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

Head - The "head" aboard a Navy ship is the bathroom. The term comes from the days of sailing ships when the place for the crew to relieve themselves was all the way forward on either side of the bowsprit, the integral part of the hull to which the figurehead was fastened.

Hunky-Dory - The term meaning everything is O.K. was coined from a street named "Honki-Dori" in Yokohama, Japan. Since the inhabitants of this street catered to the pleasures of sailors, it is easy to understand why the street's name became synonymous for anything that is enjoyable or at least satisfactory. And, the logical follow-on is "Okey-dokey."

Hoisted by One's Petard - The "petard" was a small cask of black powder used to prime cannon fuses. During battle a petard was stored alongside each gun. Occasionally, a careless crewman would set one off while lighting a fuse, thereby "hoisting" himself in the air. The expression was used by English sailors describing the inept French gunners.

Hammocks - 1) Swinging beds for Sailors were first used by Columbus, who discovered their practical use from natives in the West Indies. 2) From the old Bahamian word, 'hammack'. Columbus in 1498 noted how the natives of the Bahamas used woven cotton nets as beds, suspending them off the ground. The Spanish changed the word to 'hamaco'. Sailors of all navies quickly realized the convience and utility of using sails in a similar fashion, since they were easy to stow and freed up valuable working space by day.

Honcho - Japanese in origin. "Han" (squad) and 'cho" (head) which was combined to mean "squad leader". Loosely applied to mean "Boss" or "Big Shot". Adopted by the US Pacific Fleet after WW II and popularized during the Vietnam War.

Halcyon Days - In Greek mythology, Halcyone was daughter of Aeolus and wife of Ceyx. When her husband drowned, Halcyone threw herself into the sea. Out of pity the gods changed the pair into kingfishers or halcyons, and Zeus forbade the winds to blow seven days before and after the winter solstice, the breeding season of the halcyon. The expression "halcyon days" comes from this myth and figuratively means a time of peace and tranquility.

Hand over Fist - Climbing into the rigging of the old sailing ships was done hand over hand, and the more descriptive "hand over fist" portrays someone hauling in and rapidly ascending up the ropes, just as in the business world when someone has risen rapidly and is hauling in money. Alternate: Hand over hand was a British term for the act of moving quickly up a rope or hoisting a sail, which was a matter of pride and competition among sailors. It is thought that American sailors changed this term to 'hand over fist', and the term now means to advance or accumulate rapidly.

Hasn't got a clew; Get clewed up: - The clew refers to the corner of the sail where a brass ring (cringle) is sown into the fabric of the sail. If a clew should come loose and the vessel "hasn't got a clew." then its not going anywhere until it "gets clewed up" again. If someone today "hasn't got a clew" then we infer that they do not understand a problem or that they are brainless or similar. To "get clewed up" is to fully investigate or understand something or some problem.

Hard Up - Hard is another often used nautical term. To put the helm hard over is to put it as far as it will go in that direction. Hard and fast describes a vessel firmly aground and unable to make progress and has come ashore to mean rigid. 'Hard up in a clinch and no knife to cut the seizing', the term from which hard up derives, was a sailor's way of saying he had been overtaken by misfortune and saw no way of getting clear of it. Shore-side, the term means in need.

Hyjack - which we all know means to divert a plane, ship, or other public transportation from its intended course, comes from "Hi, Jack!" as the greeting of prostitutes to a lonely sailor on shore leave. Once sufficiently distracted by the greeting, the unwary victim usually was rendered unconscious by a sharp blow on the head by the "lady's" confederates and sold into service on a competing ship.

Hellís Bells - This is a shortened version of the sailorís expletive "Hellís Bells and Buckets of Blood", a delightfully colourful expression. However, I can find no additional historical etymology to indicate why sailors chose this as a swear term. The English language also has the saying "he swears like a sailor" so there are, no doubt, many other colourful expressions which I am overlooking!

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