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Boat Sayings

Updated on October 14, 2018
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Mary loves discovering new things and enjoys sharing these ideas with readers through her articles.

Words and Sayings About Boats and Ships

Have you ever wondered about the origins of some of the words or phrases we use? Many have their roots from long ago when large ships sailed the globe in search of worlds unknown bringing back cargoes of spices, teas, and plants from exotic places.

Facing pirates, cannibals, and savage seas, these were the times when men were men, rum was the order of the day and hygiene went out the window.

This rich history still is found in many of our common day phrases. Some are used in a similar fashion and others have changed their meaning over the course of hundreds of years.

Come with me as we explore a handful of the fascinating terms from days of yore.

Broad in the Beam.

Now, this means to have a full bottom, which is fashionable at the moment thanks in part to singers like Beyonce. "I like my women like I like my boats, broad in the beam." This should of course not be said with your wife present or it could result in a slap.

Nautically speaking, this still refers to the width, or the beam of the boat. Boats with a large beam are thought to be more comfortable as they offer you more space.

Nautical Phrases

Give them a wide berth:This means avoid them. For example, “Mom is in a bad mood, best to give her a wide berth”. As you would expect, this was said as a warning informing someone that it was best to stay away from an inexperienced sailor,someone with a bad attitude or a hazard in the water.

Three sheets to the wind: This means to be very drunk. "Oh Robert, you were three sheets to the wind last Saturday." Although it is easy to think that the term 'sheets' is referring to the sails, it isn't. It means the ropes, which hold the sails in place. If they were not attached this caused the sails to flap and the boat to bob about like a drunken sailor.

Slush fund: This is now heard about politicians and secret expense accounts. "Don't worry Allen, we can pay the Senator with the slush fund". Its origins still had to do with money. In the olden days on board ships, the cooks would scrape off the fat from the cooking. For example when meat cooks and there is that horrible fatty foam. This is the slush or slosh. It was scraped together and kept in barrels and sold. This was a slush fund.

Sailing Idioms

High and Dry: “The ex-wife ran off with my best friend and left me high and dry”. If you are left high and dry you could say you are out of luck or out of pocket. This one is much as it sounds. The boat was left high and dry. It was beached. Hopefully the next tide will be high enough to re-float her. Not so good if you have marauding natives coming at you with spears and the tide is a fair way out.

Cut and Run: “Oops, here come the cops, best cut and run”. To get away quickly. This would have been said when there was no time to bother pulling up an anchor just cut the rope and hoist the sails and get out pronto.

Push the boat out: “Mavis and Bernhard really pushed the boat out for their daughter's wedding”. Now it means to spend excessively let's say for a wedding or a big party. The original meaning is as you would expect, meaning to push the boat out, off the shore. This was helping someone out. Then it change to buying rounds of drinks and escalated even further to spending to excess.

Boat Words

Loose Cannon: “If you ask me, Bob is a bit of a loose cannon”. This is someone who is potentially dangerous or could cause problems. You can almost visualize this, aboard a sea in stormy conditions a cannon breaks free. Smashing against the sides of the ship, into the mast and crew. This is indeed a dangerous thing.

Know the ropes: “ John here is going to show you the ropes”. This is sometimes changed to 'learn the ropes' and it means becoming familiar with how to do a particular thing, for example a job. This actually has nothing to do with ropes in the workplace and is just an expression to learn the correct way of doing things.

This is indeed necessary on a ship, knowing which rope does what and a whole myriad of knots to learn.

Tide over: For example, “Here is a bit of money to tide you over until pay day.”. This actually comes from when there was no wind and the ship had to go with the tide, or to make do with the tide until the winds came.

Sailing Phrases

Taken aback: “I was taken aback at the news that you are leaving.”. This now means to be surprised by something. It was originally used to indicate that the wind had changed and instead of it filling the sails, it was blowing them against the mast.

Taking the wind out of someone's sails: “Ellen stop bragging about your free case of wine from the boss, we all received them. That took the wind out of your sails didn't it?" This means putting someone in their place who is boasting. Literally this means in a race of sail boats, one boat positions itself to steal the wind from the others sail thus slowing them down.

Full to the gunwales: “ We can't get another suitcase in the trunk, we're full to the gunwales” This means it is filled to the brim. This went back to the times when ships would be packed up to the 'gun walls'. Although the word is written gunwales, it is pronounced gunnels.


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