50 Nautical Terms in General Use

By Mark Nichol

The vocabulary of sailing has enriched the English language with the development, by analogy, of new senses for nautical terms. Here are fifty such words with their original meanings and their landlubber connotations.

1. Aboard: on a vessel (assisting or in sympathy with)
2. Aboveboard: above the deck (out in the open, honest)
3. Adrift: not tied or secured (acting or living without purpose)
4. Aground: resting on the seafloor on shore (halted by circumstances)
5. Anchor: a heavy object that holds a vessel in place (a person or thing that figuratively keeps another person or thing steady)
6. Awash: water level with or slightly covering the deck (overwhelmed)
7. Bail: to throw out seawater or rainwater that has collected in a vessel (to help, or to abandon)
8. Ballast: stabilizing weights placed in the hull of a vessel (something that steadies or weighs down)
9. Beachcomber: a sailor without a berth or a shipboard assignment (a person living on or near a beach or the shore or one who searches such areas for salvage, or both)
10. Bearing: one’s position (posture or deportment)
11. Becalm: to come to a stop because of a lack of wind (to halt progress)
12. Berth: a sailor’s assignment, or a sailor’s bunk (a position or placement, in a location or in rankings)
13. Bilge: the lowest part of a hull (outdated or useless comments or ideas)
14. Capsize: to overturn (to ruin or interfere)
15. Chart: a navigational map, or to map a course (a display of graphical information, or to set a course)
16. Cockpit: a steering or berthing compartment (the pilot’s compartment in an airplane, or a place for cockfighting or location notorious for violence)
17. Course: the direction a ship is sailing (a procedure or a way of acting)
18. Current: a movement of water (the prevailing mood or tendency)
19. Heading: the direction a ship is sailing (one’s course)
20. Headway: progress or rate of progress in sailing (progress in general)
21. Helm: steering apparatus, or to operate such equipment (a position of leadership, or to lead)
22. Jury rig: to rig makeshift equipment (to make a quick fix using available materials)
23. Keel: the backbone of a vessel, running along the center of the hull (balance, as when someone is on an even keel)
24. Keelhaul: to drag a sailor underneath the ship along the hull as punishment (to punish severely)
25. Leeway: sideways movement of a vessel because of current or wind (flexibility)
26. Log: originally, a length of wood attached to a line and tossed overboard to measure speed, then a device with the same function; also, a record of operation (an accounting of any activity or progress)
27. Lookout: a sailor standing watch (someone keeping watch, or the position from which the person does so)
28. Manhole: an opening in to a compartment (a hole providing access underground or into a structure)
29. Mooring: securing with anchors or lines, or a place where mooring occurs (a stabilizing influence)
30. Navigation: the operation of a vessel (direction for traveling or movement through a virtual area, as on a website)
31. Overhaul: to ready equipment for use (to rebuild or repair)
32. Pilot: a steersman, or to steer a vessel (an operator of an aircraft or spacecraft, or to operate such a craft or to direct an operation or procedure, or a business or organization)
33. Quarantine: temporary sequestration of a vessel because of the possibility of spreading disease, or the location of the sequestration (enforced isolation, especially because of contagion, or the place of isolation)
34. Quarters: assigned living areas or workstations on a vessel, or an assembly of all crew members (lodging)
35. Rudder: an immersed blade of wood, metal, or plastic attached to a vessel and turned remotely to change its direction (a guiding force)
36. Salvage: to rescue or save a ship and/or its cargo, or the compensation for doing so; also, the property salvaged (saving something from being destroyed or discarded, or what is saved)
37. Scuttle: to sink a vessel by cutting a hole in the hull (to ruin something by abandonment or sabotage)
38. Scuttlebutt: a cask for holding drinking water and, by extension, the idle talk exchanged while drinking from it (gossip)
39. Seaworthy: in condition to be operated (solid or valid)
40. Ship: to send cargo or passengers by sea (to transport or distribute)
41. Shorthanded: lacking enough crew members (not having enough people to perform a task)
42. Sounding: a measurement of the depth of water (seeking an opinion or a statement of intention)
43. Stow: to put away and, by extension, to keep one’s opinion to oneself (to arrange, load, or store)
44. Swamped: submerged (overwhelmed)
45. Tack: to change a vessel’s direction, or the new direction (to shift one’s viewpoint, as in “take a new tack”)
46. Tide: the change of surface level of a body of water because of gravitational fluctuations (a fluctuating or rising phenomenon)
47. Under way: in motion (in progress)
48. Wake: the visible track of a vessel through water (aftermath)
49. Waterlogged: filled or soaked with water but afloat (full of or saturated with water)
50. Watertight: capable of preventing water from entering (solid, flawless)

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8 Responses to “50 Nautical Terms in General Use”

  • Mark Nichol


    Thanks for your note. I should have revised my introduction to note that these terms did not necessarily originate in nautical usage but were in most cases popularized that way.

  • Sally

    The point is, Mark, that many of these terms were used in non-nautical senses long before they were used at sea.

    Of many examples, I will cite just three:

    * ‘Chart’ was used for ‘letter, document’ in 1200, nearly four centuries before its first appearance in a maritime context (1580);

    * ‘Cockpit’ first meant ‘a place for fighting cocks’ (1580s). It’s first use for a midshipman’s compartment is more than 100 years later (1706)’

    * ‘Quarantine’ was first used in the C15 for the desert in which Jesus fasted for forty days. In the 1520s, it also meant “period of 40 days in which a widow has the right to remain in her dead husband’s house.” The sense of isolating ships thought to be carrying disease first appears in English in the 1660s.

  • John

    I recently came across this dictionary of nautical terms. While not being within the narrower intent of Mark’s post, I found them interesting nonetheless.


  • Stefano

    Good post, Mark.
    A few additions, if you don’t mind, to reach 60 Terms:

    1. Give someone/sthg a wide berth
    2. Top-heavy (sailing ship or organization)
    3. Dead in the water (ditto)
    4. Back on track
    5. Loose cannon
    6. On an even keel
    7. High and dry
    8. Packed to the gunwales (or gunnels)
    9. Plane sailing (more often spelled plain sailing)

    and of course

    10. Shipshape (and Bristol fashion)

  • Cliff Douglas

    I don’t think ‘aboveboard’ has a nautical origin. The ‘board’ in aboveboard is the same as the ‘board’ in room and board and refers to the table at which meals are taken. To be aboveboard is to keep one’s hands in plain sight and do nothing under the table.

  • Bronwen Jones

    Thank you very much for this. Good timing. I’m just writing a scene from an old sea dog’s point of view.

  • Roberta B.

    Jibe – as in “tack and jibe.” To go along with something. To be compatible. Both have to do with positioning of sails. Tack is to position the sails for a change in direction. Jibe is to position the sails go along with the wind, current, etc. So, when two things jibe (not jive) with each other, they are getting along or going along the same course.

  • Larry Barkley

    One nautical term I find interesting since most all people know it only from golf is “fairway,” which is a navigable channel in a river or harbor or the middle of a channel.

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