gundeck of navy ship
Salty Language or Nautical Terms Now in Common Usage
The English language is the most concise form of
communication on earth with an exact word for everything.
This occurred through a patchwork addition of words
from other languages and technical terms from various
professions entering common usage. These patches were
grafted onto the original Norman French and Anglo-Saxon
German hybrid as events brought new areas to the forefront.
Nautical terms began entering English as England became
a sea power. You may be surprised by how often you use salty language.
- A Square Meal
- In good weather, crews' mess was a warm meal served
on square wooden platters.
- Above Board
- Anything on or above the open deck. 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.
- As the Crow Flies
- 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.
- At Loggerheads
- An iron ball attached to a long handle was a loggerhead.
When heated it was used to seal the pitch in deck
seams. It was sometimes a handy weapon for quarrelling
- Back and Fill
- A technique of tacking when the tide is with the
ship but the wind is against it.
- From the 17th century, it described the Spanish
custom of hoisting false flags to deceive (bamboozle)
- to batten down the hatches
- "if it also comes on to blow and rain uncommon
hard, we take battens, 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]
- Bear Down
- To sail downwind rapidly towards another ship
- Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
- The devil seam was the curved seam in the deck
planking closest to the side of the ship and next
to the scupper gutters. If a sailor slipped on the
deck, he could find himself between the devil and
the deep blue sea.
- 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 including drowning, starvation, and marooning
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.
- Blind Eye, to turn a
- 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 Money
- 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
- Booby Hatch
- Aboard ship, a booby hatch is a sliding cover
or hatch that must be pushed away to allow access
- Brightwork originally referred to polished metal
objects and now is used to refer to varnished items
made of wood, such as trim.
- Brought Up Short
- A sailing ship underway could only be brought
to an emergency standstill by dropping the anchors,
creating a rather jaring stop. 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.
- By and Large
- Currently means in all cases or in any case. From
the nautical: by meaning into the wind and large
meaning with the wind: as in, "By and Large the
ship handled very well."
- By Guess and By God
- An early form of navigation, relying upon experience,
intuition and faith. Has come to mean inspired guesswork.
- 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.
- Cast Off
- Releasing 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.
- Chewing 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.
- Meaning something is filled to capacity or over
loaded. If two blocks of rigging tackle were so
hard together they couldn't be tightened further,
it was said they were "Chock-a-Block".
- clean bill of health
- In many port cities before permission to dock was granted, ships were required to show a bill of health, a document that stated the medical condition of their previous port of call, as well as that of everyone aboard.
A “clean bill of health” certified that the crew and their previous port were free from the plague, cholera, and other epidemics. Today, a person with a “clean bill of health” has passed a doctor’s physical or other medical examination.
- 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 from behind the protective
wall. Land-side, close quarters has come to mean
in close contact or a small area.
- 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.
- Cut and Run
- 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 without delay.
- Cut of His Jib
- Warships many times had their foresails or jib
sails cut thinly so that they could maintain point
and not be blown off course. Upon sighting thin
foresails on a distant ship a captain might not
like the cut of his jib and would then have an opportunity
- 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)
- To unrig a vessel and discharge all stores.
- The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea: "a
belt of low pressure that extends 5° to 10° either
side of the equator…[they] were notorious in the
days of sail, because vessels could become becalmed
there for many days and even weeks…Being in the
doldrums has now become synonymous with being listless,
depressed, and generally stuck in a rut."
- 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.
- Even Keel, Keeled Over
- 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.
- Fall Foul Of, Foul Up
- Foul is a 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.
- feeling blue
- If the ship lost the captain or any of the officers during its voyage, she would fly blue flags and have a blue band painted along her entire hull when returning to home port.
- field day
- Day for cleaning up all parts of a ship.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- A large sail used only for sailing downwind and
requiring rather little attention.
- The bottom portion of a sail is called the foot.
If it is not secured, it is footloose and it dances
randomly in the wind.
- Garbling was the prohibited practice of mixing
rubbish with the cargo. A distorted, mixed up message
was said to be garbled.
- Give (someone) a Wide Berth
- To anchor a ship far enough away from another
ship so that they did not hit each other when they
swung with the wind or tide.
- Gone By the Board
- Anything seen to have gone overboard or spotted
floating past the ship (by the board or side of
the ship) was considered lost at sea.
- In 1740, British Admiral Vernon (whose nickname
was "Old Grogram" for the cloak of grogram which
he wore) ordered that the sailors' daily ration
of rum be diluted with water. The men called the
mixture "grog". A sailor who drank too much grog
- 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.
- 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'.
- In the Offing
- Currently means something is about to happen,
as in - "There is a reorganization in the offing."
From the 16th century usage meaning a good distance
from shore, barely visible from land, as in - "We
sighted a ship in the offing."
- jury rig
- "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. probably from Old French
ajurie="help or relief", from Latin adiutare="to
aid" (the source of the English word "adjutant").
- 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.
- to make headway
- To get on, to struggle effectively against something,
as a ship makes headway against a tide or current...
- No Great Shakes
- 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.
- No Room to Swing a Cat
- The entire ship's company was required to witness
flogging at close hand. The crew might crowd around
so that the Bosun's Mate might not have enough room
to swing his cat o' nine tails.
- Over the Barrel
- The most common method of punishment aboard ship
was flogging. The unfortunate sailor was tied to
a grating, mast or over the barrel of a deck cannon.
- 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 called overhauling.
- 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.
- Old English for capsize or founder.
- Pipe Down
- Means stop talking and be quiet. The Pipe Down
was the last signal from the Bosun's pipe each day
which meant "lights out" and "silence".
- The poop is the stern section of a ship. To be
pooped is to be swamped by a high, following sea.
- nautical term for left because that was the side
of the ship cargo was unloaded from when in port
- Port Outward, Starboard Home - when traveling
to India from Britain and back - keeps your cabin
on the shady side of the ship.
- Press Into Service
- The British navy filled their ships' crew quotas
by kidnapping men off the streets and forcing them
into service. This was called Impressment and was
done by Press Gangs.
- roaring forties
- A Dictionary of Weather ; The band of strong westerlies
that encircles the southern hemisphere at approximately
latitude 40° S. Originally a nautical term, but
now in common usage.
- Rummage Sale
- From the French "arrimage" meaning ship's cargo.
Damaged cargo was sold at a rummage sale.
- A Dictionary of Weather ; scud --1. Tattered fragments
of low cloud (usually stratus fractus ) that are
often observed in windy conditions below rain clouds,
particularly nimbostratus . Originally a nautical
term, it now has a more general usage. 2. A term
used in parts of Canada for a sudden gust of wind.
- A butt was a barrel. Scuttle meant to chop a hole
in something. The scuttlebutt was a water barrel
with a hole cut into it so that sailors could reach
in and dip out drinking water. The scuttlebutt was
the place where the ship's gossip was exchanged.
- Shows his true colors
- Early warships often carried flags from many nations
on board in order to elude or deceive the enemy.
The rules of civilized warfare called for all ships
to hoist their true national ensigns before firing
a shot. Someone who finally "shows his true colors"
is acting like a man-of-war which hailed another
ship flying one flag, but then hoisted their own
when they got in firing range.
- skylarking, hurling himself about the upper rigging
regardless of gravity
- A small triangular sail set above the skysail
in order to maximize effect in a light wind.
- Slush Fund
- A slushy slurry of fat was obtained by boiling
or scraping the empty salted meat storage barrels.
This stuff called "slush" was often sold ashore
by the ship's cook for the benefit of himself or
the crew. The money so derived became known as a
- Son of a Gun
- When in port, and with the crew restricted to
the ship for any extended period of time, wives
and ladies of easy virtue often were allowed to
live aboard along with the crew. Infrequently, but
not uncommonly, children were born aboard, and a
convenient place for this was between guns on the
gun deck. If the child's father was unknown, they
were entered in the ship's log as "son of a gun".
- the nautical term for right, In Old England, the
starboard was the steering paddle or rudder, and
ships were always steered from the right side on
the back of the vessel.
- Start Over with a Clean Slate
- 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.
- swallow the anchor, to
- The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea ; 'swallow
the anchor, to', a nautical term meaning to retire
from sea life and settle down ashore.
- Taken Aback
- A dangerous situation where the wind is on the
wrong side of the sails pressing them back against
the mast and forcing the ship astern. Most often
this was caused by an inattentive helmsman who had
allowed the ship to head up into the wind.
- Taking the wind out of his sails
- Sailing in a manner so as to steal or divert wind
from another ship's sails.
- Tar, Jack Tar
- Tar, a slang term for a Sailor, has been in use
since at least 1676. The term "Jack tar" was used
by the 1780s. Early Sailors wore overalls and broad-brimmed
hats made of tar-impregnated fabric called tarpaulin
cloth. The hats, and the Sailors who wore them,
were called tarpaulins, which may have been shortened
- The Bitter End
- The end of an anchor cable is fastened to the
bitts at the ship's bow. If all of the anchor cable
has been payed out you have come to the bitter end.
- The Devil to Pay
- To pay the deck seams meant to seal them with
tar. The devil seam was the most difficult to pay
because it was curved and intersected with the straight
deck planking. Some sources define the "devil" as
the below-the-waterline-seam between the keel and
the the adjoining planking. Paying the Devil was
considered to be a most difficult and unpleasant
- Three Sheets to the Wind
- A sheet is a rope line which controls the tension
on the downwind side of a square sail. If, on a
three masted fully rigged ship, the sheets of the
three lower course sails are loose, the sails will
flap and flutter and are said to be "in the wind".
A ship in this condition would stagger and wander
- To Know the Ropes
- There were miles and miles of cordage in the rigging
of a square rigged ship. The only way of keeping
track of and knowing the function of all of these
lines was to know where they were located. It took
an experienced seaman to know the ropes.
- Toe the Line
- When called to line up at attention, the ship's
crew would form up with their toes touching a seam
in the deck planking.
- Touch and Go
- This referred to a ship's keel touching the bottom
and getting right off again.
- Under the Weather
- If a crewman is standing watch on the weather
side of the bow, he will be subject to the constant
beating of the sea and the ocean spray. He will
be under the weather.
- When a vessel is so full of water as to be heavy
- the whole nine yards
- If you look at a "typical square-rigger" you will
see that there are three masts with three yards
on each mast. So if you had all of the square sails
a flying on board you would have the whole nine
yards in operation. ie. everything.
- A sudden unexpected rush of wind from a mountainous
shore which allowed a ship more leeway.
Purchase these usful references from Amazon:
A Sea of Words
The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea
Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins
A Dictionary of Weather
Learn about the history and development of the English language:
The Adventure of English
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