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Born of the Sea - Interesting Nautical Terms in Everyday Use

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 4 8

Though the halcyon days of sailing are long gone, replaced by the steady thrum of diesel engines, the words and sayings of those times have permeated the English language and left an indelible, albeit unrecognized, imprint on our descriptions of the quotidian.

In many cases, their descriptions did not fit in with conventional wisdom and were rapidly lost. For instance, as any seaman will tell you, the smell that is typically characterized as the smell of the ocean is actually the smell of land and man’s presence there. It is only landlubbers who comment on the smell of the sea.

Nevertheless, there are hundreds of colloquial, nautical terms in everyday use in every English speaking country. Most speakers are unmindful of the interesting, though rather pedestrian, original meanings. Here are a few of that give pause for thought.


Above Board

In the old days, even with the best of sailing ships, half the battle was simply getting close enough to engage the enemy. Hours certainly and even days would be spent chasing another ship as the currents and winds changed. Of course, it was always the larger, more powerfully armed shipped that chased the smaller.

Thus, much thought was given to concealing the actual strength of a naval or pirate vessel. Crewmen and marines were kept below decks, colloquially known as the boards and guns were concealed under cargo netting, In addition, in may cases, a false flag was flown. A captain who resorted to none of this trickery was considered to have kept everything above board.


As the Crow Flies

While sailors of the 18th and 19th century were a notably superstitious bunch - many refused lessons in swimming as it was considered bad luck - they were also a fairly pragmatic lot.

In the early years of sailing, it was not uncommon for seamen to remain within sight of land to keep track of their position. This tactic proved untenable when crossing the larger bodies of water became necessary.

Instead, sailors would rely on crude maps, dead reckoning and the occasional bird. Crows were often kept on board for the sole purpose of finding land. Crows are a “landlubbin’” breed and will always fly towards any nearby land. The crow’s nest was used to determine the exact direction of their flight.


The Devil to Pay

This phrase is often mistaken as the description of the back end of some diabolical deal. In fact, “the devil to pay” has nothing to do with Satan or any of his minions.

In wooden sailing vessels, the planks that formed the sides of the ship did not fit exactly and had to be sealed with a tar-like substance, pitch. The longest seam on the boat was known as the devil and the tar was called “peie” from the French. So “the devil to pay’ was simply a difficult and laborious process detested by the average seamen.

Similarly, the phrase “between the devil and the deep blue sea” meant standing on a plank or being suspended from a rope as one tried to accomplish this goal.


Turn a Blind Eye

The fascinating etymology of this phrase is due to the hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronté, KB. Only an admiral at the time, Lord Nelson had already lost an eye in the service of his country and wore a patch over the socket.

Lord nelson was an impetuous fellow with an unparalleled grasp of early 19th century naval strategy and tactics. At the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, his then superior, Sir Hyde Parker, gave, via flag signals, what was considered an unequivocal order to retreat.

The aggressive Lord Nelson placed his telescope to his patched eye and stated that he could not make out the message thus turning a blind eye to the signal. His forces subsequently pressed home the attack and won the day.


First Rate

As a term of excellence, this phrase has been around since the early 1500s and, since that time, has been based on the number of cannon or guns that a ship carries. The powerful the ship, the higher its rating.

The phrase came into ordinary use when the Royal Navy ruled the seas and was a dominant force in the cultural and literary worlds of England. At the height of its power, a British first rate ship would carry 100 guns or more and was the better of any ship in the world. Lesser armed ships were considered second-rate or worse.



Fresh water was a highly prized commodity on a ship full of working men in extreme heat. A cask called a “butt” was kept in a secure, cool place with a hole or “scuttle’ cut in it. As the seamen would break for a quick drink of water, they would invariably stop to have a quick chat  with whoever else was there.  That’s right, water cooler gossip, or scuttlebutt” was alive and well, and practiced  by men, on sailing ships for the last 500 years.


Square Meal

Shipboard life is still tough for the current generation of sailors. In the past, it was far more difficult as many days could pass during which a suitable fire could not be maintained for the cooking of food. On these days, the sailors were fed a ration of hardtack, salted pork with no plate and some grog in a cup.

On calmer days, when fires would not cause an undue risk to the ship, a warmed meal was served to the crew on a square plate. Not incidentally, the sailors were not always that happy with “three squares a day” since that meant that the ship was only making minimal headway. Nevertheless, for the seamen engaged in the rigorous and calorie consuming business of sailing, a hearty and warm square meal was always welcome.


The Final Word ?

There are hundreds more references in our language that derive from the sea and sailing. From single words such as “listless” and “groggy” to more complicated phrases like “letting the cat out of the bag” and “keel over” each term lends an interesting and valuable insight into the world of the 18th and 19th centuries and their mariners.



Apr 28, 2012 9:40am
I love stuff like this - it seems every occupation and hobby has this great lexicon of words that only they are privy to. Languages are really fascinating. Great read, thanks.
Apr 28, 2012 10:41am
Thanks for reading JudyE.
Apr 28, 2012 11:53am
Thanks for this interesting etymology article. I have written about this too and find it to be the cats meow, the bees knees, etc. Fun stuff. Thumbs up.
May 4, 2012 11:48pm
What an interesting and fun read. Thumbs Up!
May 15, 2012 11:55am
Very interesting article. I enjoyed reading it.


May 15, 2012 9:55pm
Fun stuff to think about!
May 17, 2012 12:19am
Interesting. People never really think of where terms that they've been saying for years (most likely learning them from their parents) came from.

You've solved several mysteries today. lol.
May 18, 2012 2:09am
Well deserved feature. I love learning the history of words.
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