Nautical Phrases in Everyday Use

nautical phrases

Nautical Phrases in Everyday Use

There are an inordinate amount of phrases in everyday life that have derived from a nautical origin.  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.


Related Articles: Nautical Slang in Everyday Use; Nautical Sayings and their Origins; Nautical Terms founded in 2004 is a global on-line dating, friendship & crewing site for passionate sailing enthusiasts and lovers of all things nautical.


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

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 postion of disadvantage.  It was very important to keep discipline aboard a ship, so punishment was regularly shared out.  A common method of punishment was the 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.  On board 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 opponents 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 phrases 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 worn 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 were removed from the sleeves.


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

nautical sayings