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June 12, 2014

13 Nautical Sayings in Common Usage

Before I get to my TT today – two public service notices!

1. The Covergasm contest closes on 13 June. I’m giving away a $10 Amazon GC. All you need to do is comment on my post, which is here. You can also enter the Grand prize draw and win a larger Amazon gift certificate by completing the rafflecopter

2. Win an e-copy of The Bottom Line at Sidney Bristol’s blog. Sidney is also giving away an Amazon GC and a bundle of e-books.


Mr Munro and I went on a Pacific cruise last year, and each day at midday we were told how far we’d traveled, about the weather and given the history of a nautical term. I was surprised by the number of nautical terms that had been integrated into every day use.

Thirteen Nautical Sayings in Common Usage

1. All at sea – means a state of confusion or disorder. This phrase comes from the days of sail prior to accurate navigational aids. When a ship was out of sight of the land they were in danger of becoming lost, therefore they were all at sea.

2. By and large – means all things considered or on the whole. If the wind was blowing from a point behind the position of a ship’s direction then it was said to be large. By means in the general direction of. If a ship could sail by and large this meant it could sail downwind and also against the wind in order to progress on its voyage.

3. Give a wide berth – means keep a good distance away. Berth used to mean a place where there is sea room to moor a ship, and if a sailor was told to give a wide berth, they had to keep the ship away from a certain object.

4. Batten down the hatches – means to prepare for trouble. A hatch is a hatchway or an opening in the deck of a ship. They were like a skylight and enabled ventilation. If bad weather looked likely then the hatches were covered with tarpaulin and edged with wooden strips known as battens to keep the tarpaulin in place during a gale.

5. Close quarters – means close contact, and in particular, close contact with an enemy. In the nautical world, close quarters were barriers of wood stretching across a merchant ship in several places. They were used as a place to retreat when a ship was boarded by pirates or enemies. They were fitted with loop holes in order for the men to fire out at their enemy.

6. Shake a leg – means to hurry up. It’s said show a leg, which means make an appearance, is related. The nautical meaning is an order to rouse and get out of bed. Sailors were expected to show that they were awake by sticking a leg out from under the covers – a sign they were ready to leave their hammocks.

7. Taken aback – surprised or startled. In nautical terms if the direction of the wind changed suddenly so the ship was facing into the wind, then the ship was taken aback.

8. Mal de mer – seasickness. A ship’s motion is three dimensional, which makes the person suffer illness and misery for a long time. There was no escape.

9. Loose cannon – an unpredictable person or thing. This saying comes from the 17th century when the cannon was the main weapon. They had an enormous recoil after firing and were mounted on rollers and secured with rope. A loose cannon was one which had become free of its restraints.

10. Plain sailing – smooth and easy progress. This meant a the voyage was without trouble. Primarily a US term.

11. Hard and fast – without doubt or debate. In nautical terms a ship that was hard and fast was beached on land and wasn’t coming free without difficulty.

12. Shiver my timbers – this was an oath that expressed annoyance or surprise. If a sailor said shiver my timbers he was hoping that the ship would break into pieces.

13. Push the boat out – to spend generously or to spend more than you usually would. Boats were often too large for one person to push into the sea if they were beached. To help push the boat out was an act of kindness because you were helping a man get his boat ready for use.

Do you suffer from mal de mer?

Source – http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/nautical-phrases.html


  1. sandy


    • Shelley Munro

      Thanks for stopping by, Sandy.

  2. Alice Audrey

    I had no idea so many of these – sayings which I grew up with – originated with sailors.

    • Shelley Munro

      I didn’t either. I was surprised.

  3. Heather

    Cool and informative post, Shelley. I have never suffered mal de mer or motionsickness of any sort. It drives some friends crazy that I can read in a moving vehicle without getting sick.

    • Shelley Munro

      I can’t read in a vehicle. That does make me feel ill.

  4. Colleen

    Full steam ahead and smooth sailing! There are about as many sayings related to boating as their are to chickens.

    • Shelley Munro

      Yes, there are, once you dig below the surface.

  5. Mary Kirkland

    I’ve never taken a cruise so I don’t know if being on a big boat is different than being on a paddle boat or houseboat. Those are the only kind of boats I’ve been on and I didn’t get sea sick.

    • Shelley Munro

      A small boat is worse, Mary, so I think you’d be fine.

  6. Sandra Cox

    I always wondered what Shiver my Timbers meant:)

  7. CountryDew

    This was very interesting and quite cool. We have a weather saying: red sky in morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailors delight. Never thought about the rest of those sayings being nautical in nature.

  8. Nancy Henderson

    I started watching the series Crossbones which is about Blackbeard the pirate. This info accompanies it nicely!

  9. T.F. Walsh

    Love the ‘Shake a leg’ saying…hehe