116 Naval Sayings – The Ultimate List of Nautical Sayings & Sailing Terms

Language evolves over time. Forever changing, it will adopt words and phrases from other languages and even completely made up slang as a common turn of phrase. English has been around for a very long time, and so it has adapted and evolved from its historical beginnings to the language we use today.

Many phrases and sayings that we use every day in the 21st Century have a nautical origin from the seafaring days of old. You might be already using many of these in your everyday conversations and not know the true meaning behind them. That’s why we have put together the ultimate list of naval sayings and sailing phrases so you can learn the history behind them. So hoist the mainsail, me hearties and set a course for discovery.


Our Complete List of Naval Sayings & Phrases

A Shot Across The Bow: A warning shot, whether literal, symbolic or metaphorical.

History: This seafaring term refers to firing a cannon across an opposing ship’s bow to indicate readiness for battle. References to this phrase in print go as far back as 1939.

Above Board: Referring to anything in open and plain view.

History: On a naval vessel, items and equipment could either be stored on deck or below in the ship’s hold. An item stored or viewable from the deck was said to be kept above board.

All At Sea: A state of active confusion, disorder or disarray.

History: This phrase comes from the nature of sailing and was used to refer to any situation where the ship was now unable to be seen from land and could potentially never return.

Aloof: To be in a state of indifference.

History: Coming from the Old Dutch ‘loef’, meaning windward, this term was used when referring to a ship sailing higher to the wind and becoming separated from the rest of the fleet.

At Loggerheads: To be in a stake of adamant dispute or argument.

History: Originally used to seal the pitch or tar in deck seams,  a loggerhead was also used to subdue fights and other disturbances between sailors.

Another Day, Another Dollar: A turn of phrase used with resignation to refer to a repetitive and tedious activity, such as the working week.

History: This expression dates back to the early 19th century when American sailors were paid a dollar for a day’s work. It was used in a similar fashion to today, in that sailors worked long hours in tiring conditions for only an extra dollar to their name.

Any Port in a Storm: A commonly used proverb usually taken to mean that in a time of difficultY, any solution is acceptable, whether completely ideal or not.

History:  When at sea, vessels would occasionally become caught in galls or storms that could be potentially hazardous for both ship and crew. In cases such as these, the ship would make a berth in the nearest port, regardless of whether they had intended to stop there or not.

As the Crow Flies: Referring to the shortest distance between two points in a straight line.

History: This early phrase originated in the 18th Century and referred to the habit of the crow of taking the shortest route possible when in flight.

At a Loose End: to finalise the details or requirements of an activity.

History: This term refers to the final task of the sailor to secure the loose ends to ensure the vessel is ready and shipshape.

Batten Down the Hatches: to secure and make preparations.

History: This phrase is believed to come from the common naval practice of needing to prepare a ships hatches for impending poor weather conditions. Hatches were designed to promote fresh air circulation below deck and were secured with wooden battens and tarpaulins to keep the interiors dry.

Broad at the Beam: To have wide hips or buttocks.

History: Thought to have come from the fact that the beam is the widest point of a ship, this term has been used to refer to an individual’s stature since the early 20th century.

Bottoms Up: To finish one’s drink, often quickly.

History: This term comes from the common practice of tricking English sailors into joining the Navy when they didn’t want to. The sailor would be manipulated into “accepting payment” for joining the Navy by dropping a coin into his drink. Once the trick became well known, people would remind each other with the phrase ‘bottoms up’ to check their glass for hidden “payment”.

By and Large: To refer to something broadly or to speak in general of

History: In seafaring times, the word “large” was used to refer to a favourable situation when the wind was strong, and the largest sails could be raised to increase speed. Then, the term ‘by’ was used to mean ‘in the direction of’. Therefore, ‘by and large’ meant to keep slightly of the wind to ease influence over steering direction.

Chock a Block: To be packed together so tightly that there is very limited movement.

History: On naval vessels, a ‘block and tackle’ was the name for the mechanism used to raise the sails. When the sail has been hoisted to its full extent, the blocks jam tightly together and cannot move.

Clean Bill of Health: To be healthy, generally well or in good condition.

History: In the days of seafaring, one of the biggest concerns for a ship out at sea was disease. Before departure, port authority would sign a document attesting that the crew were free from contagious disease before setting off

Clear the Deck: To prepare for an incoming disturbance such as bad weather, similar to the phrase “Batten down the hatches.”

History: When preparing for battle, sailors would need to remove any objects from the deck that could impede movement and slow them down.

Close Quarters: To be gathered together in a small area.

History: As you might imagine, space was generally limited at sea, even when aboard the largest ships. As a result, the recreational quarters within which crew members would spend their free time and sleep was often cramped and crowded.

Copper Bottomed: To be genuine, in good condition or unlikely to fail.

History: First used by the British Navy in the 18th Century, ships were coated in a layer of copper to protect the wooden planks from shipworms and barnacles. It became widely popular when proved effective at protecting the ships hull and increased the speed and handling of the ship in water.

Cut and Run: to run away, to abandon something, to leave something incomplete.

History: Often thought to refer to the severing of an anchor line, the phrase cut and run is much more likely to refer to the practice of tying down the sails of a square-rigged ship with ropes that could be cut, rather than untied, if sails needed to be hoisted with haste.

The Cut of One’s Jib: Referring with a negative tone to the way an individual looks or acts.

History: Sailors used the term ‘cut’ to refer to the quality or condition of something like a sail. A jib is a kind of sail that aids in the handling of the ship. Therefore, the term describes the nature or quality of an individual’s character or personality.

Dead in the Water: To be in a state/position to progress or grow.

History: The origin of this phrase is not as well known but is thought to be derived from the fact that dead fish will commonly float up to the surface where they could easily be seen by sailors on their ships.

Deliver a Broadside: To attack one another with words.

History: In the days of early naval warfare, ships would fire their guns or cannons together on a single side of the ship, often the side facing the opponent.

Devil to Pay: A difficult or seemingly impossible task.

History: This naval phrase actually refers to the application of pitch or tar along the ‘devil’, the longest seam in the ship’s hull, which was known to be one of the worst jobs a sailor could be assigned.

Dressing Down: To be the recipient of a severe reprimand or disciplinary action.

History: On a vessel, the act of “dressing down” a ship’s sails involved coating them with tar or oil to renew their quality and effectiveness. An officer or sailor who had committed an infraction and was reprimanded in order to not repeat the mistake in future was also said to receive a “dressing down.”

Dutch Courage: False or foolhardy courage that comes from being intoxicated.

History: In the 15th Century, propaganda from the British was circulated that posed that the Dutch sailors were cowards and that they could only fight when intoxicated by large amounts of alcohol.

Maritime & Naval Sayings

Edging Forward: To move forward with caution, very slowly.

History: Originating from the 1500’s, ships would advance with caution by repeatedly tacking from one side to the other.

Even Keel: To maintain calm and steady progress.

History: On a ship, the keel helps keep the vessel upright and acts as a counterbalance against the mast. A vessel that is upright and unswayed by the ways is said to be ‘on an even keel.

Foul Up: to make an error or mistake.

History: Many nautical terms used the term ‘foul’ to refer to unwanted situations. Foul itself meant to be tangled up, or impeded of progress. A foul anchor is one that is entangled and unusable for the time being. A foul berth describes another vessel that has positioned itself too close to another and there is a high risk that the two ships will collide. 

Fathom: to attempt to figure out, or get to the bottom of something. To deduce based on facts.

History: A fathom is a nautical unit of measurement equivalent to 6 feet and used to measure water at sea. 

Figurehead: A noted leader with no real power or authority.

History: On a ship, a figurehead was an ornamental figure used for religious protection, or for purely decorative purposes. 

Filibuster: To delay or disrupt the implementation of legislation.

History: This term became popular in the American naval space during the 19th century to describe coordinated efforts to prevent action from being taken on a bill. 

First Rate: To be the best, of the highest quality, of the most skill.

History: From the 1500s through to the advent of steam-powered naval vessels, British Naval ships were scored from 1 through to 6, with first-rate having 100 or more guns, down to 6th rate, being frigates with only 20 to 48 guns.

Flotsam and Jetsam: Items of no real value.

History: In the early days of maritime law, flotsam and jetsam were used as legal terms to describe goods that had been lost from a ship as a result of a wreckage as well as those that had been purposely thrown in order to stabilise the ship in times of heavy wind or adverse conditions.

Footloose: To be free to do as you please.

History: If unsecured, the bottom portion of a sail, called the foot, is able to flap and move about in the wind. 

From Stem to Stern: The entirety of something.

History: This term refers to the full distance between the front of the ship and the back.

Flying Colours: To complete something to a high standard.

History: If a ship survived a battle with relatively little damage with her flag flying, she was described to be “flying colours”.

Get Underway: To set off on a journey

History: This nautical term referred to the wake or trail left by a ship as it progressed through the water.

Give a Wide Berth: To steer clear of, to give a good distance between

History: When a ship laid its anchor, it was said to be ‘at berth.’ Ships would need to leave a fair distance between themselves so as to avoid a collision as the vessels moved with the wind or tide.

Go by the Board: To be finished with, no longer needed.

History: On a ship, the board is the siding or decking of a ship. This nautical saying is believed to come from the act of dropping something into the water from the side of the ship.

Go Overboard: To fall into a body of water, usually from a boat or ship.

History: Sailors would call “Man overboard” if they witnessed a sailor fall into the water from the ship.

Gripe: To complain or have a problem

History: A gripe is a nautical term used to describe a vessel that has been poorly designed and so the bow tends towards the wind, causing the sail to flap, impeding progress and making the ship difficult to maneuver.

Grog/Groggy: to describe alcohol, usually of poor quality.

History: In the 18th Century, Vice Admiral Sir Edward Vernon decreed that each sailor’s half pint of rum a day should be watered down with an equal amount of water. The sailors nicknamed the Vice Admiral “Old Groggy” as he wore a Grogam coat on deck. The mixture of watered-down rum became termed ‘grog’, and those who drank too much of it were referred to as ‘groggy.’

Groundswell: an increasing shift in the opinion of the public.

History: A sudden rise in water along the shore in otherwise calm waters that was said to be a result of disturbed water from a storm many miles away reaches the shoreline and causes the water level to rise.

Hand Over Fist: to act quickly with determination

History: This nautical saying describes the action of a sailor using  alternating hands to hoist a sail rapidly.

Hard and Fast: to be sure of, without a doubt, without debate

History: In seafaring times, the term ‘hard and fast’ was used to describe a vessel that was beached on land and unable to be moved.

Hard Up: to be in a state of need

History: In nautical terms, to put the ‘helm hard over’ means to position it as far as it can go in a particular direction. The full saying. ‘Hard up in a clinch and no knife to cut the seizing’ was used by sailors to refer to the coming of grief with no solution. 

Haze: to celebrate the arrival of a new arrival to a group by means of embarrassment or humiliation in order to instate authority

History: In the seafaring times, captains and other levels of authority would demand their crew to work long hours during the day and into the night, even when necessary, for no other reason than to make them miserable. 

High and Dry: To be left in a state of desperation, without resources or help

History” This seafaring saying refers to a ship that has been beached or otherwise removed from the water for some time and were expected to stay this way into the future.

Hot Chase: To be in active pursuit of something

History: This term is actually taken from naval warfare in that, according to law, an enemy attempting to escape battle by sailing into neutral waters could be followed and captured under the proviso that the engagement had begun in international waters.

Hulk/Hulking: to describe something that is large and awkward

History: This naval term was used to describe a ship that did not seem to be fit to sail.

Hunky-Dory: To describe a situation as being pleasant, moving as expected, going ok

History: This naval saying is thought to come from American Sailors who used the term to describe a popular street in Japan called Honcho-Dori which was frequented by lonely sailors.

In the Doldrums: To be sad, tired or dull

History: This phrase was used during the 1800s to describe an area of the calm waters typical around the direct north of the equator, between what was called the trade winds. Ships caught in this area could sometimes remain stuck in place, without wind for long periods of time. And so to be ‘in the doldrums’ meant to be in a state of low spirits.

In the Offing: Imminent or likely to soon happen

History: In seafaring times, the “offing” was a term used to describe the area of sea that could be seen from land. So if a ship was seen in this area, it meant that soon enough the ship would be docked in the harbour and safe.

Idle/Idler: To be standing by without task, often when there is work needing to be completed

History: On a naval ship, “idler” was used to refer to a crew member that was not required to stand watch at night due to the nature of his work. Carpenters, sailmakers and cooks for example completed their duties by day and thus ‘idlers’ at night.

Jury Rig: an improvisation.

History: This commonly used phrase is today’s language was once used to describe an emergency repair that was necessary to keep a damaged ship able to continue sailing until it could make berth in the nearest port. 

keel hauling

Keel Hauling: To receive a strong punishment or reprimand for a particular wrongdoing.

History: Rather grisly in origin, this term was the name given to severe punishment for sailors in the 1400s and 1500s in which the wrongdoer would be secured to a rope and thrown overboard and dragged beneath the keel repeatedly.

Keel Over: To fall over or pass away

History: Even today, the keel is a fundamental component of most types of sailing ships. It acts as a counterbalance for the mast and keeps the boat stable in conditions that would otherwise cause the boat to capsize. If a ship “keeled over” it had rolled over and began sinking, or on land, simply fallen over.

To Know the Ropes: To be familiar/competent in a particular task.

History: Tall ships sailed by the navy prior to the advent of steam-powered vessels were operated by a series of ropes that controlled the mechanisms and pulleys that operated the sails. These rope-based systems were complex, and so sailors were required to memorise the configurations, so they were used correctly. This obviously took time, so a less experienced sailor might not “know the ropes” as well as one who had been sailing for longer.

Landlubber: Someone who dislikes, prefers not to be or isn’t commonly on the water

History: A nautical term used by sailors to describe people who spent most of their time on land or who preferred to not be at sea.

Lime: A British person

History: Drawing from the fact that English sailors in the 1800s were allocated rations of limes to help prevent scurvy, a “Limey” became a term to describe a sailor from the British Royal Navy.

Learn the Ropes: To take the time to understand how to perform a new task

History: Similarly to “Knowing the Ropes”, this nautical saying refers to the practice of learning how the systems of ropes and pulleys operated on a Tall Ship.

Leeway: An allocation of space, literal or metaphorical to allow a margin for error

History: When sailing, the ‘weather side’ of the ship is that that faces the wind and the ‘lee’ side is closest to land. If a ship did not have sufficient ‘leeway’ then there was little margin for error before the vessel was blown ashore or onto rocks. 

To Let the Cat Out of the Bag: To unveil what was previously unsecured or secret

History: In the early days of sailors, the ‘cat o nine tails’ was the name for a whip constructed from rope with unbraided ends that left wounds on the back similar to the scratches of a cat.

Like Ships That Pass In The Night: A near encounter, the passing of two entities without knowledge of the other

History: Unlike the steam powered ships that would eventually succeed them, sailing ships make very little to no noise when moving forward. It is therefore highly likely that ships would be unaware of one another when sailing in darkness

Logbook: A meticulous record of official details accompanied with data such as dates and times

History: Naval and merchant ships utilised a wooden board attached to a length of rope to measure the speed the vessel was traveling. The unit was calculated by counting the knots in the string that passed through the sailors hands as they moved along. Incidentally, this is where the unit ‘knot’ came from, a measure we still use on the water today

Listless: To be in a state of demotivation, lacking energy or enthusiasm 

History: In seafaring times, if a boat was listless, it meant that the vessel was idle in the water, without the characteristic list taken when the ship is driven forward by the wind.

Long Haul: An extended period of time.

History: This term was used to describe any task onboard that required the hauling, or pulling in, of a large quantity of line onto the ship’s deck.

Long Shot: A situation where the intended or preferred outcome is considered unlikely to occur.

History: Old naval warships used cannons as their main form of weaponry, which often were hit and miss in terms of accuracy. Different cannons also had varying maximum ranges which depended on their design, age and quality. If a vessel was to fire beyond its range and deliver a long shot, it was unlikely that it would hit its target.

Loose Cannon: Used to describe a person, object or situation that is unstable or likely to cause trouble if left unattended.

History: Due to their massive weight, cannons on a sailing ship were secured to prevent them from moving about with the waves of the sea, as a loose cannon would cause immense damage to the sailing vessel or crew. 

Mainstay: A crucial element, something on which other things depend.

History: On a Tall ship or similar sailing vessels, the mainstay was a crucial rope that ran the length of the maintop to the foot of the foremast.

Make Up Leeway: To make up for lost or wasted time.

History: In nautical terms, ‘leeway’ referred to how much a vessel had deviated from its intended course.

No Room to Swing a Cat: A small or confined space.

History: When a sailor was to be punished by the cat o nine tails, the entire crew was required to attend and watch. Consequently, there was no room to swing the whip. 

On Board: to be or become part of a group or team.

History: In nautical terms, to come on board meant to join the ships crew.

On the Right Track: To be going in the right direction, towards the correct outcome.

History: On a naval vessel, if a sailor took up the wrong rope or track, it could mean the ship would go in the wrong direction.

On Your Ends/On Your Beam Ends: To be in a bad situation.

History: On a seafaring naval vessel, timber beams ran the horizontal length of the ship. If these beams were close to the water, it meant that the ship was likely to capsize and sink. 

Over the Barrel: To be unable to change one’s mind or escape a situation.

History: In seafaring times, the most common punishment handed down to sailors was whipping or flogging. Normally, the crew mate to be punished would be tied to a secure grating or over a barrel. 

Overbearing: To manipulate a state of power in a fashion that makes others uncomfortable

History: This term refers to the act of sailing downwind of another ship, blocking or ‘stealing’ their wind, slowing them down.

Overhaul:  To pull something apart and redo it completely, as if from scratch.

History: This term was the name given to the act of crew being sent up amongst the sails to haul the buntline ropes over the sails to prevent chafing.

Overreach: To move to quickly to the point that you have missed your target

History: In a situation where a ship held its turn for too long, it would have moved past its turning point and now must sail a greater distance to reach its next tacking position.

Overwhelm: To be in a state of emotional overload or to be taken over by something

History: This naval term is derived from the Old English for a boat that has capsized.

Pipe Down: A Call For Silence.

History: In the early naval days, the boatswain’s pipe was used as a tool to communicate with the ship’s crew. In this sense, the ‘piping down of the hammocks’ was the final signal delivered for the day, meaning that the crew were able to go below and rest for the night.

Pooped: To be washed out, tired.

History: In terms of the actual structure and layout of the ship, the highest deck at the back of the vessel was called the poop deck. If a ship were to become breached by a large wave that flooded the vessel from the back, she was said to have been pooped. 

Press into Service: To be pressured, forced, guided into making a specific decision.

History: In the early days, recruiting for the navy was very difficult as men knew that the job was difficult. In order to overcome this issue and fill their recruitment quotas, “Press Gangs” would actively kidnap men from the ports at shore and force them into working for the Navy.

Push the Boat Out: To spend money generously, without reservation.

History: This naval term comes from the act of assisting someone to push their boat or vessel out into the water. This was considered an act of generosity as ships were often far too large to be pushed out to sea by one man alone. The term was later used to refer to the act of shouting a round of drinks or to buy them a treat. 

116 Naval Sayings - The Ultimate List of Nautical Sayings & Sailing Terms 1

Rats Deserting a Sinking Ship: To leave or abandon an activity, organisation or school of thought before it fails entirely.

History: It was very common for ships at sea to be carrying large numbers of rats aboard, either picked up from port or stowed away in crates or containers of food loaded on deck. In the unfortunate event that the ship would sink, the rats would attempt to escape by jumping off into the deep blue sea.

Running a Tight Ship: Under control, perfectly in order.

History: The phrase originated around the mid-1900s and is based on the tight ropes of a sailing ship, alluding to a ship that is in order and under control, and generally well-taken care of.

Sailing Close to the Wind: To engage in a risky activity, to disallow a margin for error.

History: In seafaring times, to sail close to the wind meant to steer the boat into the direction the wind was blowing from. This would fill the sails and move the boat along at a higher pace of knots. However, any small adjustment would cause the ship to move out of the direction of the wind and promptly lose speed.

Scraping the Barrel: To gather the last remaining quantity of something, to be left with a choice that is not ideal.

History: In the 1600s, naval vessels carried salted meat in barrels. Sailors would check the bottom of these empty barrels when hungry to recover any remaining scraps that may have been left behind.

Scuttlebutt: Rumour or gossip.

History: In seafaring times, sailors would exchange gossip in a scuttlebutt. This was a water barrel with a hole in it that was used to dispense drinking water.

Shake a Leg: To get out of bed, to get moving.

History: It is believed that in the early naval days, this term was used as a command for crew members to step out of their hammocks and begin preparations for the day. It is also believed that the term may have come from the fact that women were allowed on board when the ship was in port, and thus the crew knew when a woman was still aboard and needed to be woken up and moved ashore before setting sail. 

Shipshape and Bristol Fashion: To be of the best quality and ready to go.

History: This seafaring term has a number of likely origins. Bristol in England is home to one of the most variable tide flows across the globe and so ships needed to be well built and maintained in order to withstand the low tides. It could also be derived from the fact that this part of the world had extremely high standards for naval equipment and service before Liverpool took it’s place. 

Shiver Me Timbers: An expression of annoyance or surprise.

History: In the 1300’s, the word ‘shiver’ meant to become broken or fall to pieces. There is some debate as to whether this saying was actually real or simply invented as part of pirate folklore. 

Show One’s True Colours: To commit an act to reveal one’s true character, often used negatively.

History: On a naval vessel, ones colours referred to the flag flown before engaging in a battle. A common practice became that some ships would deliberately fly the incorrect flag so as to fool their enemies. 

Skyscraper: A tall building or structure

History: This modern term often used to refer to large-scale industrial architecture in cities actually refers to a small sail set above what was called the skysail in order to maximise the amount of wind captured by the sails. 

Sling Your Hook: To leave, clear off, move away.

History: There is much argument about whether this saying has its origins in seafaring times. Those that believe it takes its roots in nautical history believe it may refer to the pulling up of the ship’s anchor before making sail. 

Slush Fund: An amount of money assigned to the use of bribe or influence.

History: In the 1800’s, a mixture of fat would be sold ashore by the ships cook that would be gathered from boiling the salted beef for food at sea. This money was then used for the benefit of the crew or the cook himself and called the ‘slush fund’.

Smooth Sailing: Easy progress without impediment or difficulty.

History: The term smooth sailing refers to sailing through calm waters, free from big waves or rough seas.

Son of a Gun: An exclamation of surprise, annoyance, aggression.

History: In the event that a child was born aboard the ship from the wife or temporary companion of one of the crew members, often on the gun deck. If no one knew who the father was, they were logged as being the “son of a gun.”

Square Meal: A good quality, nutritious meal.

History: This term was most likely derived from the fact that sailors were served their meals on square shaped plates. However, from the 1500’s onwards, the word ‘square’ meant that something was upstanding, proper or straightforward. 

Squared Away: To describe a matter that has been satisfactorily completed and/or addressed.

History: In a square-rigged naval vessel the sails were described as being ‘squared away’ when properly trimmed, secured and arranged in the proper manner. 

Square Rigged Sailing Ship Example

Taken Aback: To be in a state of surprise, unable to speak.

History: In the event of an inattentive crewmember at the helm, the wind could end up on the wrong side of the sails which resulted in the ship being pushed backwards.

Taking the Wind Out of His Sails: To demotivate someone, or remove their initiative.

History: If a vessel should sail between the wind and another ship, the first could be slowed down as the amount of wind in their sails was reduced. 

Taking Turns: To interchange an activity between two or more people.

History: In seafaring times, crew members would interchange watches as the turn of an hourglass. This was to prevent accidents and mishaps that could result from fatigue. 

Three Sheets to the Wind: To be in a state of intoxication.

History: On a ship, a rope is called a sheet. If the sheets on a three-masted rigged ship became loose on the three lower course, the sails would begin to flap about and the ship would lose all purposeful direction. 

Through Thick and Thin: To carry on, regardless of the situation.

History: This nautical saying is believed to have its roots in the fact that both thick and thin pulleys were used aboard to hoist the sails up. 

Tide Over: A small supply of something, such as money, to get you from one point to another.

History: In early naval days, vessels would mostly move under the influence of the wind. On occasion however, when the wind was not strong enough, the ship would simply move with the tide. This was referred to as a ‘tide over.’

Toe the Line: To act cautiously, to follow the rules.

History: On a naval ship, the crew would line up with their toes along the seam of the deck’s wooden planking. 

Trim One’s Sails: To adapt or change to fit a different circumstance that was originally supplied

History: In the event of a change in weather conditions, crew would alter the set of the ships sails to suit the new circumstances.

Try a Different Tack: To attempt a different tactic or method when dealing with a situation or problem

History: When completing a tack, or change in direction when sailing, sometimes the new course of direction would turn out to be incorrect. In this case, the helmsman would need to try again.

Turn a Blind Eye: To ignore, to pretend you did not see something.

History: This commonly used saying originates from the actions of Admiral Lord Nelson in the Battle of Copenhagen. In the battle, a signal was given to cease fighting and retreat. In response, the Admiral held his spyglass to his blind eye and later insisted he had not seen the signal. 

Touch and Go: To be in an uncertain situation.

History: This seafaring term was used to describe a situation in which a ship was sailing through shallow waters and would occasionally touch the bottom and then move forward again, without becoming grounded. 

Turn the Corner: To move past a vital milestone or event that had a high degree of influence.

History: This phrase is thought to have been coined by sailors after rounding the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn and continuing on with their journey. 

Under the Weather: To be feeling ill, not yourself.

History: On an early naval vessel, various watches were assigned to crew members to keep an eye out for danger. Often considered the worst watch station one could be assigned, the ‘weather’ side of the bow was often subject to the pitching and rolling of the ship, as well as the numerous waves that would break over the bow. The crewmember assigned this watch would end their shift drenched and described as having been ‘under the weather.

Walk the Plank: To be ousted, removed or literally fall from a plank into the sea below.

History: A staple of pirate folklore, walking the plank was an actual form of impromptu naval execution in the 1700’s and 1800’s. 

Whistle for the Wind: To hope for an unlikely outcome.

History: This saying is believed to have originated from the naval superstition that the wind could be summoned at a time of still water by the act of whistling for it. Similarly, in the event of a gall where there is an excess of wind, crew members should not whistle. 

Windfall: An unexpected, potentially unearned advantage.

History: This nautical term was used to describe a sudden gust of wind coming across a mountainous shore that allowed the vessel to gain more headway. 

And That’s Our Complete List of Sayings with a Nautical Origin.

The etymology of any language or phrase is as interesting as it is historical. We hope that this list has explained the nautical origins behind some of the most common turns of phrase used in our day to day lives. 

Maritime & Naval Sayings

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