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 crewmen.

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) enemies.

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 or landmark.

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 members killed.

Booby Hatch
Aboard ship, a booby hatch is a sliding cover or hatch that must be pushed away to allow access or passage.

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 to escape.

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) with words.
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 was "groggy".

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 slush fund.

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 to tars.

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 task.

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 aimlessly downwind.

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 and unmanageable.

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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