36 nautical idioms to get you shipshape and Bristol fashion

ID-10095363My recent adventure on the high seas (well, the North Sea to be precise) got me thinking about the numerous nautical idioms that permeate the English language.

As an island nation, Britain has a rich maritime heritage. Our reliance on the sea for trading purposes resulted in a wealth of mariners’ lingo – much of which we still use today. However, over the passage of time the majority of these seafaring phrases and sayings have become metaphorical, with their original meanings long forgotten.

I’ve added in links for some of these nautical idioms in case you’d like to learn more about their origins and etymology.

All aboard

A shot across the bows = warning shot

All hands on deck = all members of the team are/should be involved

At close quarters = very close

Broad in the beam = having wide hips or buttocks

Chock-a-block = rammed so tightly together as to prevent movement

Loose cannon = unpredictable person or thing, liable to cause damage if unchecked

On board = as a member of a team or group

To batten down the hatches = prepare for trouble

To go by the board = finished with

To know/learn the ropes = understand how to do something

To take something on board = fully consider a new idea or situation

Ship ahoy!

Rats deserting a sinking ship = people abandoning a failing enterprise or organisation

Shipshape and Bristol fashion = with everything in good order

Ships that pass in the night = transitory acquaintances

To be in the same boat = be in the same unfortunate or difficult circumstances

To give someone/thing a wide berth = stay away; avoid close contact

To push the boat out = spend generously, often to mark a special occasion

To rock the boat = say or do something to aggravate an existing situation

To run a tight ship = be very strict in managing an organisation or operation

When someone’s ship comes in = when someone’s fortune is made

Life on the ocean waves

(All) at sea = in a state of confusion or indecision

Anchors aweigh = said in preparation of getting underway, especially of a ship

Between the Devil and the deep blue sea = caught between two difficulties

In deep water(s) = in trouble or difficulty

In smooth water = in quiet and serene circumstances, especially after difficulties

Plain sailing = smooth and easy progress

Sail close to the wind = come close to breaking a rule or the law

To get underway = begin a journey or a project

To make waves = cause trouble

Miscellaneous nautical idioms

By and large = on the whole; generally speaking; all things considered

High and dry = stranded without hope of recovery

In the offing = nearby; likely to happen or appear soon

The cut of one’s jib = a person’s appearance or demeanour

Three sheets to the wind = very drunk

To cut and run = run away

To fathom out = ascertain something; deduce from the facts

To pipe down = become quiet

Mythical nautical terms

Seafaring has also provided more than its fair share of false etymology. Contrary to popular belief, cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey has nothing to do with a ship’s brass fittings, nor does the acronym POSH actually stand for ‘Port out, starboard home’.

This collection of nautical idioms is by no means exhaustive. Which ones do you like best? Any that were new to you?

If you’ve enjoyed these, do check out some of the other posts in my idioms series.

(image courtesy of njaj via Freedigitalphotos.net)

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16 comments on “36 nautical idioms to get you shipshape and Bristol fashion
  1. Henry Foster says:

    Touch and go relates to sailing vessels with leeboards. As they tacked up narrow estuaries the leeboard would touch bottom, requiring the vessel to go about

  2. Ivor says:

    This is an interesting and fun collection and, as you say, it’s not exhaustive. There are plenty more to be dug out. Some of them may be of questionable origin but it’s often difficult to be absolutely certain. I feel it’s a good idea to record them all regardless, and simply add an informal ‘Credibility Score’, perhaps in the form of 1 to 10.

    The origin of words or sayings can sometimes require a lengthy or complex explanation but is also well worthwhile as it helps to paint an interesting and evocative picture.
    For example: The term ‘nipper’, used today to refer to a child, is generally believed to be of naval origin. As a ship ‘weighed anchor’, the anchor cable (or ‘hawser’) was drawn in by turning the capstan – a job requiring hefty sailors. However, the cable itself didn’t run round the capstan which instead drew a ‘messenger cable’ between itself and a heavy pulley-type wheel at the bows close to the ‘hawsehole’ through which the anchor cable passed out of the ship.
    As the cable came inboard and was drawn aft (towards the rear of the ship), it would be tied or ‘nipped’ to this messenger cable with a succession of short lengths of cord which would then each be released in turn to allow the anchor cable to drop into the ‘cable tier’ where it was stowed. This job of ‘nipping’ was done by young boys whose small stature allowed them more freely and nimbly to move about in the very limited space between decks. In this role, these boys were known as ‘nippers’!
    As it happens, during a battle, these same young boys would be tasked with running the prepared charges of gunpowder up to the gundecks from the powder store. In this role, they were called ‘powder monkeys’ – though I know of no modern use of the term.

    • Geraldine says:

      Thank you for your detailed reply, Ivor. Much as I would love to be able to collate and share ALL related words or sayings, it takes long enough to research and write these posts as it is! Like you, I’m fascinated by their origins, but including all that info in each post would make it so long as to be off-putting for many. Instead, where I come across a useful reference source online (rather than in books) I generally include a link so that anyone interested in finding out more about the etymology can do so.

      I didn’t know about the origin of “nippers”, probably because my post focuses on idioms and phrases not individual words, but thank you for enlightening me 🙂

  3. “In deep waters” for difficulties doesn’t make sense (I was a sailor). Shallow waters present far more difficulties with fast eddies and currents, running aground, and burying or loosing your keel. Deep waters are not a worry as you have plenty of draft, slower currents and often more room.

  4. Jaime says:

    Hi I think “anchors home” is not included. It means in securing position.

    • That’s probably because I hadn’t heard of that one, but I guess it’s a logical antonym to “anchors aweigh”. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment 🙂

  5. Brainbuster says:

    I would think, “Everything is aboveboard,” is a nautical idiom.

    • You’d think so wouldn’t you, but according to Phrases.org.uk the term originated in the gaming community: If card players keep their hands above the table (board) they can be seen to be playing fairly.

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment though 🙂

      • Tom Finding says:

        I read that the saying did have nautical roots and meant to not hide your crew below decks as pirates often did to hide their intentions when approaching another vessel.

        • Which saying are you referring to? I can’t see one that matches your definition, although it would appear to relate to “above board” which I’ve not included for some reason…

  6. Jerry Mitchell says:

    Surprised not to see “change tack” even though you didn’t claim it’s exhaustive.

    • Can’t believe I missed that one out either, but – as you say – it wasn’t intended to be an exhaustive list. These posts take long enough to research & write as it is! Thanks for the addition 🙂

  7. Actually, the more accurate SPELLING is “anchors aweigh” ….weigh meaning hoisted out of the water.

    • I can’t believe I missed that phrase out completely, with either spelling, but have added it in now. Thanks for stopping by & taking the time to leave a comment 🙂

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