Did you know?…..some naval trivia !

Our maritime heritage has given us some wonderful facts which we hope you might enjoy.  Nautical terms may sound funny to our ears, but we use them more than you may realize. These boating-inspired words are found in everyday language and references and might lend a little humour to your writing. Use them to lighten your tone and provide a fun, descriptive twist to your material.

A Square Meal

Below decks on a ship of war space was at a premium therefore the plates from which the sailors ate their food were square, stackable plates,,,,hence, a square meal.

A crew Cut

The only man onboard ship with really sharp instruments was usually the ships surgeon.  From time to time (usually after an outbreak of headlice) the ship’s company would be lined up and the surgeon would cut everyone’s hair very short (less hiding places for the lice), hence, A crew cut.

Flotsam and Jetsam

Often used together, flotsam and jetsam mean two different things. The root of flotsam is “float” and describes something that fell overboard. The root of jetsam is “jettison” and describes items thrown overboard.


Landlubber, or land lover, describes a person who struggles with being at sea, on a boat, or experiences seasickness.
The barrel containing the fresh drinking water was called a scuttlebutt and became a place for sailors to gather, talk, and pass on information. The term scuttlebutt rumours became synonymous with information.


Shanghai is a city in China and was often an area where people were kidnapped and pressed into service on ships. To be Shanghaied is to be taken or betrayed.

Loose Cannon

When a cannon broke free from its mooring, it would move across the deck and create a hazardous situation.

Hunky Dory

Hunky Dory is an abbreviated version of a street name in Japan known for the services provided to the sailors who visited there. It is meant to mean all is well or perfect.


The original term, shipshape (or ship shape) and in Bristol fashion, referred to when Bristol was Britain’s main west coast port and was used to describe everything being in order with cargo and at the port.


A limey is slang for sailor and originated with the practice of issuing limes as a means to prevent scurvy on long voyages. The British navy was a dominant force on the seas, so the term began to represent the British in general.

Bottoms Up

The term bottoms up became a way to warn people to check for a coin at the bottom of their drink. The British used to con people into joining the Navy and would buy them a beer with a coin on the bottom. If the beer was finished off, the Navy considered this accepting payment and would press them into service.

Rats Deserting a Sinking Ship

Rats and other vermin were commonplace on ships, but if the boat began to take on water, they would jump into the water and swim away to try and save themselves.


To choc or block something means to secure a moving object. While under sail, barrels, cannons, and other items could shift. Blocking them kept them from moving to avoid damage or injury to those on deck. Now the term means that something is crowded or full up.

Drive Me Up the Pole

The highest point on a ship is up the main mast pole and serves as a lookout. This was not a sought-after job as you would be exposed to the elements without protection and experience the most movement as the ship swayed in the water.

Land HO!

To call out “Land ho!” was to let the crew know land had been spotted. It is a way to let everyone know that the end of a voyage is imminent. .


“Hoy” was a middle English greeting derived from the Dutch “hoi”. It soon became “ahoy” as a signal word to boats and passing ships.

The Cut of His/Her Jib

Jibs are a type of sail, and many ships would fly unique jibs to show their country of origin or what type of ship it was.

In the Doldrums

The doldrums are an area near the equator where very little surface wind is present. This created problems with ships dependent on the wind to fill their sails, and being “in the doldrums” meant to be at a standstill or moving slowly.


To be onboard means to accept or understand what is being said fully. It has been used to describe a sailor bearing their responsibility upon the ship.

On Board

Being on board means being part of the crew and completing their responsibilities.

Port and Starboard

Port and starboard are names given to the left and right of the ship, respectfully. Still used today, the terms have also made their way into everyday language to describe the left, or right, hand side of buildings, roads, etc.

Turn the Corner

This was an idiom used by sailors after passing the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa or when passing Cape Horn at the south end of South America. Both were critical points and pointed them towards safer waters.

Show One’s True Colours

Hoisting flags to designate the origin of a ship was commonplace, but many also flew false flags to trick those that were enemies. Showing your true colours means showing the falsehood.

Close/Tight Quarters

Living on a ship meant sharing a lot of personal space with other sailors. These close living quarters held sleeping areas as well as basic storage.

Broad in the Beam

To be broad in the beam describes the width of the beam or mast, usually on a ship of good size. It became a slang term to describe a person wide across the hips and backend.

Like Ships that Pass in the Night

Passing ships in the dark of the night was often done to evade notice. This might be to avoid a blockade or smuggle black market goods. The ships might have been in the same area but didn’t notice or acknowledge one another.

Keel Over

If the keel of a boat was to rise out of the water, it was possible the ship could turn over. This could happen during a storm or after a ship was damaged by enemy fire.

Three Sheets to the Wind

Losing sails to the wind was not a good scenario for sailors as it usually meant all control of the ship was lost.

Long Shot

A long shot was a lengthy target from a cannon shot. Chances were, the target would be missed unless luck was on their side.

Feeling Blue

If a captain or officer of a ship died at sea, some vessels would raise a blue flag and paint a blue stripe on the hull as a sign of mourning. Over time this became synonymous with feelings of sadness.

Taken Aback

A sudden shift in the wind would blow sails back against the mast, flattening them out and earning the description blown “aback”. This sudden change was often startling and could take sailors by surprise.

Tide Over

When a ship could not get under sail due to poor winds, they would ride the tide until the winds returned.

High and Dry

If a ship was caught in low tide or ran up on the shoals, it might end up being stranded with no hope of recovery. The term was to be caught high and dry, as in up out of the water.

In Deep Water

Once a ship reached deep water, if trouble occurred, the crew might not be able to salvage the cargo, the ship, or a person’s life.

Sink or Swim

Tossing a person overboard resulted either in them sinking or swimming. The term was made popular in swashbuckling movies featuring pirates deciding on whether they should spare their captives or not.

Dead in the Water

The lack of wind would keep ships from making progress on their voyage, often called being “dead in the water”. The term describes a more severe situation when no further progress may be possible.

Making Waves

Winds and storms create waves at sea and can cause hazardous sailing conditions.

Rock the Boat

Smaller skiffs or boats easily move with the water, as well as the movement of the people on deck. Because of this, it is crucial to understand the balance of the boat to avoid unnecessary rocking that can put you off course or simply be uncomfortable.

Plain or Smooth Sailing

Calm waters and dependable winds create a smooth or plain sailing experience. These are ideal conditions when out on the water.

Scraping the Barrel

Scraping empty barrels while at sea was common to get every last bit of food stored within it. It was important never to let anything go to waste, but it also meant nothing was left.

Learn the Ropes

Sails were raised and lowered with ropes, and knowing how to control the sails allowed a ship to take full advantage of the wind and sail safely. Young/new sailors had to rapidly learn which ropes moved which part of the sails.

Through Thick and Thin

Both thick and thin pulleys and ropes were used for hoisting sails and flags, hence the term working through thick and thin.

Hand Over Fist

Raising and lowering sails on a pulley system required placing one hand over another in a consistent movement, i.e., hand over fist. It was a term used to explain the toughness of the job.


The word mate has a long history of meaning friend or comrade and was adapted in British sailing vernacular to designate the titles and responsibilities of certain crew members. A first mate, for example, would be in charge of the duties of those below him.

Batten Down the Hatches

With the arrival of bad weather, sailors need to secure the hatchways to avoid water from flooding the ship’s interior. To batten down the hatches means to prepare for a rough ride.