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Avast Ye Matey: The Origins Of Seafaring Sayings

Updated on September 9, 2009

Shiver Me Timbers

There are a lot of sayings about different professions and areas of interest that have somehow worked their way into our typical, daily conversation. Many people are surprised to find out how many sayings we use actually refer to horses, farming or agriculture, even though today they may have very different meanings. Another major source of sayings is the sea, or more specifically the colorful sailors, pirates and military men that sailed the oceans blue.

Below are a few sayings, some which are obviously seafaring talk and others that are less well known as "sailor speak".

The Bitter End

Although there are several different possible origins for this saying, many researchers believe that it doesn't actually refer to taste or to the termination of a particular event. It seems that on old ships there was a central post, known as a bitt, to which cables and rope were fastened. When the rope or cable was let out as far as it could go and there was no more, the rope was said to be at the bitter's end. Over time it was simply shorted to bitter end, the point at which there was no more rope to give or no more movement to be made.

Hand Over Fist

Ok, most people know this one, but may not realize it is a nautical term at heart. Hand over fist refers to the steady, even progress made when hoisting up a sail or pulling up an anchor as done the old fashion manual way. Since this pull was difficult and required several men, they all had to be working in concert in order to move the object at the end of the rope in a controlled and steady fashion. Today the term hand over fist is often used to indicate a really rapid or speedy way to make money, not as much the steady even meaning first given the phrase.

Three Square Meals A Day

Old time ships were nothing less than horrible places to live and work, with crew and officers forced to live in terrible conditions. Every effort was made to provide them with some type of food in order to stay at least functioning while on very lengthy, rough voyages. Since china plates were too delicate carpenters made square flat tray like plates out of wood, simply by cutting planks straight across. They were durable, easy to stack and store and were almost indestructible with normal use. The crew would come down to the galley to eat, weather permitting, getting a square plate, which eventually led to the phrase a "square meal".  Captains would then use "three square meals a day" as a way to entice sailors to their crew with the promise of hot, substantial meals.

One Bad Apple

Before refrigeration and proper types of food storage, most foods had to be transported in either fresh or dried forms on board ships. Apples, being one of the more durable fruits, were packed in large barrels for long voyages. The only problem occurred if on or more apples in the barrel were bruised, this could lead to spoilage of the entire barrel. Hence the phrase "All it takes is one bad apple to ruin the bunch". There are several different phrases using the term "bad apple" all with a seafaring origin.  

Three Sheets To The Wind

Most people have heard this term and realize that it has something to do with sails, sailors and drinking. In its most basic sense the term was used to describe the degree of intoxication of a particular sailor based on his ability to remain steady and walk a straight course. The sheets referred to in the saying are not really the sails, but rather the ropes or chains that were used to secure the sails in place. There were three ropes or chains used to secure the sail, and the more that were loose the more erratic the ship moved through the water. Therefore, being three sheets to the wind meant highly intoxicated and unsteady, while one sheet to the wind might be just buzzed but still maneuvering relatively well.

Hard and fast or high and dry - You be the judge
Hard and fast or high and dry - You be the judge

Hard And Fast

This is sort of similar to "high and dry" and are both terms used to indicate a ship that is out of water and beached. Even today both of these terms are used to indicate a less than ideal situation or a situation where things are definitely not looking promising.

Taken Aback

In the early 15th century there were several words that were combined with "a" to give the opposite meaning. Aback came to mean away from the forward direction in a sudden movement, or towards the rear of the ship. A sail that was suddenly blown the opposite direction was taken aback to the mast and the ship stopped forward progress. Over time and with some literally license writers such as Charles Dickens used the nautical expression to indicate a sudden surprise that completely startles the individually both in thought as well as in action.


Don't forget that September 19th is the annual Talk Like A Pirate Day.

According to the official website, this is the day to really get out and enjoy yourself.

More can be found on this holiday (hmmmm) at:

The Original "I'm A Pirate Song"


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    • moncrieff profile image


      8 years ago from New York, NY

      Though I must admit I didn't hear some of those expressions, - or didn't pay attention - it was interesting to read about their origins in the world of sea.

    • Mardi profile imageAUTHOR

      Mardi Winder-Adams 

      8 years ago from Western Canada and Texas

      Thanks Kashmir56 for the kind words. I am a bit of a pirate at heart as well!

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 

      8 years ago from Massachusetts

      I've always loved the old pirate movies so this hub was a extra treat for me,Loved it! I'll have to run up the Jolly Roger on this hub!!!

    • Mardi profile imageAUTHOR

      Mardi Winder-Adams 

      9 years ago from Western Canada and Texas

      Sorry jocko, thought that one was too obvious to detail in the article. Avast means stop or desist, ye means you and matey is friend, person or individual. So basically the term means "cease what you are doing pal". Hope that clears it up.

    • profile image

      jocko jackamone 

      9 years ago

      well what does avast ye matey mean moron?

    • Mardi profile imageAUTHOR

      Mardi Winder-Adams 

      9 years ago from Western Canada and Texas

      Thanks RedElf and I appreciate your contribution! It is amazing to me how so much language from different industries and professions have influenced our lives.

    • RedElf profile image


      9 years ago from Canada

      Great hub! A further variation for you...when a ship was caught on a reef or run aground with no leeway - no room to move or maneuver, (another expression ;) "no leeway") - she was said to be "stuck hard and fast". It refers to having or not having any room to move in the situation, for example: "no hard and fast rules", meaning the rules are lax and there is room to maneuver.

      Fun hub - well done! I wish you fair winds and following seas!

    • Mardi profile imageAUTHOR

      Mardi Winder-Adams 

      9 years ago from Western Canada and Texas

      Dolores, thanks for your comment. I enjoy learning about different words and phrases as well.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      9 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Mardi - it's so amazing that those phrases we use every day are so old and have little or nothing to do with how we use them. I love this stuff. My father used to have a book called 'Heaven's to Betsy' that was full of these phrases. (I wonder where that book is)

    • Mardi profile imageAUTHOR

      Mardi Winder-Adams 

      9 years ago from Western Canada and Texas

      Thanks Peggy, what a kind comment. It always seems interesting to me to find out about language and how phrases and words have come into common vocabulary.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      9 years ago from Houston, Texas

      You come up with some of the most interesting hubs and this one is no exception. Thanks for the research. Good photos too, BTW.

    • Mardi profile imageAUTHOR

      Mardi Winder-Adams 

      9 years ago from Western Canada and Texas

      Thanks James, you are too kind. Which would translate I guess to ARRGGHH thanks ye matey in pirate talk!

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      9 years ago from Chicago

      I love this sort of thing. This Hub is fabulous! Thanks for the entertaining read. It is a pleasure.


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