sailing terms

Did you know how many phrases and words that we use in everyday English have their roots in nautical teminology? Here is a selection of them but if you know of any more, then email

Above board - Early trading ships would hide illegal cargo below the ship's deck. Legal cargo could be placed in plain view on deck, or above the boards of the deck.

Aloof - An old expression meaning 'Keep your luff', or sail as close to the wind as possible. Sometimes, in old books of voyages, written as 'ALUFFE'. The expression was most often used when a ship was sailing along a lee shore, the order to 'keep aloof' meaning to keep the ship's head nearer to the wind to prevent her being driven closer to the shore

Ahoy! - This old traditional greeting for hailing other vessels was originally a Viking battle cry

At Loggerheads - An iron ball attached to a long handle was a loggerhead. When heated it was used to seal the pitch in deck seams. It was sometimes a handy weapon for quarrelling crewmen.

Armed to the Teeth - This is a pirate phrase originating in Port Royal Jamaica in the 1600's. Having only single shot black powder weapons and cutlesses, they would carry many of these weapons at once to keep up the fight. In addition they carried a knife in their teeth for maximum arms capability.

Avast - Contraction of two French words, 'Haud Vast', meaning to 'hold fast'. In other words, hang on and stop what you're doing.

Aye Aye - Aye is old English for "yes." A bluejacket says, "Aye aye, sir," meaning, "I understand and I will obey." It is based on the Latin word, 'Aio', meaning 'yes'

As the Crow Flies - When lost or unsure of their position in coastal waters, ships would release a caged crow. The crow would fly straight towards the nearest land thus giving the vessel some sort of a navigational fix. The tallest lookout platform on a ship came to be know as the crow's nest.

A1 - An accepted synonym for first-class in everyday language. In naval terms, in Lloyd's Register, 'A1' is the mark of a wooden ship of the first class, 'A' referring to the quality of her hull and '1' to the quality of her equipment.

Adrift - Not moored, at the will of the wind and tide. From the middle English drifte (to float). Sailors used the word to describe anything missing or come undone. From this word came drifter, a person without purpose or aim in life.

All sewn up - If you died or were killed on board while at sea, you would be "all sewn up" in a bit of old sail canvass with a cannon ball at your feet to make sure you sank into the deep. As an added indignity, they would start sewing at the your feet and then at your head, the last stitch would be put through your nose to make sure you really were dead. I think today we would use this phrase in the sense of something completed or even just over.

Any port in a storm - When someone is in serious difficulties, they will go anywhere for help and safety. The origin is obvious.

An albatross around your neck - Seafarers long believed that when their captains died, their souls took the form of an albatross to wander the oceans forever. As a species, the albatross is a gliding phenomenon. In its larger versions, it can circumnavigate the globe, sometimes aloft for several days at a time, spending only about 10% of its time on land. If the captain in question was a nice sort of guy, great, but this was not usually the case. As a general rule, the image painted of Captain Bligh is closer to the truth than the idea of a benevolent dictator. Many sailors believed that their old captains came back to taunt them even after death, settling to rest by draping itself around the neck and shoulders of one hapless crewman or another. It is for this reason that it was always thought to be a harbinger of ill luck.

At loose ends - Waste and idleness were despised. Any broken ropes were pulled together and spliced to make ends meet and ropes that began to fray were repaired promptly. A man with free time on his hands was assigned the task and was said to be at loose ends.

A - B - C - D - E - F - G - H - I - J - K - L - M - N - O - P - Q - R - S - T - U - V - W - X - Y - Z




Home - Portfolio - Contact - Tools