she has sailed the proper course (rounded all marks on the proper side). If, however, a boat hits a mark during a regatta then 1 penalty turn (360-degree) is required. USSA Racing Rules of Sailing, Rule #31 ‘Touching a Mark’, and Rule #44.1 ‘Taking a Penalty’


    Catherine C

  3. ROY PETREE says:

    LOOKING at the History Channel one evening, i found out where the expression,”I’ll be a son of a gun” came from. During the early 18th century, ‘ships of the line’ were homes to about 2500 men & women. When a woman gave birth, to ease the labor pains, she was made comfortable between two cannons,
    both of which were lit at the same time.

    • John Smolinsky says:

      I am confused by what is meant when you say “both of which were lit”? You’re certainly not saying that they lit the cannons and fired them with the pregnant women between them?

  4. Ed Seling says:

    “The devil to pay” meaning to be in trouble. Often seen as “the devil to pay and no pitch hot”. The “devil” was the lowest garboard seam on a vessel and difficult to caulk or “pay” due to its position especially if no hot pitch was available. Variation: “Between the devil and the deep blue sea” meaning to be in a difficult puzzling situation. To be between the garboard seam and the depths of the ocean would be a serious “puzzle” with a potential of drowning!

  5. Robert Rush says:

    “The cat is out of the bag” meaning a secret has been revealed. It is an old sailing term for paranoia among sailors that the cat o’ nine tails was going to be used to flog someone. “It was grog, flogging and buggery that made the British Navy great”. Winston Churchill WWI.

  6. Captain JP says:

    As we all know, ” 3 sheets to the wind ” means someone has had way too much rum! It originally meant if a sailboat had 3 loose sheets in the wind, the boat would be out of control. Much like a drunken sailor!

  7. Woody Norwood says:

    “Three sheets to the wind”: In the days of square-rigged ships, each sail had 4 sheets, one on each corner of the square sail (two to windward and two to leeward). If three sheets were on the windward side (“to the wind”), the sail would not be able to function properly.

  8. Curt Russell says:

    One of my favorites … In the days of sailing vessels, there were merchants who imported bat guano from the islands. The problem with guano is that, if stored in the bottom of the hold where its stayed moist, it would spontaneously combust. Subsequently, the bags of guano were marked “Store High In Transit”, which was later shortened to its acronym SHI… well you get the idea… and thus the genesis of “that word”.

  9. Herb says:

    I heard the one about freezing the brass balls off a monkey referred to the cannonballs being stacked and the weather changing the bottom holds…………don’t know if this is true or not………..

  10. Bob Brink says:

    “Freeze the balls off a brass monkey”
    A “monkey” was the plate with indentions to hold cannon balls. The first ones were made of cast steel, but saltwater caused the cannon balls to rust to the monkey making them unusable. So they started using brass monkeys, but brass contracts more in cold weather. If it got cold enough, the monkey would contract and the cannon balls would come rolling off the rack or monkey, hence, freezing the balls off a brass monkey. And you thought it was something dirty.

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