This is a page on which we give naval/nautical expressions that have come to be used in everyday life by landlubbers.  Please let us know if you know of others, which will be added to this page with a suitable accreditation.

All above board – This referred to everything being visible when stored on deck and has come to mean all being open and honest.

Bitter end – The inboard length of an anchor cable was secured to strong timbers called bitts and if the cable was run out all the way it was said to be at the bitter end, which has come to mean anything at its limit.

BoobySula fusca of the family Pelecanidæ.  A dim-witted bird that could too easily be caught, making its sporting value low – hence ‘booby-prize’.

Born with a silver spoon – Old navy expression, of the ‘young gentlemen’ of privilege and advantage, who were said to have been so born with one in their mouth, and to have entered the navy through the cabin windows, as distinct from those who worked they way up through the ranks by merit, who were said to have been born with a wooden ladle and to have entered the navy through the hawseholes.
Brace of shakes – An old measurement of time that referred to a sail shivering as it came up into the wind.

Brass hat – An officer has gold wire braided around their hat, which has come to refer to any elevated person. 

Brass monkeys – Brass storage tracks for cannon balls were called monkeys and when the weather was cold it was not unusual for the iron balls to contract and fall through the holes, from which the expression to freeze the balls of a brass monkey has a much milder source than is usually believed.

Bristol Fashion – Seamen in the port of Bristol were very proud and also very sensitive of the fact that it was the second most important port in England, so they would ensure when in port that all yards were horizontal and sails were neatly furled as they should be.  Therefore shipshape and Bristol fashion, when ashore, refers to anything done neatly and tidily.

Bunk up – This strictly means to turn in with a lady (usually) friend, but has come to have a slightly more specific meaning ashore.

By and large – Sailing close to the wind, but not too close.  This expression came ashore meaning ‘on the whole’.

Can’t make head nor tail of it – This was an expression used by signal lieutenants when they could not make sense of distant signal flags.

Carny – Seamen’s slang for hypocrisy and cant.  After Captain Carny who was mild ashore and unbearable at sea.
Cat – The cat ‘o nine tails was an instrument of punishment comprising nine rope ‘tails’ on a handle, with which recalcitrants were flogged.  If knotted it was called a thieves cat.  Two expressions came ashore, the first from the practice of storing the cat in a red baize bag – when the cat was let out of the bag retribution was imminent.  The other expression to come ashore is the expression that there is hardly room to swing a cat, in a cramped space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chew the fat – When seamen chewed the tough rind of old salt-beef they would take a long time, and talk whilst so employed.

Chinky – Chinese traders used to cut chips, or chinks, off gold and silver coins, to make small change, from which they earned this epithet.

Clanger – A badly timed remark was said to make the ship’s bell clang.

Clean slate – The helmsmen of old would use a slate log, on which he recorded the vessel’s progress during his trick.  At the start of the next trick its content would be copied into the main log and it would then be wiped clean for the next helmsman.

Cleat – 1. A device of wood or metal with two arms, fixed at various places around the ship, to which falls or other ropes can be made fast by taking it in turns around the arms.  2. Wooden wedges on the yards to prevent sail earrings from slipping off, hence Cleats – Seamen’s’ expression for big ears.

Clewed up – 1. Sails are clewed up when their clews are drawn together to reduce the sail area.  2. Hammocks hang from clews, so to be clewed up with someone is to serve on the same ship.  3. It also sometimes was used to refer to a group of seamen joining together for a run ashore, or similar adventure.  4. Seamen’s slang to describe someone who is very knowledgeable at their work; often mistakenly spelt ‘clued up’ by lubbers, who assume it refers to one having all the clues.

Coasting – Originally meant travelling by ship from port to port, without ever losing sight of the coast.  Blue water seamen considered such travel as gentle, easy and safe, and indicative of someone not really trying and so worthy of contempt.  It came ashore to mean doing something in a relaxed manner.

Cocked hat – Navigators would try to mark three bearings on a chart, which inevitably resulted in slight errors that ended up with a triangular space in which the ship was (hopefully) located.  It was called a ‘cocked hat’ from its similarity to the officers’ hats and, if someone was knocked into a cocked hat it meant they would not know quite where they were. 

Codswallop – Originally a seamen’s term for a load of rubbish.

Copper bottomed - Said of a ship whose hull was sheathed in copper to prevent fouling and protect against attack by shipworm; a practice introduced in the latter half of the 18c.  From Seamen’s slang for doubly safe and sure, the expression came to be used in land life to mean anything properly done.

Cross his bow - Seamen’s slang for to annoy a superior, originally by walking in front of him, but now for any reason.

Cumshaw – Seamen’s slang for something for nothing, or a back-hander, or unofficial commission, or something obtained without payment, such as tips to Customs, etc., from Pidgin Chinese for Thank you!

Cut and run - To cut the light yarns by which a sail had been stopped after furling, so that the sail fell and started to draw instantly.  Seamen’s slang for sudden departure.  Often mistakenly taken to mean the cutting of the anchor cable, which rarely happened because of the high costs and risks involved with losing an anchor.

Cut of his jib - Seamen’s slang for the characteristic look of a person, or his actions or style, usually used when approved of. 

Cut very little ice – A sailing ship can not make much progress in pack ice, so the expression has come to refer to something that has made little impression on the listener.

Dead Marine – Seamen’s slang term for an empty wine bottle. The Duke of Clarence is reputed to have remarked that an empty bottle had done its duty and was ready to do it again, just like a Marine.

Devil to pay and no pitch hot - Seamen’s slang for an unsolvable dilemma.  This is from the devil being the name given to the outermost deck seam, which had to be payed by sealing it with pitch.

Dhobie, dhobey - Seamen’s slang for the action of laundering, or just for the dirty items to be laundered, from the Hindi word for laundry.

Donkey’s Breakfast - 1. A six-foot sack filled with hay, used as a mattress by seamen in the early days.  2. Seamen’s slang for anything badly performed resulting in a mess.

Down the hatch – A Seamen’s toast, when raising his glass.

Duckboards – The latticed wooden floorboards found in the bottom of boats were said to keep a seaman’s feet a dry as a duck’s.

Duff - Seamen’s slang for 1. A pudding: figgy duff, plum duff, and 2. anything not good enough.

Ekeing - 1. A piece of timber used to lengthen another, such as a supporting beam.  From this comes the expression ‘to eke out’.  2. The moulding and carving of a quarter-gallery.

Every man for himself! – The final order given on a sinking ship, that all seamen hoped not to hear, until inevitable.

Fagged out – Old rope ends were fagged out, so when one resembled such a state one was said to be fagged out, too.

Fair wind – Especially favourable conditions.

Fathom – Six feet depth of water.  If one can not see the bottom of a problem one is said not to be able to fathom, or understand, it.

Fine trim - Seamen’s slang for being in good spirits.

Flog [or flogging] a dead horse - Seamen’s slang for doing something for nothing, or no good reason.  This is from the fact that the first month’s work on a voyage was called a dead horse, for which the crew were paid in advance.  On the last evening of the month the men would flog a straw-filled effigy of a horse being paraded around the ship, after which it would be thrown overboard.  The expression came ashore from the fact that the crew would often not work hard during the first month, having already been paid for it.

Free and easy – Originally an old sailing term meaning all the sheets (sail control ropes or running rigging) could be eased and the ship could run free before the wind.

Friday while - Seamen’s slang for a long weekend (Friday to Monday) leave. 

Gangway – A free path. 

Gauntlet – In old times a seaman could be punished, usually when caught thieving, by being made to run between two lines of his shipmates, each of whom would strike him with a knotted cord or nettle.  This was known as running the gauntlet, which has come to refer to taking a chance of facing of criticism, or worse.  For more serious offences the perpetrator would be tied into a barrel and drawn slowly past the lines.  The original word was ‘gantlet’, a corruption of Swedish gantlopp, meaning ‘lane’ + ‘course’. 

Gingerbread – The fancy gilded carving around a ship’s stern was nicknamed gingerbread, from which knocking the gilt of the gingerbread came to mean taking the shine off something.

Grog – Rum diluted with water, named after Admiral Vernon, nicknamed Old Grogram (grog-rum) after his boat clock, who first ordered dilution in 1740 in the West Indies.  Hence groggy came to mean the preferred state of most Seamen.

Half shot - Another seamen’s slang for being nearly drunk.

Heavy weather - To make heavy weather of something is seamen’s slang for exaggerating a problem.

High and dry – Said of a ship that has run aground in a position where her keel is exposed at low water.  The expression came ashore to mean well and truly stranded.

Hoggin - Seamen’s slang for the sea.  So, see next item.

Hogwash - Seamen’s slang for the sea and for nonsense, as it cannot be washed. 

HolidayA bare patch on a newly painted ship’s side, from the assumption that the painter had taken a break from painting there.

Hook - 1. Slang term for the anchor, which would be slung from the cathead during weighing, from which one definition of to sling your hook came to mean to depart.  2. Another definition came from the practice of slinging a hammock from clew hooks, from which to sling your hook meant to go to bed.  3. A triangular plate fixed to the fore end of the hull, for connecting the stringers and for strengthening.  4. A swivel or plain hook attached to the rope or iron block strapping, by which a block is attached.

Hoop - Measure through which the tightly rolled hammock must pass before being placed in the netting.  Hence the expression go through the hoop, meaning get into trouble, if it did not go through.

Idlers – The seamen’s contemptuous name for anyone not standing a night watch, such as the sailmaker, the carpenter, etc. 

Jack of all trades – A seaman capable of turning his hand to any necessary task.

Jack Tar - Seamen’s slang for a sailor, but now used only in a derogatory sense.  From the tarred canvas worn by seamen in heavy weather. 

Keel hauling – An old form of punishment by which a weighted-down offender was hoisted up to one yardarm with a rope attached to him that had been passed under the ship.  He was then dropped into the sea and pulled under the ship, across the barnacle-infested hull, and up the other side.  It now refers to any great hardship.

Kettle - A basket submerged for fishing, originally corrupted from ‘keddle’.  When raised it would, with luck, be full of a muddle of various fish; hence the common expression about a fine kettle of fish.

Know the ropes – To be experienced; to seamen it would especially mean to know all the dodges.

Land sharks – Lawyers.  No definition necessary.

Lash-up – Originally the term used to describe the process of running the gauntlet, but now generally applies to something badly done.

Limey – Lemon and lime juice were found to be most effective against the onset of scurvy, so British sailors were made to partake of it.  American sailors nicknamed British sailors limeys as a result. 

Living high off the hog – Expressed the delight with which old time seamen were dished up with pork, as a change from the salt beef.

Loggerheads - Hollow spheres of iron on a shaft, that were heated in a fire and used to melt solid pitch in a bucket, and avoid ignition.  Seamen considered it fun to settle a dispute by attempting to beat each other with loggerheads whilst dodging their opponent’s swing.  It could hurt.  In everyday parlance, to be at loggerheads is slang for any quarrelling. 

Long shot – The expression for a chancy try at something, from the practice of trying a shot from a cannon at extreme range, without much hope of a hit.

Lubber – A less than proficient sailor.

Money for old rope - When old rope was condemned as worn and dangerous, it could not be sold because it was worthless – or could it?  The term became seamen’s slang for an easy or cheap job, or getting something for nothing.

Nipper – A short length of rope used to bind and quickly release the anchor cable to/from the messenger cable, a continuous loop of heavy rope that turned by the capstans, when weighing anchor.  This evolution was nimbly done by boy seamen, who were also called nippers.

On the right tack – To make the correct approach.

On the wrong tack – To misunderstand.

Oppo – A special friend, from opposite hammock number, or the person who was on watch when another is not, leaving room for sleeping.

Panic stations - Seamen’s slang for being ready for an emergency.

Part brass rags - Seamen’s slang for breaking up a friendship in anger.  From the tradition of friends sharing cleaning rags.

Peg or two, To take down – Naval ships displayed their ensigns hoisted at various heights, depending on their status in the fleet, with the flag halyards belayed on a number of pins for differing heights.  When encountering a superior vessel, the inferior would dip its ensign in salute, by belaying it on alternative pegs, thus having been “taken down a peg or two”.  A phrase that has come ashore to mean having been reminded of ones lower status in life.

Pipe down – A pipe call meaning: 1. the crew to come down from aloft, or 2. the crew to turn in, or 3. the crew are no longer needed until further orders, or 4. to be silent; hence, seamen’s slang for shutting up.

Piping hot – If food was collected from the galley as soon as the appropriate pipe signal was made, then it would be served hot.

Pooped – Originally a term to describe the sea having broken over the stern, resulting usually in the end of the ship, but it has come to mean tired out.

Prick – A pound-weight of tobacco, officially called a prick of tobacco, issued loose to seamen was formed, by the recipient, into a tightly rolled cylinder wrapped in canvas, after a soaking in rum whenever possible, with obvious anatomical similarities that have come ashore.  Some claim the term ‘prick’ is a corruption of ‘perique’, a dark Virginian tobacco, but this did not occur until the late 19c, and the unspoilt term was in use in the 17c, so this spurious claim is just a sop to the delicate.

Pump ship – To urinate.

Rub salt in the wound – The practice of rubbing salt into the wounds caused by flogging, in the hope that it would help a rapid cure – but making it hurt a lot more.  Sometimes done innocently by mistaken medics and sometimes purposely by malicious punishers.

Sail close to the wind – When a vessel sails close to the wind the sails must be braced to such a position that the wind could easily slip ‘off’ them.  This expression came ashore to mean to take a chance, especially with authority.

Scuttlebutt – Gossip, from the habit of seamen to stand around the scuttlebutt – an open cask of fresh(ish) drinking water on deck – for a chat.

Sea lawyer – A know-all who is very free with his advice, but seldom follows it himself.

Seven bells – As eight bells are struck at the end of a watch, to knock seven bells out of someone is to not quite finish him off.

Shake down – The period during which a new installation is allowed to operate before being put into full service, to find the usual teething troubles.  This is from the need for the rigging in a newly rigged ship to stretch and settle and then be tightened up before the ship could perform well. 

Shamfered – To be damaged or to have the edge taken off something, as would happen in a warship on the receiving end of an enemy broadside.

Sharp end –The front of a ship, where most of the action is on going into battle.

Ships that pass in the night – The expressed opinion that one may not meet again, from the fact that many old ships would in fact pass each other without knowing their names and without ever meeting again.

 Shot across the bow – A warning, from the naval practice of firing a shot across the bow of an enemy ship to make it heave to, failing which subsequent shots will be intended to hit.

Show a leg – If ‘wives’ had been allowed on board sailing ships in dock, when seamen were denied shore leave, the call to rouse the early watch would include this phrase, on the basis that a smooth and/or shapely leg dangled from a hammock would mean the occupant was not a seaman and so could be allowed to stay there another hour.

Sling –1. To pass a chain around a yard to protect against damage, or to pass a rope around anything, to lift it.  2. The rope or chain support for a fixed yard and the area at which it is attached.  3. A rope used to hold a barrel or similar load and attach it to a tackle.  4. Two spans of chain or wire by which boats are hoisted.  5. Small 16c gun.  6.  Retire to bed, from the need to sling ones hammock from clew hooks.  The full expression of ‘I intend to sling my hammock’ was rarely used.

Slush fund – Came from the fat skimmed from the top of the cauldron by the cook, who was allowed to sell it to the purser for making candles.  The money he collected became the first slush fund.

Sods opera – Ship’s concerts were arranged and performed by seamen of the Ship’s Operatic and Drama Society, and were often used to get one back at officer’s and to settle old scores painlessly.  Ashore it usually, and unfairly, means any poorly produced performance.

Son of a gun – Originally a complimentary term for a seaman born at sea, because wives at sea would have to give birth in between the guns as the decks had to be kept clear.

Spin a yarn – To relate a long-winded story, from the laborious task of making yarn from old ropes.

Spoil the ship for a ha’porth of tar – To fail to satisfactorily complete a task through failing to invest in sufficient materials.  Usually recommended in the negative, as an option to be avoided.

Square meal - A seaman’s plate was wooden and square, from which came this expression, meaning a good meal.

Stow it – Seagoing cargo had to be very tightly stowed and shut away from the effects of the weather, the sea and thieves, from which it became seamen’s slang for shut up.

Strike – Seamen who had not been paid would sometimes strike, or lower, a ship’s sails to prevent her from leaving port until they had been paid.  Now, any organised stoppage of labour shares the honour of this title.

Swinging the lamp - Seamen’s slang for telling a tall story.

Swinging the lead - Seamen’s slang for feigning sickness or not pulling one’s weight, from the actions of a lazy leadsman, who would stand and swing the lead, which was the easy bit, before casting it and then having to haul it back.

Taken aback – When the wind veers suddenly the sails can fill from the wrong direction and cause the ship to stop, thus becoming seamen’s slang for being stopped short or surprised.

Tell that to the marines! – An expression of disbelief, based on the assertion that you would need to get the marines to verify the truth of a story, from the tale that William IV did not believe a story of flying fish until a Captain of Marines confirmed it as being true.  So, if the Marines believe it, then it must be true.

Three sheets in the wind – Drunk.  Originally said of a sail that is almost out of control because its sheets, or control ropes, are flapping in the wind.

TUBMIN – A more modern acronym for Thumb Up Bum, Mind In Neutral, used to describe someone who is daydreaming whilst carrying out a task.

Tide over – Ships that were making poor headway against the prevailing wind could also not make progress against a flood tide, so they would drop anchor until the tide began to ebb, thus tiding over a temporary difficulty.

Toe the line – Originally used when the ship’s company were mustered, when each sailor would step forward to a line marked on the deck and then give his name and place of duty on board.  Ashore it has come to denote a recognition of authority and a willingness to obey the rules.

Took the wind out of his sails – A ship to windward steals the wind of another to leeward, so this expression has come ashore denoting the action of taking someone aback.

Tot – A half-gill measure of rum.  If a seaman is asked “Tot?” the usual reply is “Why not?”

Trot – A line of mooring buoys or ships at anchor, from which we now get “…and then six came along on the trot.”

True colours – False colours were allowed as a ruse of war, by all sides, to be worn during an approach to an enemy ship, but by convention true colours would have to be broken out once battle was joined.

Turn a blind eye – When Nelson declined to see a signal to break off the action at Copenhagen he gave us this expression meaning to witness something but ignore it.

Turn turtle – Said of a vessel that has turned right over and remains upside down in the water, looking like a turtle’s shell.

Under way – In motion.  Actually this is from ‘under weigh’, meaning the anchor had been weighed at a ship’s departure.

Waisters – Those employed in the ship’s waist, where the lubbers were gathered who were only good for pulling on a rope, and some only for pushing on one.

Weather eye – To watch something carefully for change or deterioration, as a seaman would watch the weather.

Wending – An early expression for going about from one tack to another.

Whistle up a wind –To indulge in vain hopes, from seamen’s superstition that they could whistle and a wind would arise, or strengthen.  From this it can be seen why whistling was encouraged in a calm and discouraged in a storm.  In  fact whistling was officially banned at sea in case of confusion with the bosun’s calls.