30 Nautical Expressions

By Mark Nichol

Last week, I listed fifty nautical terms originating from seafaring jargon but extended by analogy, with new meanings, to general usage. This roster includes idioms and expressions derived from nautical phrases, many of them originally codified as commands.

1. Abandon ship: an order given when a vessel is disabled or about to sink (give up on an idea or project)
2. All hands on deck: an order for all crew members to assemble in an emergency (a call for everyone available to be available to assist with an activity or event)
3. Anchor’s aweigh: a comment made when a vessel’s anchor is clear of the ocean floor and the vessel can leave its anchorage; sometimes pluralized to “anchors aweigh” and occasionally misspelled “anchors away” (a reference to being ready to go)
4. Batten down (the hatches): an order to secure hatches and doors and, when simply rendered “batten down,” all gear (prepare for criticism or opposition)
5. Bear a hand: an order to assist in the performance of an action (help)
6. Bear down (on): overtake (apply additional effort)
7. Bitter end: the last segment of a rope or chain (the final portion of a difficult or unpleasant task or occurrence)
8. Cast off: let go (remove or throw away)
9. Come around: turn into the wind (align oneself with another way of thinking)
10. Dead ahead: in front of the vessel directly along its center line (straight ahead)
11. Even keeled: well balanced — said of a vessel (steady, even tempered)
12. Fend off: push off when landing in a boat so as to avoid damage or upset (defend oneself from others or keep them away)
13. Gangway: an area on a vessel for embarking and disembarking (a warning to move out of the way)
14. Gone overboard: fallen over the side (said of one who has veered too far from the norm in one’s actions or opinions)
15. Keep a sharp lookout: an order to be especially vigilant in watching for hazards (be alert)
16. On deck: present for duty (in baseball, taking one’s place in a special area when one is next up at bat; in general, next in line or about to be presented)
17. Pay out: steadily slacken a line (distribute payment)
18. Pass down the line: relay an order (convey news or information in a series or to others)
19. Pass the word: repeat an order (convey news or information to others)
20. Run aground: striking the ocean floor with the hull of a vessel (halted because of a lack of resources, or reached an impasse)
21. Set a course: steer the vessel toward the intended destination (specify policy or a course of action)
22. Shake a leg: make haste (move quickly)
23. Shoot across the bow: fire a weapon in front of a vessel to signal that it should halt, at the risk of attack if the warning shot is ignored (express a comment or perform an action that signals intent in order to determine the likely response to a subsequent comment or action)
24. Sound out: determine the depth of a body of water (obtain someone’s opinion or reaction)
25. Stand by: an order to await further commands (wait)
26. Stem the tide: steer directly into a current or waves (prevent a mounting force or threat)
27. Stem to stern: the forward end of the bow to the rear part of the vessel; the entire vessel (front to back, beginning to end, or all-inclusive)
28. Storm warning: an announcement of a coming storm (a harbinger of danger or threat)
29. Three sheets to the wind: sailing with sails unsecured (drunk)
30. Wide berth: a significant distance between one vessel and another (plenty of space)

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2 Responses to “30 Nautical Expressions”

  • Sally

    Once again, Mark, many of these – stand by, shake a leg, pass the word, pass down the line (military!), pay out, keep a sharp lookout, bitter end, bear down – were not originally nautical in origin.

  • Eugene

    Under “Shake a leg:”

    When Britain ruled the seas, the ship was a sailor’s home 24/7. It could also be called prison for there was no leaving. At the end of day, the port lovelies were allowed on board for the night. For a muster call the command to “shake a leg” was given. From under the covers in the hammocks in the berthing space, legs were turned (shaken) out. Hairy legs were turned to ship’s work while fair, smooth legs were bid adieu.

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