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10 Nautical Terms We Use Everyday!

In my last blog,  I introduced a few nautical words to help a newbie or wannabe sailor.  That got me to thinking about nautical terms words and phrases we use on an everyday basis that have their origins in old naval language.  Some appear obviously nautical, for example when someone takes the wind out of your sails, and some are less obvious.  If you want to learn to sail, it’s not important to swot up on these terms, but it could be fun to spend a day trying to cram in as many of these phrases into your conversations onboard! Whilst doing my research for this, I discovered hundreds of common phrases that “be sailor talk” but at risk of being boring, I have narrowed it down to 10. 

At a loose end – meaning having nothing to do. It refers to the times when the ship’s captain would get bored or idle crew to check the ends of ropes to make sure none were coming loose.

Bamboozle – meaning to deceive someone. The origin of this word comes from the days of sail when ships (particularly pirate ships) would fly the ensign of another country to deceive passing ships as to their true nationality.   

Chock a block – meaning crammed very tightly together. The nautical origin of this phrase refers to when the sails were pulled in tight so that the boat could sail as close to the wind as possible, the blocks (pulleys) would be pulled in as tight or close together as possible.

Fathom out – meaning to work something out that we don’t understand. In the old days of sailing the depth of the sea (or how many fathoms) was measured by lowering a lead weight on a long line and then measuring the length of the wet line with outstretched arms. Thus, they fathomed out the depth of the sea.

Groggy – meaning a little worse for wear because of alcohol, or “grog”. Admiral Edward Vernon wore a cloak made of a coarse cloth called grogram and in 1740, he ordered his men to dilute their daily ration of rum with water. Grog was the contemptuous word the sailors used to refer to both the admiral and their watered-down rations.  

Hunky dory – meaning that life is good. It’s been suggested that this phrase comes from a street named “Honki-Dori” in Japan. This street was frequented by sailors as it catered to man’s pleasures!  If life was Honki Dori, a sailor had money, plenty of grog, and a pretty girl.

Mind your P’s and Q’s – meaning to be on your best behavior. Sailors would be able to run a tab at the inn until they got paid. The tab was marked as P’s for pints and Q’s for quarts. When they got paid they would then have to mind their P’s and Q’s.  

No room to swing a cat – meaning a small place with little room. This expression refers to the whipping punishment metered on sailing vessels back in the day, using the cat o’ nine tails.  All hands were called to deck to witness the punishment so the deck often became too crowded for the whip to be swung properly without hitting others.

The bitter end – meaning to arrive at the conclusion. The bitter end refers to the end of rope or last link of chain that is attached to the vessel.  The working end then may be attached to an anchor for example.

Three sheets to the wind – meaning very drunk! – the nautical origins refer to the vessel not being under control because three sheets (ropes) are loose causing the sails to flap and the boat to lurch in a drunken manner.

Any more suggestions to add to this list? 

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