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

Show your true colors - Color(s) has numerous meanings. An early use of the word is flag, pennant, or badge. Early warships often carried flags from many nations on board in order to elude or deceive the enemy. The rules of civilized warfare called for all ships to hoist their true national ensigns before firing a shot. Someone who finally "shows his true colors" is acting like a warship which hails another ship flying one flag, but then hoisted their own when they got in firing range.

Square meal - British war ships in the 1700s including the HMS Victory did not have the best of living conditions. A sailors breakfast and lunch were sparse meals consisting of little more than bread and a beverage. But the third meal of the day included meat and was served on a square tray. Eating a substantial meal onboard a ship required a tray to carry it all. Hence a "square meal" was the most substantial meal served.

Son of a gun - Early warships had very cramped quarters. Sailors slept between the cannons because that was the only space available. They sometimes had female company on board. Some ships actually carried prostitutes. Other times a sailor's wife would be allowed on board so that he would not have to leave the ship, and potentially desert. In any case, many children were conceived between the cannons, or guns. Woman who gave birth on the ships typically also did so between the guns. The male children were thus called "son of a gun".

Show a leg - The traditional call of the boatswains mate on a British warship when the hands were called to turn out in the morning. It arose from the old days when seaman, who were signed on for the duration of a ships commission, were always refused shore leave when in harbor for fear that thy would desert. Instead of shore leave, women, ostensibly wives were allowed to live on board while the ship remained in harbor, and of course joined the men in their hammock's at night. When hands were called in the morning the women were allowed to lie in, and the boatswain's mate, when he saw a hammock still occupied would check the sex of the occupant by requiring him/her to show a leg over the side of the hammock. If it was hairy, it was probably male, if hairless, probably female. The call remained in use for many years after the scandal of woman living on board was finally abolished in the British navy around 1840.

Scuttlebutt - The origin of the word "scuttlebutt," which is nautical parlance for a rumor, comes from a combination of "scuttle" to make a hole in the ship's hull and thereby causing her to sink - and "butt" a cask or hogshead used in the days of wooden ships to hold drinking water. The cask from which the ship's crew took their drinking water like a water fountain was the "scuttlebutt". Even in today's Navy a drinking fountain is referred to as such. But, since the crew used to congregate around the "scuttlebutt", that is where the rumors about the ship or voyage would begin. Thus, then and now, rumors are talk from the "scuttlebutt" or just "scuttlebutt".

S.O.S. - Contrary to popular notion, the letters S.O.S. do not stand for "Save Our Ship" or "Save Our Souls". They were selected to indicate a distress because, in Morse code, these letters and their combination create an unmistakable sound pattern

Splice the Main Brace - A sailing ship's rigging was a favorite target during sea battles since by destroying the opponent's ability to maneuver or get away would put you at obvious advantage. Therefore, the first thing tended to after a battle was to repair broken gear, and repair sheets (lines - not "ropes" - that adjust the angle at which a sail is set in relation to the wind ) and braces (lines passing through blocks and holding up sails). Although no specifics remain, it appears that the main brace was the principal fore-and-aft support of the ship's masts. Splicing this line was the most difficult chores aboard ship, and one on which the ship's safety depended. It was the custom, after the main brace was properly spliced, to serve grog to the entire crew. Thus, today, after a hard day (or, not so hard day), the phrase has become an invitation to have a drink.

Starboard - The Vikings called the side of their ship its board, and they placed the steering oar, the "star" on the right side of the ship, thus that side became known as the "star board." It's been that way ever since. And, because the oar was in the right side, the ship was tied to the dock at the left side. This was known as the loading side or "larboard". Later, it was decided that "larboard" and "starboard" were too similar, especially when trying to be heard over the roar of a heavy sea, so the phrase became the "side at which you tied up to in port" or the "port" side

Skipper - From Dutch schipper, meaning captain

Slush Fund - A slushy slurry of fat was obtained by boiling or scraping the empty salted meat storage barrels. This stuff was often sold ashore by the ship's cook for the benefit of himself or the crew. The money so derived became known as a slush fund.

Start Over with a Clean Slate - A slate tablet was kept near the helm on which the watch keeper would record the speeds, distances, headings and tacks during the watch. If there were no problems during the watch, the slate would be wiped clean so that the new watch could start over with a clean slate.

Schooner - Old Scottish, or Gaelic in origin. 'Scone' meant 'to skip', such as when a flat stone is skipped across the water. Used to describe small, fast vessels with broad, fin-like sails that stretched fore and aft when rigged, instead of the more traditional ones that went from side-to-side of a ship. It is reported that it began when Captain Andrew Robinson built the first vessel of this type in Glocester, Massachusetts in 1713. At the time of her launching and first 'sea-trial' in the harbor, a Scottish by-stander exclaimed, "Oh, how she 'Scoons'!". Captain Robinson took up the remark and applied it to all later vessels of this type. The spelling is also reported to be based on how the word, 'school' is spelled, which has the same pronunciation.

Shanghaied - Shanghai was the major seaport in China during the Clipper ship days, and had the worst reputation. It was also a very long journey lasting many weeks and months at sea. Unpopular with sailors, China-bound captains often had to trick or even outright kidnap men aboard ship to make the voyage. Thus the term was used to describe anyone making a voyage or performing a task against his will.

Shiver Me Timbers - Timbers were the largest, and therefore the main support beams for the decks and ribs of a ship. Only violent movements, such as heavy seas or a collision, could cause them to shake. This term came to be used for any deed or action that was deeply surprising or threatening to a sailor.

Skylarking - 1) Originally, skylarking described the antics of young Navy men who climbed and slid down the backstays for fun. Since the ancient word "lac" means "to play" and the games started high in the masts, the term was skylacing." Later, corruption of the word changed it to "skylarking." Skylarking is a familiar term to most Sailors and a popular pastime for others. Today, it is generally looked upon with disfavor both onboard ship and ashore. 2) "Larking" meant to fool around and play. High-spirited sailors often did this while aloft among the sails and out of the immediate reach of their officers.

Spin a Yarn - Early ropes and lines were made from yarn, which was spun by hand and later spliced or woven into larger sizes or used to repair existing ones. Leisurely, relaxing work, it required only the use of the hands, and sailors could sit around and tell stories or gossip as they did so ("Ropeyarn Sunday" comes from this, also). Tales, jokes, and anecdotes became known as "yarns" because of their origins from this activity.

Stranded - 'Strand' is used to describe the long, narrow strip of beach that divides the sea from the land, and often is used to describe a long peninsula. Unlucky sailors left on the beach by shipwrecks or by dishonest captains who did not want to pay their wages when the voyage was over were thus 'stranded'

Skyscraper - triangular sail set above the skysail to maximize the advantage of a light favorable wind. A triangular moonsail. [Dean King, et. al., A Sea of Words, p. 338] On the clipper ships and perhaps in Jack's time, they had sails which would go above the royals. I cannot quite remember the order, but it went some thing like skyscrapers, moonrakers, angel's foot stools and finally star gazers which were only set in dead calms and as I read in one book, the crew were not even allowed to sneeze. ... the skyscrapers would come from this, being the highest 'used' sail on a ship. The others were mostly for show as they could not bear out a strong wind without being carried over the side. [Anthony Vogl (]

Sonar - Sound Navigation Ranging. An acronym for underwater echo-ranging equipment, originally for detecting submarines by small warships.

Ship shape and Bristol fashion - The port of Bristol was once famous for importing chocolate, sherry, tobacco and... slaves. Slave ships smelled and could bring disease. They were not allowed in port until they were cleaned and made tidy. Tides, by the way, are predictable and ordered. Before entering Bristol, slave ships were rigorously inspected so as to be all "ship shape and Bristol fashion." Alternate: This expression may well have had its origin in the 18th century when Bristol was the second most important commercial port in the United Kingdom. In those days (Bristol's docks were not constructed till 1804), the high range of tides experienced at Bristol necessitated ships berthed alongside there being left high and dry at the fall of the tide and so ships regularly trading to Bristol had to be of specially stout construction.

Sling your hook - A troublesome shipmate might be advised to "sling your hook" or in other words sling your hammock elsewhere. Today we mean (in England anyway) get lost.

Snub - To stop the running out of a line by taking a turn around a cleat, piling, etc.; to suddenly stop or secure a line. A ship with too much way can be snubbed by letting an anchor go. To snub someone? Well the meanings a little different: To cut them off sharp; to deliberately ignore them.

Sound off; Sounding out - See "Swinging the lead." when sailors would perform the activity of "sounding out" the depths in shallow or unknown waters, they would "sound off," or shout out the number fathoms. It's more likely to be used in the sense today of strongly letting your views be known.

Swinging the lead - A lead weight attached to a rope with knots tied in it corresponding to fathoms was used to "sound" depths in shallow or unfamiliar waters by swinging it ahead of the vessel and letting it sink to the bottom. The depth in fathoms was then counted off depending on how many knots were below the surface. The sailor was required to give a continuous stream of information on the changing depths. If he got tired of this or was merely a lazy type of person, he would sometimes respond with made-up depths in between real soundings. The practice of giving false information came to be known as "swinging the lead." Nowadays it tends to be used more in the sense of wasting time or deliberately doing useless tasks in order to appear busy.

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