Batten Down the Hatches – Meaning and Origin

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Arg Matey! Batten them hatches and prepare for a rough ride!

If you are scratching your head and wondering what you just read, you aren’t alone. Batten the hatches is a nautical term used for centuries to describe the literal use of materials that seal the openings below the deck to avoid taking on water during rough weather. 

The expression can also be figurative to highlight the need to hustle and prepare for trouble, but how can you use this in speech and writing?

Take a look at our guide concerning this fun phrase so you can best take advantage of its use!

What Does Batten Down the Hatches Mean?

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Literally, to batten the hatches is to place battens (narrow strips of wood) over canvas to help block doorways and cargo openings in preparation for stormy weather. Figuratively, to batten the hatches is to prepare for an imminent emergency.

How to Use Batten the Hatches

When using batten the hatches literally, you are asking your boat crew to prepare for bad weather and hunker down for safety reasons. Securing loose items, making sure all openings are sealed, and making certain sails (if used) are furled are all details a sailor might do when they hear that term. 

But, since most people are not regularly involved with a sailing vessel (if ever), using the term figuratively is a more likely scenario. 

When used figuratively, it means to prepare for a challenging situation or emergency. You may also hear it as batten down the hatches, which means the same thing. 

For example:

  • The upcoming exam had students preparing to batten the hatches against the rising anxiety of the class.

Origin of Batten the Hatches

As established above, hatches in this use describe the opening on the deck of a ship, giving away the sailing origin of this term. Hatches can represent everything from doorways to spaces leading into the lower decks to help provide ventilation or allow access to cargo. 

When heavy rainfall and rough seas were imminent, hatches had to be covered with an oiled canvas and secured down with lengths of batten or wooden strips. The term “battening down” became commonplace among sailors and was first recorded in an encyclopedia of nautical terms in 1867. 

Even earlier references to a description of the process can be seen in An Universal Dictionary of the Marine, published in 1769. 

Batten the Hatches Used in Sentences

Batten the hatches, mates, swash the buckles, and prepare to board the ultimate pirate-movie parody. [New York Times]

These are just the first winds of a growing storm, and it’s critical that we take the time to batten the hatches now and invest in our mariners before hurricane-force winds begin to blow. [gCaptain]

Establishments such as these have been among the first to be closed by states as they batten the hatches in preparation for an outbreak. [Washington Post]

Let’s Review

Originally a nautical term, batten the hatches was an exclamation used to direct sailors to cover deck openings in preparation for bad weather. 

Used figuratively, it is an expression used to provide direction to prepare for an emergency or difficult situation.