30 More Nautical Expressions

By Mark Nichol

After launching a list of seafaring idioms on a previous online cruise, I discovered a cargo hold of additional expressions that originated on the high seas but have come to rest high and dry on land. Here’s the haul.

1. All at sea: lost because of lack of knowledge of one’s position (confused and disorganized)
2. At loose ends: a reference to idle sailors being assigned to check that rigging is secure (idle)
3. Bail out: remove water from (assist or rescue)
4. Broad in the beam: said of a wide vessel (said of a large-hipped woman)
5. By and large: said in reference to steering slightly off the wind to ease effort and decrease the risk of slowing (in general, without special consideration)
6. Cut and run: sever the anchor line in an emergency (leave abruptly and abandoning others)
7. Fall foul of: collide with or become entangled in (come into conflict with)
8. First-rate: the largest class of warships during the sailing era (best)
9. Flog a dead horse: a reference to a period of work after getting — and spending — an initial payment (focusing on something already completed or settled)
10. Flotsam and jetsam: items lost or thrown overboard, respectively (odds and ends)
11. Give a wide berth: provide sufficient space when anchoring or docking to avoid other ships (keep at a distance)
12. Go by the board: a reference to something lost overboard (said of something to be abandoned or ignored)
13. Hail from: referring to the point of origin of a ship (come from, live)
14. Half seas over: partly submerged or keeled over so that waves are breaking over the deck, and therefore unable to maneuver effectively (drunk)
15. Hand over fist: using one hand at a time in quick alternating movements (rapidly)
16. Hard and fast: grounded (inflexible)
17. Hard up: a reference to the tiller being pushed as far to one side as possible (short of money)
18. High and dry: beached or caught on rocks and standing out of the water as the tide recedes (stranded or without resources or support)
19. In the offing: in sight, from the term for the expanse of ocean visible from shore (about to happen)
20. Know the ropes/learn the ropes: a reference to understanding knots, ropes, and rigging (familiarity with or training in how to perform a task)
21. Loose cannon: a piece of artillery that is not secure and therefore can cause damage or injury when it rolls on its wheels from the ship’s movement or from its recoil after being fired (out of control or unpredictable)
22. Ship shape: ready for sailing, with equipment and materials secured (clean, neat, in good condition)
23. Skylarking: sliding down rigging for fun (engaging in playful antics)
24. Take another tack: change the ship’s direction in relation to the wind (try another approach)
25. Take the wind out of one’s sails: a reference to the loss of movement when another vessel comes between the wind and one’s ship (to undermine another, usually by anticipating an action)
26. Taken aback: halted by a sudden shift of wind (surprised by a revelation)
27. Three sheets to the wind: a reference to the sheets (ropes) of a sail becoming loosened, rendering the sail useless (drunk)
28. Trim one’s sails (before the wind): adjust sails as appropriate (act according to circumstances)
29. When one’s ship comes home: a reference to the arrival of a fully laden cargo ship that will bring profit to the owner or investors (achievement of fortune or good luck)
30. Whistle for it/whistle for the wind: from the tradition of superstitiously whistling to summon the wind (hope for the impossible)

At least two nautical expressions, “between the devil and the deep (blue) sea” (meaning, essentially, “between a rock and a hard place”) and “to the bitter end” (meaning “to the last extremity, regardless of difficulty”), have been attributed to seafaring origins, but the idioms, or similar expressions, may have come from earlier landlubber usage.

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5 Responses to “30 More Nautical Expressions”

  • Roberta B.

    Sally – Thanks for the link with the explanation. The description I wrote above was given to me over 30 years ago by an American sailing instructor. So, I suppose he (like many of us) was misinformed, too.

  • Mark Nichol


    Thanks for your counsel about caution in accepting dubious documentation, and for your warning about CANOE attacks, several of which I have survived.

  • Sally

    Para 5
    “whistle down (the) wind = to abandon,” “talk purposelessly.”

  • Sally

    You’re right to be tentative on some of these phrases, Mark. While many English expressions *do* have a seafaring origin, many do not, and we have to be ever vigilant against CANOE, the Committee for Ascribing a Naval Origin to Everything.

    In fact I’d even question two more of your thirty. “Flogging a dead horse” is said to come from the seafarers’ habit of dragging a straw horse – representing their leftover pay – around the deck and whipping it. One is then left to giggle at the strange habits of British sailors and/or wonder why they saw leftover pay as a “dead horse.”

    However, the first reference to “dead horse” as “effort expended for no result” is in a 17th Century play about rural life, while the actual phrase with its modern meaning is first found in the UK Hansard (parliamentary record) in 1859, again without reference to the sea.

    *I* think it’s simply a metaphor – and that’s what I tell my students..

    While the OED mentions sailors’ habit of whistling in relation to wind from at least 1605, it refuses to definitely point to this as the origin. This is wise, since whistling has also been associated with witches, who can “whistle up = summon” a wind. The phrase has reversed its meaning (now “to hope for the impossible”), no doubt under the influence of “whistle down (the) wind = to abandon / talk purposely.” This in turn is derived from (a) the mediaeval theatre, where “whistle out/off/away” means “to dismiss contemptuously” and (b) falconry, where one released one’s bird upwind to hunt, but *downwind* for recreation.

    But, Roberta, the ‘sheets’ are in fact ‘ropes’ or ‘chains.’ No, I’m not a sailor … I’m merely repeating the testimony of friends who are (and confirmed by http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-thr1.htm)

  • Roberta B.

    Forgot to mention this one last time:
    #27 “Three sheets to the wind” means lack of energy or stamina, possibly resulting from drunkedness, but also from some other exhaustion, such as a hard day’s work. The sheets are the sails (not ropes), and the expression comes from raising all three sails at the same time in an effort to catch any amount of windpower during still conditions.

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