Phrases from the Sea

Once you have spent time on a boat, you realize that many terms and everyday expressions actually originated out on the sea. We all know words like head, galley, port and starboard.However, there are other phrases and terms that have been coopted into everyday language you may be surprised about. Here are some of my favorite examples:

  • Clean bill of health: this phrase actually meant that the ship in question had documentation to prove that there was no epidemics or infections at the ship’s port of departure. This information helped prevent the spread of disease. Now it usually denotes a good visit to the doctor or conquering an illness.
  • Mayday: this distress call is actually a version of the French words m’aidez, which translates to ‘help me.’
  • As the crow flies: Sailors would literally release a caged crow if they were lost or could not locate the shore. The bird would fly toward land, which would help the ship orient itself. Now it usually denotes the fastest, straightest route somewhere.
  • Down the hatch: Although this is usually a drinking term now, it originally was an instruction on sea freighters to lower cargo into the hatch.
  • Showing their true colors: many warships often carried flags from other places in order to misrepresent themselves. They would wait until they got within firing range of another ship and then, in order to comply with civilized warfare rules, show their true flag (also known as colors) before they took their first shot. We tend to say this now when someone has betrayed us in some way.
  • Toe the line: when we say this, we are typically speaking about someone who behaves properly. However, it was more literal when it was strictly a nautical term. Warships had parallel lines on the deck, and the sailors would have to muster with their toes at the lines.
  • Footloose: The bottom part of the sail is called a foot. If it breaks free or isn’t secured, it is deemed footloose. This will cause it to flap and dance randomly in the wind.
  • Three sheets to the wind: A sheet is a rope line that controls tension on a square sail’s downwind side. If the sails were loose, they will flap—known as ‘in the wind’. When that happens, the ship would stagger and drift aimlessly downwind. A drunken person stumbling around moves in a very similar manner, hence the expression.
  • Cut and run: this expression means to take your losses and get yourself out of a situation. Originally it was a self-preservation strategy on the high seas—cutting the anchor rope and running away from a fight you could not win.
  • Aboveboard: typically denotes that everything is on legal and upfront. On a ship, it means everything on or above the open deck.

I found a lot of these to be incredibly interesting. If you feel the same way, let me know and I will write up another one of these sometime.