Terms & Terms &
Traditional Nautical Terms
Traditional Nautical Terms & Sayings
by We hope that you have enjoyed this short
work, and that it may have given you a greater
Douglass B. Nelson 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
INTRODUCTION another Time-Life book: Nelson's Navy. We also used several
nautical novels, such as Mr. Dana's Two Years Before the
The English language is well-known for its Mast, Melville's Moby Dick, The Alexander Kent Novels, C. tendency to borrow words and phrases from other Northecotte Parkinson's sea novels, and C.S. Forrester's
languages and adopt them for its own. Quite a few Hornblower Series. Indeed, many sea terms have of these come from the sea-faring portion of our even found acceptance in areas well away from the history, and have distinctly nautical overtones ocean. Army tanks, for example have 'turrets', which are still recognized. Many nautical 'hulls', and 'decks'. Some claim that Winston phrases and terms have their origins from the Churchill is responsible for this. He sponsored days of sailing ships. Since both Great Britain and pioneered its development during the First and the United States have shared a long maritime World War, while First Sea Lord of the Admiralty heritage as well as a common language, it is only (Which is like our Secretary of the Navy), and so natural that many of these have survived to the gave these terms to the armored vehicle.
At any rate, the English language still present day. Germany, Holland and France, for
continues to grow, and this chapter may well be example, are other European nations with a long
obsolete even as you are reading it now. faring tradition of their own, and they have sea-
-Fair Winds and Following Seas! 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
Page 52 182. Question: Why do Beer Mugs have Glass
Bottoms? - There are two answers to this odd 180. Worth His Salt - In the days of the Roman feature. The first is quite mundane and rather Empire, soldiers were paid with bags of salt, or simple: It allows the bartender to see that you their 'salarium'(The term, 'salary' is derived are approaching ‘empty’ as you take a swig, and from this) which they in turn would exchange with therefore can offer you a refill (Some wags state
that it also prevents 'drinking' from an empty locals for goods and services. Thus any man who
did his job well was worth what was paid to him. mug and taking the space a productive customer
would sit in). The second is more interesting, 181. Yankee - Reported to be Dutch in origin. and has to do with the infamous ‘press gangs’ of
King George III. It was the law that if a man Fishing boats from Holland often fished off of
the coast of what is now New England. Indeed, ‘Accepted the King’s Shilling’ as a first day’s many of the early settlers in New England and New wage, then he was legally obligated to serve the York were Dutch, and so many of them had the king as a soldier or sailor. Unscrupulous press common sur-name of 'Jan', the plural form of gangs would buy a potential victim a tankard of which was 'Janke'. Due to the peculiarities of beer or ale, and then drop a shilling in the mug Dutch pronunciation, 'J' is commonly sounded as when he wasn’t looking. Swallowing, choking, or 'Y' to English speakers. It has since become just finding the shilling was enough for the broadly applied to any New Englander, and press gang. Thus, mugs began to have glass eventually, to any North American. 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
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', Page 2
which was the old German word for 'air' being
'luft'. However, instead of going 'up' into the 7. Back - The wind backs when it changes counter-air, this variation described the act of going clockwise, but veers when it changes clockwise. towards where the 'air', or 'wind' came from. In Square sails are backed or 'aback' when the wind this context, it became 'a - luff', which meant, blows on their forward side, thrusting them 'go towards the wind', or 'windward'. This against the mast. Should this occur through a became 'upwind', and was used to describe a ship shift of the wind, the effect of a heavy sea, or that remained out of action, but could come in at a careless helmsman, a ship is said to be "taken any time by merely turning enough to catch the aback." This term is now applied to people taken wind and run straight in. This term was by surprise in a conversation.
naturally used to describe a person who remained
away from others, or was snobbish in behavior. 8. Batten - A thin iron bar which is used to
secure the tarpaulin cover over a cargo hatch or 4. An Old Fogey - "FOGY" is an old term for a passageway. "Batten down the hatches" usually longevity pay increase. Believed derived from means prepare for a storm or trouble. the paymaster's log entry: 'For On-Going Years',
or the initials: F.O.G.Y. It has become an 9. Before the Mast - Signing on a ship's crew as insulting term for anyone with old-fashioned an ordinary seaman on a merchant vessel, or notions or beliefs. sometimes as an enlisted sailor on a naval ship.
It refers to the fact that the ship rapidly 5. Avast - Contraction of two French words, 'Haud narrows towards the bow after the foremost mast, Vast', meaning to 'hold fast'. In other words, where it is impractical to stow cargo. Quite hang on and stop what you're doing. naturally, especially aboard merchantmen, it is
where the regular crew have their sleeping 6. Aye Aye - The present meaning of the quarters. Officers and passengers had theirs aft. expression "AYE, AYE" which originally was "Yes, Popularized by Richard Dana's novel, "Two Years
Yes" is from Old English, which was "I understand, Before the Mast"
and I will do it." It is based on the Latin word,
'Aio', meaning 'yes'. 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.
Page 51 Page 50
177. Turning the Screws on Him - An ancient 172. Strack - Well-trained, experienced, and medieval form of torture was the thumbscrew. A sharply dressed troops, both in appearance and small, cylindrical device made of iron and behavior. US Army in origin, believed to be tightened with a hand-turned screw. When fitted derived from the initials of a very favorable over the victim's thumb, it could be easily unit evaluation report: Skilled, Tested, and
tightened enough to break the bones, thus causing Ready Around the Clock (S.T.R.A.C.).
excruciating pain. This term is now applied to
any individual who is having pressure brought 173. The Whole Nine Yards - A saying from World against him to coerce or punish him. War I. The standard length of a machine gun belt
that was carried by fighter planes was 178. Turning the Tables - Colonial American in approximately nine yards.
origin. Family kitchen tables served dual
purposes as both a working surface for kneading 174. Tickled to Death - Oddly enough, this has dough, stretching leather, cleaning game and fish, Chinese Origins. A method of torture and etc., as well as a formal place for dining. Thus execution in ancient China was to tickle the bare tables had two sides and were often constructed feet of a strapped-down prisoner with a goose in such a way as to be easily turned over and feather. This would cause the victim to laid upon its supports. When a formal meal was literally laugh himself to death through finished, turning the smoothed surface of the exhaustion
dining table over to expose its rougher 'working'
surface provided guests with the hint that the 175. Three on a Match - World War I in origin. A host family was about to return to work, and that superstition of bad luck if three smokers used the visit was over. -It also provided a the same match. It comes from the days of trench not-so-subtle hint that a visitor was unwelcome warfare at night when snipers were active. The if the rough surface was turned up and his meal first man who lit the match would be spotted by was served upon it. the sniper. The second man whom the match was
passed to light up his smoke with gave the sniper 179. Windfall - In the days of King George III, a an initial aiming point. The third man who took common decree was that any tree greater than 24" the match was the sniper's victim, since he now in diameter 'belonged to the king'. In other had time to take careful aim and squeeze the words, reserved exclusively for building trigger.
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.
176. Tip - In the early days and of inns and Page 3
taverns, patrons could be served faster if they
paid a little more than the going price for a 11. Bilge - Old English in origin. A variation meal by simply bribing the waiter to serve them of 'bulge'. Where the ship 'bulged' most was at first. To encourage this practice, waiters would its bottom. There, sea water seeping in through leave small coin boxes on the table with the the bottom planks became stagnant and foul, which label, 'To Insure Promptness' written on them, or was mixed by dripping water and 'slops' from the the initials, 'TIP'.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 Page 4
English in origin. 'Boot' (boat) + 'Swain' (Boy,
or Servant). A petty officer on a merchant ship 15. Boot Camp - A training area for new recruits
having charge of hull maintenance and related just entering the Navy. This is said to have
work.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).
Page 49 171. Sleep Tight - Colonial American in origin.
Beds were simple frames constructed of wood and 169. Rigmarole - From the days of King Edward III with the mattresses supported by a network of of England. He conquered much of Scotland and ropes. Since all ropes will slacken, it was forced the Scottish nobles to swear obedience, necessary to tighten them up to give support and fealty and allegiance to him, personally. They not allow the mattress to sag uncomfortably. A signed their names on individual sheets of simple courtesy that was performed for a visiting parchment that were delivered to each one of them, guest. Thus the phrase, 'sleep tight' was a wish which were then taken back to London. Once there, that the visitor would sleep comfortably. 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
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
Page 48 Page 5
167. Hoist with his own petard - 'Petard' is the 18. Bridge - As ships passed to steam and orders name given to an explosive device used during could be given by remote methods such as the siege warfare. It consisted of a large container engine-order telegraph, a small control deck with of gunpowder that was hoisted up to the middle of an enclosed pilot house was constructed above the a city's gates and detonated with a fuse to blow main deck of the ship in front of the funnel, them open. Since it was large and heavy, it usually reaching from side to side and thus required a hoisting frame and a small group of 'bridging' the main deck. It became the term men heaving on ropes to raise it up its desired used to describe the place where the Captain height. It was naturally an extremely dangerous steered the ship from and gave his orders. assignment, and so it was common for some of the
members to flee before the charge was secured, 19. Brig - One of the smaller but more versatile thus causing a luckless companion to get tangled warships of the sailing era was the two-masted in the ropes and hauled up alongside the heavy 'brigantine' (French word for 'Bandit'), or explosive while it descended and/or exploded. 'brig' as it was abbreviated by the Royal Navy. Thus the term came to be applied to anyone who Small, fast, and well-armed for its size, it was caught in a trap or situation of his own served as a scout for the bigger ships, patrol devising. 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 168. Jerkwater - This term comes from the early
days of the rail road. Water towers with personnel back and forth to England. Admiral pull-down spouts were built along the railroad's Nelson found them very handy to transport route where a steam engine could stop and prisoners of war. So many were his victories and replenish the water supply for its boiler. Small so great was his success that for a period of settlements often grew round such a convience, time nearly every brig arriving in England had since a train was sure to stop there. Often the prisoners aboard, and so many were modified as reverse was the case. -Sometimes a small sea-going jails for this express purpose. With settlement would build a tower to induce a train every ship having at least one or two troublesome to stop there and therefore generate a little crewmen as well as an occasional prisoner of war, business. At any rate, the term soon became it was customary to put him in the ships own applied to any small, out of the way settlement "brig" for a spell.
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.
Page 6 25. Bunkering - Bunkers were often filled with
coal for the fueling of steamships. Thus the
20. Broach - Middle English - 'brocus', or term was used to describe the action of taking on
'projecting'. Originally used to describe the fuel.
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.