Arkadaslik Yachting logo
blog/common-nautical-terms

15 Surprising Everyday Terms that Have Nautical Origins

Embrace Your Inner Sailor and Enhance your Vocabulary with these Everyday Nautical Phrases

Created: February 22, 2020

Even if you've never stepped foot on a boat, you've probably mastered a variety of nautical terms – without even knowing it! Some are self-explanatory: sink or swim, don't rock the boat, dead in the water, weathering a storm – but a few might surprise you.

  1. Slush fund – Nowadays, a slush fund refers to money that's been put aside for unanticipated costs. (In politics, it refers specifically to bribes!) In days of yore, the ship's cook would boil salted beef and skim the fat (called slush) from the top of the pot. He'd collect this slush during the ship's voyage, and sell it when returning to harbour, pocketing the money for his own gain.
  2. Scuttlebutt – Sharing gossip around the water cooler is a centuries-old pastime, and sailors are the best gossipers around! The term comes from the equivalent of the ship's water cooler – a wood barrel (scuttle) with a hole drilled (butt) in the top. Sailors would stand around the barrel, sharing tales while getting a drink of water.
  3. Chew the fat – Another term for gossip. Back in the days when scurvy was a real problem, a sailor's diet consisted of boiled salt-cured pork or beef (from which the cook had already skimmed the fat). As delicious as it sounds, this tough meat required a lot of chewing. A LOT of chewing! (And olden day sailors didn't have dental plans, so they may not have had all their teeth – believe me, chewing was an issue.) Therefore, they had plenty of time to trade stories over meals.
  4. Footloose – The title of Kevin Bacon's iconic '80s dance movie was based on the term for a flapping sail. When not tied correctly (loose), the bottom of the sail (the foot) flutters in the wind. Fortunately, any sailor who knows the ropes can tie up loose ends and set everything ship-shape quickly. (BONUS: The terms tipsy and three sheets to the wind are colloquially used to denote levels of inebriation, and refer to how much sail - referred to as a sheet by those in the know - is loose.)
  5. Overbearing – the dictionary defines overbearing as "unpleasantly overpowering" and that's exactly how the term came into existence. It refers to one ship sailing in the same direction (bearing) as the wind, directly towards another ship in order to over-take it, effectively taking the wind out of their sails.
  6. Mind your Ps and Qs – Often used as a reminder from Mom to be on your best behaviour, this term originally comes from a less child-friendly source – the harbour saloon! It's a well-known fact that sailors enjoy a drink or two, and rarely have spare cash until their next payday, so enterprising barmen would extend credit to sailors on leave. They'd mark each Pint and Quart on a chalkboard, and the sailor would pay before returning to sea. But, unscrupulous barmen would sometimes add an extra mark or two to the tally, so sailors monitored (minded) the marks carefully to avoid being cheated.
  7. The whole nine yards – No, it's not a football term! The phrase originally referred to old-fashioned, square-rigged ships with 3 masts. Each mast had 3 sails hanging from the yard arms. When all the sails were up, the whole 9 yards were on display. (BONUS: And, if they spotted another boat, they'd raise all their flags and pennants to identify themselves, and pass with flying colours!)
  8. Feeling blue – Not to be confused with feeling under the weather (which is next on the list), feeling blue means you're sad or depressed. Historically, when a ship's captain died at sea, his crew would hoist a blue flag and paint a blue line around the boat's hull to signify they were in mourning.
  9. Under the weather – Rather than tell a casual acquaintance (or your grandma) you've been barfing all night and have explosive diarrhea, you might say you're feeling under the weather. There are several theories on the origin of the phrase, one comes from a time when young sailors were required to stand watch all night. During storms, the sailor who was positioned on the "weather-side" of the boat was often drenched by massive waves crashing over the bow – and, not surprisingly, often got sick as a result of the exposure.
  10. Log book – In a time before GPS and phone apps, ship captains navigated by the sun and the stars. To gauge their speed, they used a triangular-shaped piece of wood (log) tied to a long string, knotted at precise intervals. They'd toss the log overboard and count how many knots were fed out in a certain amount of time. To this day, knots are still the official unit of measure at sea, and journeys are still documented in log books.
  11. As the crow flies – As you can imagine, relying only on the sun, stars, and a knotted piece of string for navigation meant that captains sometimes got a bit disoriented about their precise location. For this reason, they usually sailed with a couple of crows on board. By releasing a crow – which instinctively flies towards land – and monitoring its flight direction, they could confirm their location and adjust heading accordingly.
  12. Touch and go – The term refers to something that is possible, but not certain – much like the heart-stopping feeling when the bottom of the boat's hull touches ground in shallow water. Will we get stuck and find ourselves high and dry when the tide goes out? Or will we just touch and go, and be able to continue on our way?
  13. In the offing – We use the term to mean something is imminent, likely to happen very soon. But what's an offing? The offing is the part of the sea that's visible from the harbour. If a ship was seen in the offing, it was expected to dock before the next tide.
  14. Until the bitter end – One end of the anchor's rope or chain is attached to the anchor. The other end is attached to a part of the ship called the bitter. When the rope or chain is all fed out, there's nothing left to give, it's reached the bitter end.
  15. Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey – No matter how you look at it, this is an apt description for cold weather, but it probably doesn't mean what you think it does. Back in the days when ships had cannons, the iron cannon balls were stacked in pyramid shape and held in formation with a brass ring, called a monkey. When temperatures dropped to below freezing, the two metals would contract at different rates – causing the pile of cannon balls to spill all over the deck (i.e. fall off the brass monkey).

I was surprised by a couple of these phrases. How about you? Is there anything you'd add to the list?