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.

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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 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 1800s, Bristol was a port of great significance.  Its 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, unofficially!  Crew would eat, sleep and socialise (if they had the time) on the gun decks, and this inevitably led 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 spelt luff), which refers to the windward side of a ship.  If there was a hazard on the windward side a sailor would shout “aloof”.  This would mean to turn away from the hazard and into the wind.

Credit Image: Royal Museum Greenwich

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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


Nautical Terms

port royal

We use numerous well-known terms and phrases in everyday conversation but did you know just how many actually originate from nautical terms?

Well here’s a small selection of words and phrases originating from nautical terms – for your interest and amusement!  Maybe some should be taken with more than a pinch of salt!

Turn a Blind Eye

So let’s start with one of those well- known phrases, to turn a blind eye,  meaning to ignore intentionally.  In 1801, during the Battle of Copenhagen, Admiral Nelson deliberately held his telescope to his blind eye, in order not to see the flag signal from the commander to stop the bombardment.  And he won!

Feeling Blue

If you’re sad and describe yourself as “feeling blue,” you’re using one of the nautical terms coined from a custom among many old deepwater sailing ships.  If the ship lost the captain or any of the officers during its voyage, she would fly blue flags and have a blue band painted along her entire hull when returning to homeport.


The term hunky-dory meaning everything is OK was coined from a street named “Honcho-Dori” in Yokohama, Japan.   Since the inhabitants of this street allegedly catered to the pleasures of sailors, it is said the street’s name became synonymous for anything that is enjoyable – or at least satisfactory!

nautical terms

Long Shot

Today it’s a term used for an event that would take an inordinate amount of luck to actually happen, although the origins are deemed to be from nautical terms.   In the early days, ships guns were inaccurate except at very close quarters.  So it was extremely lucky for any shot to find its target from any great distance – hence the term – it’s a long shot.

I’m Pooped

My favourite of the nautical terms, to say that you’re pooped basically means that you’re completely washed out, and it comes from a seafaring origin.  While in very rough seas if a sailing ship was drenched by waves that reached the poop deck, the highest deck of the ship, it was said to have been pooped – term sailors used for the ship being completely washed out.

Bite the bullet

To bravely face up to something unpleasant, and bite the bullet, is one of the nautical terms that is associated with soldiers, as well as sailors.  This originated from the practice of giving sailors and soldiers a bullet to bite during amputations or other surgery before the use of anaesthetics.

Showing your true colours

This expression, meaning to reveal your real intentions, originates from an old warship custom.  The warships would carry an assortment of coloured flags on board from many different countries and would fly them in various situations to deceive a potential enemy.

In nautical terms to show your true colours would be to fly the ship’s correct flag – revealing it’s true identity and colours.  A phrase used pretty much universally today.

No room to swing a cat 

This commonly used expression, indicating an extremely cramped or congested place,  is one of the nautical terms originating from the 17th century – and the cat wasn’t of the feline variety!

The cat was a whip with nine lengths of cord, with each cord having nine knots tied into it – the full name for the whip being cat o’ nine tails.  This instrument of torture was used to punish crew members for wrongdoing and all hands would be called to the deck to witness the flogging.  With a full crew up on deck to watch, it became so crowded that the cat o’ nine tails was difficult to use without hitting other crew members, in other words, “no room to swing a cat”.

The Sun is over the Yardarm

The last of our traditional nautical terms indicates that it is time for a morning drink. It was generally assumed in northern latitudes the sun would show above the foreyard of a ship by 11.00 am.  This was, by custom and rule, the time of the first rum issue of the day for the officers and men – the officers drinking neat rum, and the men’s diluted.

Eventually, the phrase was adopted universally as a suitable time to partake in an alcoholic beverage – whatever the time of day!

nautical terms

Related Articles: Nautical Slang