55 Sailing Phrases and Nautical Terms Used in Everyday Language

The English language is full of “borrowed” phrases and terms from various other languages and pastimes. Nautical terminology, in particular, colors our everyday language and is influenced by the rich history of maritime sailing that was important to Western expansion. 

Our day-to-day conversations are peppered with sailing phrases and nautical terms. Look at which common words we use to add description and detail to our dialog and directions below. 

Sailing terms and phrases are part of the everyday English language. Inspired by the rich history of the British Royal Navy, nautical terms have made their way into conversational English over the course of a few hundred years. 

Funny Nautical Terms

Nautical terms may sound funny to our ears, but we use them more than you may realize. These boating-inspired words are found in everyday language and references and might lend a little humor to your writing. Use them to lighten your tone and provide a fun, descriptive twist to your material. 

1. Flotsam and Jetsam

Often used together, flotsam and jetsam mean two different things. The root of flotsam is “float” and describes something that fell overboard. The root of jetsam is “jettison” and describes items thrown overboard. 

For example:

The essay draft was filled with the flotsam and jetsam of her ideas as she struggled to piece together a winning argument. 

2. Landlubber

Landlubber, or land lover, describes a person who struggles with being at sea, on a boat, or experiences seasickness. 

For example:

I apologize, but I’m afraid I’m something of a landlubber when it comes to boat travel; I prefer to take land transportation.

3. Scuttlebutt

The barrel containing the fresh drinking water was called a scuttlebutt and became a place for sailors to gather, talk, and pass on information. The term scuttlebutt became synonymous with information.

For example: 

The scuttlebutt says they planned to take their clients with them to the new office, but the boss found out and fired them for ethical violations. 

4. Shanghai

Shanghai is a city in China and was often an area where people were kidnapped and pressed into service on ships. To be Shanghaied is to be taken or betrayed. 

For example: 

If we don’t keep this data secure, we may just end up Shanghaied and lose the account to our top competitor.  

5. Loose Cannon

When a cannonball broke free from its mooring, it would move across the deck and create a hazardous situation. 

For example: 

She’s an absolute loose cannon. We can never anticipate what she will do to ruin a productive conversation.

6. Hunky Dory

Hunky Dory is an abbreviated version of a street name in Japan known for the services provided to the sailors who visited there. It is meant to mean all is well or perfect. 

For example:

He reassured his teacher that all was hunky-dory and that the project was on track for completion within the given time frame. 

7. Shipshape

The original term, shipshape (or ship shape) and in Bristol fashion, referred to when Bristol was Britain’s main west coast port and was used to describe everything being in order with cargo and at the port.

For example:

By the end of the week, all the school work was turned in, and the desks were in shipshape for the long holiday weekend. 

8. Limey

A limey is slang for sailor and originated with the practice of issuing limes as a means to prevent scurvy on long voyages. The British navy was a dominant force on the seas, so the term began to represent the British in general. 

For example: 

While traveling overseas, I ran into a Limey at the airport, and he explained the best way to use the subway system while in London. 

9. Bottoms Up

The term bottoms up became a way to warn people to check for a coin at the bottom of their drink. The British used to con people into joining the Navy and would buy them a beer with a coin on the bottom. If the beer was finished off, the Navy considered this accepting payment and would press them into service. 

For example: 

We bought him a celebratory beer on his birthday, and all cheered, “bottoms up!” as he drained it off!

10. Rats Deserting a Sinking Ship

Rats and other vermin were commonplace on ships, but if the boat began to take on water, they would jump into the water and swim away to try and save themselves. 

For example: 

We were like rats deserting a sinking ship when it became clear that our company had been committing fraud and cheating us of our full pay. 

11. Choc-a-Block

To choc or block something means to secure a moving object. While under sail, barrels, cannons, and other items could shift. Blocking them kept them from moving to avoid damage or injury to those on deck. Now the term means that something is crowded or full up. 

For example:

The small-town streets were choc-a-block with the parade traffic, and we had to go around. 

12. Sent Up the Pole

The highest point on a ship is up the main mast pole and serves as a lookout. This was not a sought-after job as you would be exposed to the elements without protection and experience the most movement as the ship swayed in the water. 

For example:

My kids were driving me up a pole with their constant bickering over who gets to control the television remote. So I took away their TV privileges. 

13. Land HO!

To call out “Land ho!” was to let the crew know land had been spotted. It is a way to let everyone know that the end of a voyage is imminent. 

For Example:

After a whole night of compiling data in the lab, my colleague called out “land ho!” to celebrate the last entry and let us all know we could finally relax. 

14. Ahoy

“Hoy” was a middle English greeting derived from the Dutch “hoi”. It soon became “ahoy” as a signal word to boats and passing ships. 

For Example:

Ahoy there! I couldn’t help but notice you waiting around and wondered if I could help you with something?

Descriptive Nautical Terms

Descriptive terms add detail to our sentences and provide synonymous meanings for an audience better understand the point we are making. These phrases and idioms are rooted in nautical terms and give a more modern take than their original use. 

15. The Cut of His/Her Jib

Jibs are a type of sail, and many ships would fly unique jibs to show their country of origin or what type of ship it was. 

For example:
I don’t like the cut of John’s jib; he continually fails to take responsibility for his actions. 

16. In the Doldrums

The doldrums are an area near the equator where very little surface wind is present. This created problems with ships dependent on the wind to fill their sails, and being “in the doldrums” meant to be at a standstill or moving slowly. 

For example: 

Sonya had never quite been in the doldrums like this before. This deep blue funk kept her from getting her work done on time. 

17. Onboard

To be onboard means to accept or understand what is being said fully. It has been used to describe a sailor bearing their responsibility upon the ship. 

For example:

Now that I have explained this all to you, I hope you have chosen to be onboard with the instructions so we can move forward. 

18. On Board

Being on board means being part of the crew and completing their responsibilities. 

For example:

Jonathan came on board last season and helped the team have a winning year. 

19. Port and Starboard

Port and starboard are names given to the left and right of the ship, respectfully. Still used today, the terms have also made their way into everyday language to describe the left, or right, hand side of buildings, roads, etc. 

For example: 

He told me the boxes were on the port side of the warehouse, but the whole place was empty from what I could tell. 

20. Turn the Corner

This was an idiom used by sailors after passing the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa or when passing Cape Horn at the south end of South America. Both were critical points and pointed them towards safer waters. 

For example: 

Despite being in the hospital for the last week, she turned the corner yesterday and is expected to make a full recovery. 

21. Show One’s True Colors

Hoisting flags to designate the origin of a ship was commonplace, but many also flew false flags to trick those that were enemies. Showing your true colors means showing the falsehood. 

For example:

He wasn’t surprised when she finally showed her true colors and walked off the job due to a minor disagreement. 

22. Close/Tight Quarters

Living on a ship meant sharing a lot of personal space with other sailors. These close living quarters held sleeping areas as well as basic storage. 

For example: 

When I went to camp, I was surprised at the close quarters we were expected to sleep and live in. It barely gave us enough room to store our clothing and change!

23. Broad in the Beam

To be broad in the beam describes the width of the beam or mast, usually on a ship of good size. It became a slang term to describe a person wide across the hips and backend. 

For example:

Despite how broad in the beam the player was, she managed to dominate the field in terms of speed and agility. 

24. Like Ships that Pass in the Night

Passing ships in the dark of the night was often done to evade notice. This might be to avoid a blockade or smuggle black market goods. The ships might have been in the same area but didn’t notice or acknowledge one another. 

For example:

Their encounter was like ships passing in the night. Although she knew who he was, she just walked on by since he didn’t acknowledge her presence. 

25. Keel Over

If the keel of a boat was to rise out of the water, it was possible the ship could turn over. This could happen during a storm or after a ship was damaged by enemy fire. 

For example: 

After running the marathon, he was so exhausted that he just about keeled over while making his way to the infirmary tent. 

26. Three Sheets to the Wind

Losing sails to the wind was not a good scenario for sailors as it usually meant all control of the ship was lost. 

For example:

Jack was three sheets to the wind by the time the bar closed. We had to take him home because he was in no condition to drive. 

Sailing Phrases to Provide Directions

Many commands and directions stem from sailing terms. Ships were often noisy, and sailors spread across the deck, so short phrases, whistles, and terms were used to tell people what to do. Other terms provided physical directions for sailing or an explanation of where they were headed. These tie into our own directions and communication today. 

27. Pipe Down

The boatswain communicated to the crew through a pipe that served as a whistle. The sound it made gave directions to the sailors for different tasks. One tone was to step down from duty for the evening or “pipe down”.

For example: 

You kids better pipe down, or you will get our neighbors upset with your loud voices!

28. Toe the Line

Sailors under inspection were expected to stand in a line with their toes behind deck planking or behind the line. 

For example:

The baseball team was expected to toe the line and follow their coach’s directions to a T when playing away games. 

29. Take the Con

A term used to take over navigational duties on the bride of a ship. 

For example: 

The police chief asked the sergeant to take the con with the investigation to ensure it was done correctly. 

30. Give a Wide Berth

A berth is defined by the space a ship is at anchor within. Even when at anchor, a ship will move with the tide and weather, so space must be given for this movement. To remind sailors of this, it would be said a wide berth was needed. 

For example: 

Sam asked Mary to give him a wide berth since he’d had a rough night and was not interested in conversing with anyone. 

31. Sailing Close to the Wind

Strong winds can be just as problematic at sea as no wind. Strong winds can unexpectedly shift and take control of a boat’s direction, and many sailors will lower their sails until more favorable conditions exist. To use strong winds for sailing is risky and unpredictable. 

For example:

Jennifer had her license suspended last week, but I saw her drive to school yesterday. She is sailing close to the wind with that risky behavior. 

32. All Hands on Deck

During inspection or trouble, captains would call out the need for all hands on deck, meaning everyone needed to be present, accounted for, and working as directed. 

For example:

If we are to pull off this project in time, we will need all hands on deck.

33. On the Right Tack/Track

The correct course while sailing requires you to tack or move the sail to catch the wind to keep you on course. To take the wrong tack means to be off course. Tack has changed to track in a more modern language. 

For example: 

I knew I was on the right track to solving the mystery when I saw the last clue waiting for me.

34. Run a Tight Ship

Running a tight ship means that everyone is in their place and doing their job. It was important that everyone was responsible for safety and survival on the high seas. 

For example:

My mother ran a tight ship growing up. The responsibilities she gave us to care for the house have served us as adults. 

35. Overboard

If cargo, or people, went overboard when sailing, the call “overboard” would be yelled out to draw attention to the event. With luck, the items or people would be recovered, but unfortunately, this was not often the case, and all would be lost. 

For example:

If you plan on making the hiking trip alone, be sure not to go overboard with your supplies and overpack. 

36. Abandon Ship

When a ship was sinking or being overrun by an enemy ship,  sailors would need to abandon their posts and escape. The call to abandon ship was considered a last resort.

For example:

After working all day on the project, the rainstorm overwhelmed us, and we had to abandon ship or risk being stuck in the muddy field. 

37. As the Crow Flies

After crossing the oceans, sailors would watch for birds to indicate land was near. Following the direction of land, birds, such as a crow, got them closer to shore to follow to port. 

For example:

If you travel the roads, it will take you about 40 minutes, but overland, as the crow flies, it is only a few miles worth of travel. 

38. Stem the Tide

To stem the tide means to tack, or steer, against the tide or oncoming storm to avoid being blown off course or capsized. 

For example:

Poorly planned state policies have been unable to stem the tide of rising violence seen within urban areas. 

Sailor Quotes We Use Everyday

Even though many terms may have changed through the years, others have stayed true to their original sense and are still used to add description and color to our communication with others. These quotes originate with sailors and offer clear diction for added interest when speaking and writing. 

39. Long Shot

A long shot was a lengthy target from a cannon shot. Chances were, the target would be missed unless luck was on their side. 

For example:

It was a long shot, but Jenny was willing to try and get into her school of choice despite her low grades. 

40. Feeling Blue

If a captain or officer of a ship died at sea, some vessels would raise a blue flag and paint a blue stripe on the hull as a sign of mourning. Over time this became synonymous with feelings of sadness. 

For example:

Oscar was feeling blue all week after learning his summer camp was canceled, and he would have to wait a whole year for another chance to go. 

41. Taken Aback

A sudden shift in the wind would blow sails back against the mast, flattening them out and earning the description blown “aback”. This sudden change was often startling and could take sailors by surprise. 

For example:

Samantha was taken aback by the children she was babysitting; they were behaving incredibly poorly compared to the last time she had seen them. 

42. Tide Over

When a ship could not get under sail due to poor winds, they would ride the tide until the winds returned. 

For example:

The snack I fed my children should tide them over until I serve dinner later tonight. 

43. High and Dry

If a ship was caught in low tide or ran up on the shoals, it might end up being stranded with no hope of recovery. The term was to be caught high and dry, as in up out of the water. 

For example:

My so-called friends left me high and dry over the weekend when they decided to attend a party I don’t feel comfortable attending. 

44. In Deep Water

Once a ship reached deep water, if trouble occurred, the crew might not be able to salvage the cargo, the ship, or a person’s life. 

For example: 

Emmett and Jay got themselves into deep water with the principal when they skipped 1st period and showed up late to 2nd. 

45. Sink or Swim

Tossing a person overboard resulted either in them sinking or swimming. The term was made popular in swashbuckling movies featuring pirates deciding on whether they should spare their captives or not. 

For example:

Being a new teacher truly is a sink or swim experience. Either you do well with it or struggle to make it through the first year. 

46. Dead in the Water

The lack of wind would keep ships from making progress on their voyage, often called being “dead in the water”. The term describes a more severe situation when no further progress may be possible. 

For example:

They were dead in the water without that internet connection and would probably have to turn in an incomplete assignment to make the due date. 

47. Making Waves

Winds and storms create waves at sea and can cause hazardous sailing conditions.

For example:

We have already finalized the project. If you criticize the work now, it will only make waves and insult the people who worked so hard on it. 

48. Rock the Boat

Smaller skiffs or boats easily move with the water, as well as the movement of the people on deck. Because of this, it is crucial to understand the balance of the boat to avoid unnecessary rocking that can put you off course or simply be uncomfortable. 

For example:

I don’t mean to rock the boat, but somebody needs to point out how wrong his behavior was and force him to take responsibility. 

49. Plain or Smooth Sailing

Calm waters and dependable winds create a smooth or plain sailing experience. These are ideal conditions when out on the water. 

For example:

After her drive through the mountains, it was smooth sailing to reach her final destination. 

50. Scraping the Barrel

Scraping empty barrels while at sea was common to get every last bit of food stored within it. It was important never to let anything go to waste, but it also meant nothing was left. 

For example:

Man alive, she really is scraping the barrel with her latest boyfriend! I wish she had better taste in men!

51. Learn the Ropes

Sails were raised and lowered with ropes, and knowing how to control the sails allowed a ship to take full advantage of the wind and sail safely. 

For example:

Although I was new to the job, it didn’t take me long to learn the ropes and get the hang of all my responsibilities. 

52. Through Thick and Thin

Both thick and thin pulleys and ropes were used for hoisting sails and flags, hence the term working through thick and thin. 

For example:

Despite the many challenges the project presented, the team worked through thick and thin to complete it on time and receive a winning score. 

53. Hand Over Fist

Raising and lowering sails on a pulley system required placing one hand over another in a consistent movement, i.e., hand over fist. It was a term used to explain the quickness of the job.

For example: 

His new company made money hand over fist that first year due to the hustle of the business partners. 

54. Mate

The word mate has a long history of meaning friend or comrade and was adapted in British sailing vernacular to designate the titles and responsibilities of certain crew members. A first mate, for example, would be in charge of the duties of those below him. 

For example:

My friend from university are still good mates, and we get together at least once a year to catch up and relax. 

55. Batten Down the Hatches

With the arrival of bad weather, sailors need to secure the hatchways to avoid water from flooding the ship’s interior. To batten down the hatches means to prepare for this occasion. 

For example:

After the economy showed no sign of improvement, many businesses were ready to batten down the hatches to try and survive the fallout of inflation. 

How Much of Our Language Comes from Maritime Slang?

Although this is a comprehensive list, it isn’t complete, and some other more obscure phrases exist inspired by terms used when sailing was much more commonplace. Much of the English language is colored with references to maritime slang and directions and is used to help detail and explain various situations. Although we may use the terms slightly more different than their origin, the suggestion of their importance in our everyday language still lives on in speech and writing. 

Let’s Review

The English language is full of historical references and slang that we use every day without even knowing the origin. This helps color and detail the meaning of our words so we are better understood. 

Sailing phrases and nautical terms came from a time when transportation on ships was commonplace and a major world trade and travel solution. At one point or another, most people found themselves traveling on open water to get from one place to another. The language inspired by this is still alive and well in our everyday vernacular. 

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