Nautical Slang

So many phrases and slang terms derive from the Navy and maritime life in general. Please take a look the list below, see how many of the phrases you use day-to-day and learn where they come from.

"Son of a Gun"

The British Navy used to allow women to live on naval ships. Any child born on board who had uncertain paternity would be listed in the ship's log as 'son of a gun'.

"Over a barrel"

The most common method of punishment aboard ship was flogging. The unfortunate sailor was tied to a grating, a mast or over the barrel of a deck cannon.

"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.

"Let the cat out of the bag"

In the Royal Navy, the punishment prescribed for most serious crimes was flogging. This was administered by the Bosun’s Mate using a whip called a cat o’ nine tails. The “cat” was kept in a leather or baize bag. 

"3 squared meals"

In good weather, crews’ mess was a warm meal served on square wooden platters sawn from a plank, three times a day. 


To sail downwind directly at another ship thus “stealing” or diverting the wind from his sails.


The weather side of a ship is the side from which the wind is blowing. The Lee side is the side of the ship sheltered from the wind. A lee shore is a shore that is downwind of a ship. If a ship does not have enough “leeway” it is in danger of being driven onto the shore.


The bottom portion of a sail is called the foot. If it is not secured, it is footloose and it dances randomly in the wind.

"First rate"

Implies excellence. British naval ships were rated as to the number of heavy cannon they carried. A ship of 100 or more guns was a First Rate line-of-battle ship.

If you have any questions or would like to find out more, please Contact us.

If you have any questions or would like to find out more, please Contact us.

"Knowing the ropes"

There were miles and miles of cordage in the rigging of a square rigged ship. The only way of keeping track of and knowing the function of all of these lines was to know where they were located. It took an experienced seaman to know the ropes.

"Dressing down"

Thin and worn sails were often treated with oil or wax to renew their effectiveness. This was called “dressing down”. An officer or sailor who was reprimanded or scolded received a dressing down.

"Pipe down"

Means stop talking and be quiet. The Pipe Down was the last signal from the Bosun’s pipe each day which meant “lights out” and “silence”.


In 1740, British Admiral Vernon (whose nickname was “Old Grogram” for the cloak of grogram which he wore) ordered that the sailors’ daily ration of rum be diluted with water. A sailor who drank too much grog was “groggy”.

"By and large"

Currently means in all cases or in any case. From the nautical: by meaning into the wind and large meaning with the wind: as in, “By and Large the ship handled very well.”

"To the bitter end"

The end of an anchor cable is fastened to the bitts at the ship’s bow. If all of the anchor cable has been payed out you have come to the bitter end.

"Toe the line"

When called to line up at attention, the ship’s crew would form up with their toes touching a seam in the deck planking.

"Slush fund"

A slushy slurry of fat was obtained by boiling or scraping the empty salted meat storage barrels. This stuff called “slush” 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.

"Under the weather"

If a crewman is standing watch on the weather side of the bow, he will be subject to the constant beating of the sea and the ocean spray. He will be under the weather.

"By the board"

Anything seen to have gone overboard or spotted floating past the ship (by the board) was considered lost at sea.

"Between the devil and the deep blue sea"

The devil seam was the curved seam in the deck planking closest to the side of the ship and next to the scupper gutters. If a sailor slipped on the deck, he could find himself between the devil and the deep blue sea.

"No room to swing a cat"

The entire ship’s company was required to witness flogging at close hand. The crew might crowd around so that the Bosun’s Mate might not have enough room to swing his cat o’ nine tails.

"Shiver me timbers"

An expression of surprise or unbelief, as when a ship strikes a rock or shoal so hard that her timbers shiver.

"Taking the wind out of his sails"

Sailing in a manner so as to steal or divert wind from another ship’s sails.

"At loggerheads"

An iron ball attached to a long handle was a loggerhead. When heated it was used to seal the pitch in deck seams. It was sometimes a handy weapon for quarrelling crewmen.

"Give (someone) a wide berth"

To anchor a ship far enough away from another ship so that they did not hit each other when they swung with the wind or tide.

"Cut of his jib"

Warships many times had their foresails or jib sails cut thinly so that they could maintain point and not be blown off course. Upon sighting thin foresails on a distant ship a captain might not like the cut of his jib and would then have an opportunity to escape.

"Touch and go"

This referred to a ship’s keel touching the bottom and getting right off again.


A butt was a barrel. Scuttle meant to chop a hole in something. The scuttlebutt was a water barrel with a hole cut into it so that sailors could reach in and dip out drinking water. The scuttlebutt was the place where the ship’s gossip was exchanged.

"Mind your P's and Q's"

An admonishment to stay alert or be on your best behaviour. Originated from tavern owners who allowed Sailors to drink “on credit” until they were hired by a ship. P’s refers to pints, Q’s refers to quarts. Some unscrupulous tavern owners would try to put extra check marks under the P’s and Q’s columns if they saw the Sailor wasn’t paying attention (or was obviously inebriated).

"Three sheets to the wind"

This expression refers to not having control of a boat because the sheets or lines connected to sails had been let go or lost. Today the expression is used to talk about someone who’s drunk, and doesn’t have control of themselves.

"The whole nine yards"

This term is now used to mean “the whole lot” or “everything”. It’s thought that this expression comes from square-rigged sailing vessels that had three masts with three sails hung from yardarms on each.  The whole nine yards meant all sails were up.

"Batten down the hatches"

The sailing practice of securing a ship's hatchways to prepare for bad weather. These hatchways were usually covered by a grill or left open to allow fresh air circulation. However, when bad weather threatened, the crew would cover these openings with tarpaulins and fasten them in place with wooden battens.


A nautical order to keep the ship's head to the wind, thus to stay clear of a lee shore or some other quarter.  The front part of the sail which meets the wind is called the luff. A sailing vessel that could point higher to windward and hold its speed better than another was said to stand apart or to sail a-luff that later became aloof. Today the word is used to describe a person who is distant or stands apart from the others.

"At a loose end"

A nautical term for a rope when unattached and therefore neglected or not doing its job. Thus 'tying up loose ends' indicates having done a complete job or having dealt with all the details. 

If you have any questions or if let us know if you have any other nautical slang, please Contact us.