Nautical terms and phrases

Did you know these words & phrases have a nautical origin?!

Just as William Shakespeare had a huge impact on the English language and our lexicon is dotted with words and phrases he literally made up (assassination, fair play, elbow room, addiction, laughing-stock, wild goose chase) – English is also full of nautical slang…

It’s not surprising when you consider British history is tied up with the sea; most nautical terms come from the Royal Navy, where words and phrases were created to describe equipment or procedures onboard ships.

Here are some of the most common phrases you might not know were actually nautical terms…

Above Board – literally anything above the deck, so it can be seen clearly.

Aloof – comes from the Dutch word loef meaning “windward” and used to describe a boat capable of sailing unusually close to the wind.

Clean bill of health – a certificate signed by the port authority which states all crew are free of infectious disease. Essential in the 18th Century when more sailors died of disease than in battle.

Cut & run – cutting an anchor line and departing quickly in an emergency, such as an ambush.

Dressing down – the process by which old sails were repaired and treated with oil and wax to improve their usefulness. The term was then used to describe the process of telling off a sailor, presumably in order to improve their usefulness…

Dutch courage – during the 17th Century Ango-Dutch War sailors were told the Dutch sailors were cowards so could only fight when drunk. Slightly ironic given the Royal Navy only abolished its Rum Ration in 1970!

Foul up – covering all manner of ills, originally tangled ropes, caught anchors, or similar were described as “fouled”.

First rate – naval “Ships of the Line” were rated, so the largest and most powerful were First Rate, followed by Second, Third, Fourth Rate etc.

Fits the bill – The Bill of Lading was the manifest which needed to be signed to say the ship had received all its supplies, in which case it “fitted the bill”.

Footloose – the bottom corner of a sail is the “foot”, unsecured it will flap in the wind; which is both inefficient and damages the sail.

Flying colours – a ship would fly her “colours” (flags) from the mastheads. If a ship survived battle with all her masts still standing she would still be flying her colours, which would be pretty impressive.

Get underway – a ship is “underway” when making “way” through the water, it has nothing to do with roads.

Go overboard – you’re probably ahead of us here, but if you do something a bit too much on a ship you might end up overboard, whether pushed or otherwise!

Gripe – a badly designed ship would “gripe” into the wind, turning towards the wind slowing it down.

Groggy – “grog” was navy strength (54.6%) rum mixed with water, if you have too much you’ll feel groggy… Sailors were rationed a tot a day at 11am, which was nearly 4 units (roughly two pints of beer).

While we’re on booze: the old measure of “alcohol proof” was the lowest strength of rum which when poured over gunpowder would still ignite (57.15% abv), so navy rum was “95% proof”…

There are many many more nautical terms in everyday use, keep an eye out for our next blog where we give some more of our favourites!