Nautical Phrases in Everyday Use

nautical phrases

Nautical Phrases in Everyday Use

There are an inordinate amount of nautical phrases in everyday use.  Here are just a few:

Faffing About

One of my favourite expressions, often used whilst waiting for slow children (now in their 20’s but still slow!) to hurry up and leave the house.  This was a term used to describe the wind when it blew in flaws.  A flaw is an unexpected gust of wind.  It was said to faff about and thus faffing about is used to describe aimless behaviour.


Today this means an unexpected gain or advantage.  In the days of sail it was used to describe a wind that would suddenly rush down from a mountainous shore and give the sailor more wind in his sails to steer clear of the shore.  These winds were probably the katabatic winds we know of today.


A term used to describe a person of an upper class.  This was thought to have originated at the beginnings of the 1900’s on the early passenger liners that ran from England to India.  The passengers with a little more money (normally those in the upper classes) would pay to have a shady cabin (on the port side) on the outbound journey and then swap to the starboard side cabins on their inbound return.  Their tickets were supposedly stamped P.O.S.H. (port out, starboard home).  However, there is no supporting evidence that this was indeed the case so the origin remains uncertain.

Pull Your Finger Out

Another one I use frequently when children are being a bit slow in getting ready.  It means to hurry up and put a wiggle on.  On the warships of old before a battle started, it was important to make sure the powder stayed in the loaded cannons before firing.  An easy way to do this would be for a member of the crew to stick their finger in the ignition hole. Rather them than me.  So to pull their finger out meant they could get on with the business in hand.

Swing the Lead

Definition – To feign illness, or shirk work.  Before the advent of depth sounders the only way to check the depth of the waters you were sailing in was to plumb the depths.  A line with a lead weight on the end was lowered into the water.  Once the lead found the sea bed the line would slacken and the depth would be known.  This was a very easy job to have on board a ship so those “swinging the lead” were thought of as slackers because they did not carry out any of the harder duties on a ship.

No Great Shakes

This is a term used to describe something of little value or poor quality.  Wooden barrels were the main vessel used to store food and drink on board a ship.  Once a barrel had been emptied it would be broken down so as to take up less space.  The strips of wood from the barrel were known as shakes and thus had little importance.


This ubiquitous phrase, which is used in many countries and cultures around the world has an uncertain origin.  Firstly it was said to derive from the French “au quai” which meant a ship was in port (at the dock) and safe.  It may also have come from the French “aux cayes”.  Cayes was a Haitian harbour famous for it’s first rate rum.  Haiti, of course, better known as Hispaniola that favourite haunt of pirates and buccaneers.

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