Nautical Slang in Everyday Use

nautical slang

Nautical slang we use in everyday speech

There are hundreds of expressions and words we use in everyday conversations that have nautical origins.  Here are just a few.  For more see our related posts: Nautical Sayings and their origins; Nautical Terms and Sailing Terms.

Under the Weather – This phrase was originally “under the weather bow” and refers to the side of a ship from which the severe weather is hitting it.  If a crew member was keeping a weather watch this was the least favourite side to keep watch.   If you were assigned this watch you were known to be under the weather and would finish the watch feeling cold, wet and possibly seasick.  This phrase now means a person who is feeling ill or sickly.

Squared Away – On an old square-rigged vessels, when the sails were squared away they were properly trimmed and optimised to the wind.   To square away means to complete all necessary arrangements for something or someone.

Loose Cannon – Cannons on the deck of a ship were tied down with rope to control recoil when firing and also hold in place when the ship was pitching and rolling.  Even a small 6 pounder cannon would weigh half a tonne, so if a cannon became loose it would roll around the deck causing severe damage unless it could be restrained.  A loose cannon is a person or thing that appears to be beyond control and is potentially a source of unintentional damage.

Ship-shape and Bristol fashion – This phrase is compiled from two phrases.  Shipshape was a term used to describe something as clean, neat and tidy.  Sailors were expected to keep their quarters tidy and neat.  The second phrase, Bristol fashioned referred to Bristol in England.  In the 1800’s, Bristol was a port of great significance.  It’s chandlery had a reputation as being one of the highest quality.  Bristol fashioned become synonymous for something that was of high quality.  Therefore, shipshape and Bristol fashion, means something that is neat and tidy and of good quality.

Son of a gun – In the days of sail and when in port, the ship’s crew could be confined to the ship for extended periods.  Wives, girlfriends and prostitutes were allowed on board to stay and keep crew company, unoffically!  Crew would eat, sleep and socialise (if they had the time) on the gun decks, and this inevitably lead to children being born on the ships between the guns.  If the newborn child’s father was unknown, they were entered in the ship’s log as “son of a gun”.

Aloof – This word is defined as something or someone that is at a distance, or placed away from a person or area.  It originates from the old middle English word loof (now spelled luff), which refers to the windward side of a ship.  If there was a hazard on the windward side a sailor would shout “a loof”.  This would mean to turn away from the hazard and into the wind.

Credit Image: Royal Museum Greenwich

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