Traditional Nautical Terms &
Traditional Nautical Terms &
Traditional Nautical Terms & Sayings
Douglass B. Nelson
The English language is well-known for its tendency to borrow words and phrases from other languages and adopt them for its own. Quite a few of these come from the sea-faring portion of our history, and have distinctly nautical overtones which are still recognized. Many nautical phrases and terms have their origins from the days of sailing ships. Since both Great Britain and the United States have shared a long maritime heritage as well as a common language, it is only natural that many of these have survived to the present day. Germany, Holland and France, for example, are other European nations with a long sea faring tradition of their own, and they have also contributed a few. Indeed, some of these terms are still in use in everyday conversation, although the speakers themselves may not know just where and when they came from. Here's a few of them:
Traditional Nautical Terms
We hope that you have enjoyed this short work, and that it may have given you a greater appreciation of our language's sea heritage, as well as it's continued growth and flexibility. Most of the terms in this list came from The Bluejacket's Manual (1981) , a Time-Life Book: The Mariners, and another Time-Life book: Nelson's Navy. We also used several nautical novels, such as Mr. Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, Melville's Moby Dick, The Alexander Kent Novels, C. Northecotte Parkinson's sea novels, and C.S. Forrester's Hornblower Series. Indeed, many sea terms have even found acceptance in areas well away from the ocean. Army tanks, for example have 'turrets', 'hulls', and 'decks'. Some claim that Winston Churchill is responsible for this. He sponsored and pioneered its development during the First World War, while First Sea Lord of the Admiralty (Which is like our Secretary of the Navy), and so gave these terms to the armored vehicle.
At any rate, the English language still continues to grow, and this chapter may well be obsolete even as you are reading it now.
-Fair Winds and Following Seas!
180. Worth His Salt In the days of the Roman Empire, soldiers were paid with bags of salt, or their 'salarium'(The term, 'salary' is derived from this) which they in turn would exchange with locals for goods and services. Thus any man who did his job well was worth what was paid to him.
181. Yankee - Reported to be Dutch in origin. Fishing boats from Holland often fished off of the coast of what is now New England. Indeed, many of the early settlers in New England and New York were Dutch, and so many of them had the common sur-name of 'Jan', the plural form of which was 'Janke'. Due to the peculiarities of Dutch pronunciation, 'J' is commonly sounded as 'Y' to English speakers. It has since become broadly applied to any New Englander, and eventually, to any North American.
182. Question: Why do Beer Mugs have Glass Bottoms? - There are two answers to this odd feature. The first is quite mundane and rather simple: It allows the bartender to see that you are approaching ‘empty’ as you take a swig, and therefore can offer you a refill (Some wags state that it also prevents 'drinking' from an empty mug and taking the space a productive customer would sit in). The second is more interesting, and has to do with the infamous ‘press gangs’ of King George III. It was the law that if a man ‘Accepted the King’s Shilling’ as a first day’s wage, then he was legally obligated to serve the king as a soldier or sailor. Unscrupulous press gangs would buy a potential victim a tankard of beer or ale, and then drop a shilling in the mug when he wasn’t looking. Swallowing, choking, or just finding the shilling was enough for the press gang. Thus, mugs began to have glass bottoms to give the customer a sporting chance to see that his drink was not tampered with.
1. Ahoy - This was once the dreaded war-cry of the Vikings.
2. Aloft The old High German word for 'air' was 'luft', which was combined with the French term 'a', meaning 'go to'. thus 'a luft' became 'aloft' in old English. It means 'to go into the air', or 'climb the mast'.
3. Aloof - This has the same origins as 'aloft', which was the old German word for 'air' being 'luft'. However, instead of going 'up' into the air, this variation described the act of going towards where the 'air', or 'wind' came from. In this context, it became 'a luff', which meant, 'go towards the wind', or 'windward'. This became 'upwind', and was used to describe a ship that remained out of action, but could come in at any time by merely turning enough to catch the wind and run straight in. This term was naturally used to describe a person who remained away from others, or was snobbish in behavior.
4. An Old Fogey "FOGY" is an old term for a longevity pay increase. Believed derived from the paymaster's log entry: 'For On Going Years', or the initials: F.O.G.Y. It has become an insulting term for anyone with old fashioned notions or beliefs.
5. Avast Contraction of two French words, 'Haud Vast', meaning to 'hold fast'. In other words, hang on and stop what you're doing.
6. Aye Aye The present meaning of the expression "AYE, AYE" which originally was "Yes, Yes" is from Old English, which was "I understand, and I will do it." It is based on the Latin word, 'Aio', meaning 'yes'.
7. Back - The wind backs when it changes counter-clockwise, but veers when it changes clockwise. Square sails are backed or 'aback' when the wind blows on their forward side, thrusting them against the mast. Should this occur through a shift of the wind, the effect of a heavy sea, or a careless helmsman, a ship is said to be "taken aback." This term is now applied to people taken by surprise in a conversation.
8. Batten - A thin iron bar which is used to secure the tarpaulin cover over a cargo hatch or passageway. "Batten down the hatches" usually means prepare for a storm or trouble.
9. Before the Mast - Signing on a ship's crew as an ordinary seaman on a merchant vessel, or sometimes as an enlisted sailor on a naval ship. It refers to the fact that the ship rapidly narrows towards the bow after the foremost mast, where it is impractical to stow cargo. Quite naturally, especially aboard merchantmen, it is where the regular crew have their sleeping quarters. Officers and passengers had theirs aft. Popularized by Richard Dana's novel, "Two Years Before the Mast"
10. Between the Devil and The Deep Blue Sea - Falling Overboard, and in great danger. The "Devil" is the longest strake, or seam of the ship's bottom. A luckless sailor who fell overboard and submerged in this fashion had little choice or chance, since he was at the very bottom of the ship.
177. Turning the Screws on Him An ancient medieval form of torture was the thumbscrew. A small, cylindrical device made of iron and tightened with a hand turned screw. When fitted over the victim's thumb, it could be easily tightened enough to break the bones, thus causing excruciating pain. This term is now applied to any individual who is having pressure brought against him to coerce or punish him.
178. Turning the Tables Colonial American in origin. Family kitchen tables served dual purposes as both a working surface for kneading dough, stretching leather, cleaning game and fish, etc., as well as a formal place for dining. Thus tables had two sides and were often constructed in such a way as to be easily turned over and laid upon its supports. When a formal meal was finished, turning the smoothed surface of the dining table over to expose its rougher 'working' surface provided guests with the hint that the host family was about to return to work, and that the visit was over. It also provided a not so subtle hint that a visitor was unwelcome if the rough surface was turned up and his meal was served upon it.
179. Windfall In the days of King George III, a common decree was that any tree greater than 24" in diameter 'belonged to the king'. In other words, reserved exclusively for building materials for ships of the Royal Navy. It was forbidden to cut them down by commoners. However, if a big tree was felled by natural causes, such as a windstorm, then it was free and available for use by anyone. Thus a 'windfall' became applied to any unexpected stroke of fortune.
172. Strack - Well-trained, experienced, and sharply dressed troops, both in appearance and behavior. US Army in origin, believed to be derived from the initials of a very favorable unit evaluation report: Skilled, Tested, and Ready Around the Clock (S.T.R.A.C.).
173. The Whole Nine Yards A saying from World War I. The standard length of a machine gun belt that was carried by fighter planes was approximately nine yards.
174. Tickled to Death - Oddly enough, this has Chinese Origins. A method of torture and execution in ancient China was to tickle the bare feet of a strapped-down prisoner with a goose feather. This would cause the victim to literally laugh himself to death through exhaustion
175. Three on a Match World War I in origin. A superstition of bad luck if three smokers used the same match. It comes from the days of trench warfare at night when snipers were active. The first man who lit the match would be spotted by the sniper. The second man whom the match was passed to light up his smoke with gave the sniper an initial aiming point. The third man who took the match was the sniper's victim, since he now had time to take careful aim and squeeze the trigger.
176. Tip In the early days and of inns and taverns, patrons could be served faster if they paid a little more than the going price for a meal by simply bribing the waiter to serve them first. To encourage this practice, waiters would leave small coin boxes on the table with the label, 'To Insure Promptness' written on them, or the initials, 'TIP'.
11. Bilge Old English in origin. A variation of 'bulge'. Where the ship 'bulged' most was at its bottom. There, sea water seeping in through the bottom planks became stagnant and foul, which was mixed by dripping water and 'slops' from the upper decks. Pumping out the bilges was a smelly, very disagreeable chore. The term became used to describe anything unpleasant or unbelievable.
12. Binnacle List The binnacle list gets its name from the old nautical practice of placing the sick list on the binnacle (This was a covered stand on the ship's deck which contained the ship's compass and a lamp to enable the officer of the deck to check his course at night and in foul weather) each morning, so that it would be readily available for the captain. The modern binnacle list contains the names of crewmen suffering from minor complaints which would preclude employment on strenuous duty. Today, the Sick List is for hospitalized personnel.
13. Bitter End From the old Norse word "bitt" or beam. A pair of posts fixed on the deck of a ship for securing lines. "Bitter" became a term for a single turn of a cable around the bitts, which was usually the very end of the rope. It became applied to a situation when a person was at the last extremity or very end of his resources. A parallel definition comes from the end of a rope that sometimes hangs over the side of a ship and is closest to the ocean. It's very end is "salty" or "bitter" since it often trails in the water.
14. Bo'sun Variation of 'Boatswain'. Medieval English in origin. 'Boot' (boat) + 'Swain' (Boy, or Servant). A petty officer on a merchant ship having charge of hull maintenance and related work.
15. Boot Camp - A training area for new recruits just entering the Navy. This is said to have come from the days just after the Civil War. At the time, experienced, or "true" sailors, did much of their work barefoot, especially when scrubbing the decks. New recruits from the Midwest did not like doing it in this fashion, and so would go ashore as soon as possible to buy a pair of rubber boots to protect their feet.
16. Breech Middle English from 'broc' or leg covering. The plural form was 'breeches' or pants, usually referring to the critical area of the body where the pants covered. It was soon used when referring to the bottom half of any object, such as a cask, beam, gun, or man.
17. Brass Monkey The old days of fighting sail employed boys as 'powder monkeys' to bring up cannon balls and bags of gunpowder from the ship's magazines during a battle. Next to the gun, close towards its muzzle end, rested a device known as a 'brass monkey', which consisted of 3 bowls made of brass and brazed or welded together. Its purpose was to hold 3 cannon balls available for instant use as a reload during a battle, or what we would now call ready ammunition. (Note: There is an old saying, "Cold enough to freeze the balls off of a brass monkey." which sounds obscene, but actually has a rather mundane origin. Since brass contracts under cold temperatures, an extremely cold night would cause the brass bowls to shrink enough to actually pop out any iron cannon balls they contained. Sailors who found these cannon balls rolling about the deck now knew just how cold things could get).
169. Rigmarole From the days of King Edward III of England. He conquered much of Scotland and forced the Scottish nobles to swear obedience, fealty and allegiance to him, personally. They signed their names on individual sheets of parchment that were delivered to each one of them, which were then taken back to London. Once there, they were all sewn together to form a scroll, or 'roll' ('Calling the roll', or 'Roll call' derives from this). Derided with scorn by rebellious Scotsmen, it was referred to as, "a roll of rags", and the traitorous or weak men who signed it were known as "ragmen". Then it was referred to as the "Ragmen's Roll", and gradually became the "Rig-ma-role", and now refers to any type of coercive, unpopular, and intrusive government activity.
170. Shavetail U.S. Army in origin. The practice of shaving the tails of newly broken in mules to distinguish them from the older, more experienced ones in a mule team, so they could be hitched together. By the time the hair grew back on its tail, the mule would be considered to be fully experienced and ready. The term has since been applied in an insulting manner to newly commissioned officers. Often distinguished by the newly shaved appearance of the backs of their necks after receiving their first military hair cut.
171. Sleep Tight Colonial American in origin. Beds were simple frames constructed of wood and with the mattresses supported by a network of ropes. Since all ropes will slacken, it was necessary to tighten them up to give support and not allow the mattress to sag uncomfortably. A simple courtesy that was performed for a visiting guest. Thus the phrase, 'sleep tight' was a wish that the visitor would sleep comfortably.
167. Hoist with his own petard 'Petard' is the name given to an explosive device used during siege warfare. It consisted of a large container of gunpowder that was hoisted up to the middle of a city's gates and detonated with a fuse to blow them open. Since it was large and heavy, it required a hoisting frame and a small group of men heaving on ropes to raise it up its desired height. It was naturally an extremely dangerous assignment, and so it was common for some of the members to flee before the charge was secured, thus causing a luckless companion to get tangled in the ropes and hauled up alongside the heavy explosive while it descended and/or exploded. Thus the term came to be applied to anyone who was caught in a trap or situation of his own devising.
168. Jerkwater This term comes from the early days of the rail road. Water towers with pull down spouts were built along the railroad's route where a steam engine could stop and replenish the water supply for its boiler. Small settlements often grew round such a convience, since a train was sure to stop there. Often the reverse was the case. Sometimes a small settlement would build a tower to induce a train to stop there and therefore generate a little business. At any rate, the term soon became applied to any small, out of the way settlement or town. Note: This also gave rise to "whistle stop" with the same meaning, since the train announced its arrival by blowing its whistle to alert those out of sight but still within earshot.
18. Bridge As ships passed to steam and orders could be given by remote methods such as the engine order telegraph, a small control deck with an enclosed pilot house was constructed above the main deck of the ship in front of the funnel, usually reaching from side to side and thus 'bridging' the main deck. It became the term used to describe the place where the Captain steered the ship from and gave his orders.
19. Brig One of the smaller but more versatile warships of the sailing era was the two masted 'brigantine' (French word for 'Bandit'), or 'brig' as it was abbreviated by the Royal Navy. Small, fast, and well-armed for its size, it served as a scout for the bigger ships, patrol vessel, convoy escort, and errand boy for the fleet. In the last case, it would often be used to run mail, fresh provisions, spare parts, and personnel back and forth to England. Admiral Nelson found them very handy to transport prisoners of war. So many were his victories and so great was his success that for a period of time nearly every brig arriving in England had prisoners aboard, and so many were modified as sea going jails for this express purpose. With every ship having at least one or two troublesome crewmen as well as an occasional prisoner of war, it was customary to put him in the ships own "brig" for a spell.
20. Broach Middle English 'brocus', or 'projecting'. Originally used to describe the piercing of a cask to open it. The term was eventually used to describe the opening of a new subject in conversation. It was also used to describe when a ship is turned sideways to a wave, allowing it to break over for the length of the hull. This usually means the ship is in extremis and is probably sinking or about to break up. The possible origins of this particular term is from the action of the masts thrusting through the on coming waves while the ship is full over on its side.
21. Bulkhead Upright partition dividing the interior of a ship into compartments.
22. Bum Boat Small boats were often used to bring out provisions and commodities while the ship was off shore or anchored in a busy port. These were hoisted aboard and lowered by "booms" (Old High German: 'buom' for 'tree'), which were the long spars used to extend the foot of the sail. This term became applied to any small boat that visited a ship while in port, since they often carried small goods to sell to the crewmen.
23. Bunk Built in small compartment or trough for feeding animals. Now referred to a built in bed.
24. Bunkers Bins or compartments built within the ship for storage, especially fuel for the ship's engines or stoves.
25. Bunkering Bunkers were often filled with coal for the fueling of steamships. Thus the term was used to describe the action of taking on fuel.
164. Goldbrick (Or, Goldbricking) - Military slang for avoiding work or duty. Some sources say this originates from the Civil War, when a conscript could buy his way out of military service. Others state that it simply refers to passing off anything worthless as valuable by gilding it. In other words, covering an ordinary brick with a layer of gold and selling it as a solid gold bar.
165. Gung-Ho - Someone enthusiastic about a job, mission, or effort. Usually applied to US Marines and often among themselves as both an insult and a compliment. It is a Chinese phrase meaning, "work together", or "all together", such as when pulling a heavy weight. This was adopted by US Marines stationed in China just before WW II, and then later formalized as the official slogan for Marine Colonel Carlson's Second Marine Raider Battalion.
166. Gunny - Respected nick-name and standard address for senior US Marine Sergeants ("Gunnery Sergeant"). It is from the early days of the American Navy. Up until World War II, many warships utilized the contingent of marines on board to man their cannons to augment the regular crew. Thus, a senior enlisted Marine non-com, already skilled with the use of small arms and fighting on both land and at sea, became knowledgeable about sea and land-based artillery as well. He was usually adept at dispensing justice to soldiers and sailors alike, and understood the duties and tasks of both. Even today, with the deep and abiding rivalry that often runs between sailors and marines, and the social gap between officer and enlisted as well, they all pay close heed to what the 'gunny' has to say.
161. Auction Auctions are one of the oldest forms of selling goods known to man. One person displays or holds up goods for sale, and onlookers can bid the prices they are willing to pay for it, with the sale going to the highest bidder. However, during Roman times, it was customary for Roman soldiers to sell their plunder in any town or city by simply sticking a spear in the ground as a sign and arranging the items for sale around it. This was called "Auctio Sub Hasta", or, "Under the Spear". Meaning the items were for sale to whoever was around who offered the highest price.
162. Can't Hold a Candle - In Medieval and Colonial times, the job of the Apprentice was to hold a candle over the Master's hands while he worked, if it was dark or late in the evening. The Apprentice was to observe closely to move the candle as required and to watch and learn how the master worked. This term soon came to be applied to an apprentice so lazy or incompetent that he couldn't even be trusted with this simple task.
163. Check Your Six (Or, "Check Six") - A warning to look behind you, proceed carefully, or maybe change your direction or what you're doing. It comes from military airmen who developed the clock system for telling directions relative to the plane, with "Twelve O'clock" being directly in front of the nose. In air combat, many attacks are made from the astern, or "six o'clock" position., since it is usually the pilot's blind spot, and therefore most vulnerable.
26. Buy The Farm - Killed in action or by accident while on duty. From World War I onwards, American servicemen were offered a government insurance policy, which was often large enough to pay off the family farm.
27. By and Large - A term derived from two sailing terms combined: "By the wind" (Close-hauled), and "Sailing Large" (Running Free). The term, 'at large' , also comes from this usage.
28. Captain Latin in origin. "Caput" meaning "head" or "leader". The commanding officer of a military unit. It now refers to the commanding officer of a ship, regardless of his actual rank. As a courtesy, even the Lieutenant commanding a patrol boat is addressed as 'Captain'.
29. Captain's Gig A gig was originally a long, light ship's boat propelled by oars and designed for speed rather than work. Thus it would not likely to be used for hauling ship's stores, transferring cargo, and the like, and would thus be more available for simply transporting people. The captain's gig is such a craft reserved exclusively for his use.
30. Cathead - Projections on the bow of a ship for rigging the tackles to raise or lower the anchor. Indeed, the term, "to cat and fish' was used as early as 1626. A cat's face was often carved on the end of these beams for good luck; hence the term, 'cathead'.
31. Caulk Off, or To Take A Caulk - To take a nap, -especially during working hours. Old-time sailors would sometimes sneak a nap on the wooden decks, and their backs were often marked by the pitch, or caulking, of the seams that softened in the sunlight.
32. Charley Noble This term is applied to the galley stove pipe. While its actual origin is obscure, it is believed to have derived from a British Merchant captain by the name of Charles Noble. He always demanded a high polish on the copper galley funnel of his ship, and thus became well known in the ports he visited.
33. Chart - From the Latin word 'charta', or the Greek, 'charte', which was a kind of papyrus. In middle English, the chart or maps were known as 'sea cards'.
34. Chit Hindu in origin. "Chittee", meaning a small, hand written note used as a voucher for food or a small debt. It is now used as a personal request form.
35. Close Quarters - Sometimes also referred to as 'closed quarters' as well. The quarters aboard ship, especially those for officers and passengers, had wooden partitions or bulkheads dividing them. Also, many ships had pre-assembled partitions which could further sub-divide the interior, according to the cargo or passenger requirements. In case of enemy action, these could be quickly assembled, pierced by loopholes, and then be used by firearms, pikes and cutlasses to fight through. The defenders would thus be well-protected and dangerous opponents to anyone who went below decks. It was a very effective means of fighting off boarders
36. Clipper - Comes from the old English word 'clip', meaning to run, or fly swiftly.