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12 Nautical phrases that are now in everyday use

Updated on September 26, 2015

Nautical terms that are now a common part of the English Language

With the English having been a great seafaring nation in days gone past, it should come as no surprise that so many nautical terms have come into common use in the English Language. But today, many of the real nautical meanings of some of these phrases have been completely forgotten. Not all modern sayings attributed to a nautical province are actually true metaphors for the words of the sailors of the past though. But, then the word metaphor itself is a metaphor and is derived from the Greek word to carry or to travel, so things can get a bit confused. Associating words and phrases with the romanticism of the days of the tall ships sailing off into the unknown is an unavoidable thing, in an island nation that once ruled a good proportion of the world through its naval power. So here are some well-known phrases of today that, apparently, have their roots firmly in the nautical past of England.


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1. To give someone a bit of leeway

The lee side of a ship is the side that is sheltered from the wind and a lee shore is the shoreline that is downwind of a ship. If a ship was forced in too close to a, lee shore, then it was in danger of being driven onto the shore by the prevailing wind. Hence it was important to give a ship enough leeway.

2. An unexpected windfall

Not, as you might have thought, a phrase invented by the administrators of national lotteries, a windfall is another reference to a ship sailing close to land. If a ship, sailing close to land, experienced a sudden gust of wind from a mountainous shoreline, pushing them back out to sea, then they were said to have benefited from a windfall.

3. A first rate guy

First rate is now used to express excellence. The origins of the phrase lie in the sixteenth century rating for British naval ships which was based upon the number of cannon they had on board. A first rate battleship had more than one hundred cannons on board, whereas a second rate battleship had between sixty four, to eighty nine canons.

4. Straight as the crow files

Most think that the term ‘as the crow flies’ is used because crows always fly in straight lines. True, to a degree, but the term originates from the sea again. If a ship were lost at sea,. Then they released a crow from the highest point in the ship and the bird would make straight for the nearest land. The highest point on the ship then became known as the crow’s nest.

5. Three sheets to the wind

This euphemism for being drunk also comes from the seafaring world. A sheet is a line of rope that controls the tension of a sail on a three mast, rigged ship. If the sheets of the three lower sails are not tied down properly, then the sails will flap around in the wind, the ship will wander aimlessly, and it would be called, sailing three sheets to the wind.

6. Got him over a barrel

If you have someone over a barrel, then you have got him cornered, banged to rights, and there is no way out. Over a barrel is a reference to the punishment of flogging that was frequently dished out to sailors aboard the early sailing vessels. Often, sailors being punished, would be lashed to the barrel of a cannon, to keep them still while the punishment was carried out.



7. All above board

All above board means today that everything is in order and out in the open. In the days of maritime conflict, ships would hide many of their crew and soldiers below decks to fool enemy ships into thinking that they were less well armed or manned to deal with a fight. If the crew were all above board, then nothing was being hidden.

8. Footloose and fancy free

The ‘footloose’ part of this phrase is definitely a nautical term and it has little to do with a person’s ability on the dance floor. The lower portion of a sail is called the foot and, if it hasn’t been secured properly, then it will flap around in the wind, or dance aimlessly.

9. Toeing the line

Now used a phrase to describe someone who obeys the rules, even if somewhat reluctantly, towing the line originates from the practice of sailors lining up on a ship’s deck for inspection, with their toes touching a seam in the ships decking.

10. Son of a gun

When ships were held in port for any length of time and the sailors were not granted shore leave, it was common practice to allow wives and passing ‘ladies of the night’ to stay aboard the ship to keep the sailors company. Occasionally, these ladies would give birth on the ship and the best place for this was in-between the cannon on the gun deck. If no one would admit to being the father, then the child was named the ‘son of a gun’.



11. Cut and run

It wasn't all honour and valour in maritime warfare. If the captain of a small ship spied a larger enemy ship approaching, then they wouldn't wait for the anchor to be hauled aboard, they would cut the lashings on the sails, rather than unfurl them, and cut the anchor rope and run.

12 Let the cat out of the bag

Letting the cat out of the bag, or bringing bad news, is thought to have been a term that refers to the punishment of flogging on British naval ships. The preferred tool for administrating this punishment was a whip called the cat o’ nine tales, which was kept by the bosun's mate in a bag, until it was called for.




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    • Artois52 profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from England

      Thanks Ann. I agree, I don't think children are taught enough history these days. After all, it's what makes us who we are.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      4 years ago from SW England

      An interesting collection of words here. We should be proud of our nautical heritage and our rich language. I love looking at the derivatives of words and this was an entertaining read.



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