Nautical Sayings and their Origins

The Origins of some Nautical Sayings and Phrases

So many of our everyday phrases and sayings have originated from the sailing world.  Here are some nautical sayings for your interest.


Over a Barrel – This term is used when you are in a position of disadvantage.  It was very important to keep discipline aboard a ship, so punishment was regularly shared out.  A common method of punishment was flogging (whipping). The sailor was tied to either a grating, mast or over a barrel and flogged.


Pipe Down – To pipe down means to be quiet or stop talking.  Onboard a ship the Bosun had a pipe (whistle) which he used to pass commands to the crew. The pipe was used when there was too much noise to hear a voice due to crew noise or bad weather.  The high pitch of the whistle would carry further.  The last pipe of the day would be the Pipe Down which was the order for lights out and silence.  Of all the nautical sayings I use this a lot to quieten my teenage children!


Cut of your Jib – When someone compliments you on the cut of your jib, they like your appearance.  A jib is a triangular sail.  Ships would hoist one or more jibs and each country would have a different style of jib.  Thus a sailor would be able to determine the nationality and so judge a ship buy its jib.


A Shot Across the Bows – My favourite of the nautical sayings, a shot across the bows means to give a literal or metaphorical warning.  The shot in question is a cannonball, referred to as cannon shot, and the bow is the front of a ship.  If ships were preparing for battle a shot would be fired across the bow of the opponent’s ship to warn them that battle was about to commence.  Sometimes this would be enough for the opponent and he would hoist a white flag of surrender.


The Bitter End – This phrase means to the very end.  This saying is said to derive from the bitter or bit which is a post on the deck of a ship to which ropes are fastened. When the rope is played out to the bitter end, it is at the very end and no more rope can be used.


Chance one’s Arm – This means to take a chance or risk.  Naval officers wore their rating insignia (badges which denoted their rank) on the arms of their uniform.  If they acted in a manner which resulted in demotion then the insignia was removed from the sleeves.


If you enjoyed our nautical sayings then why not read our related articles: Sailing Terms and Nautical Terms

nautical sayings


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