11 Old Sailing Terms We Use All The Time In English

Ahoy, there! Your language is probably a bit more nautical than you think.
Old sailing terms represented by an anchored sailing ship on the water near sunset.

Humans have had a love affair with the ocean since the very beginning. Some of the oldest stories we have involved sailing in some form, like the epic sea journey of The Odyssey. While most of us spend the bulk of our life on land, the media we consume is still filled with pirates, navies and other water-bound ways of life. Even with that in mind, you might be surprised to learn that a lot of common English phrases come from 18th- and 19th-century sailing terms.

Aside from the obviously nautical phrases like “walk the plank” and “aye, aye captain,” there are everyday turns of phrase you’re using that you might not realize originated from a career at sea. Let’s look at a few of them. All aboard!

the scuttlebutt

Modern Use: gossip, rumor

The scuttlebutt on a boat was a cask where people could go to fill their cups with water. A thirsty and gossipy group, sailors would gather around the scuttlebutt and talk about the news of the day. Coincidentally, this is exactly like the concept of “water cooler conversation” in the office, where employees would gather around to discuss their lives or the latest television while getting hydrated.

pipe down

Modern Use: be quiet

To communicate on a boat, people might signal using a pipe whistle. One such signal was that it was time for bed, meaning people need to go down below the decks. Ironically, the reversal of this phrase — pipe up — does not correspond to any nautical whistles, but was an older phrase that originally was used to talk about a musician beginning to play their instrument.

under the weather

Modern Use: feeling ill

This phrase was originally a little longer: “under the weather rail,” referring to a rail that was part of the boat facing the wind. When a sailor came down with an illness, they might be sent to rest underneath that rail, thus they were quite literally “under the weather rail.”

turn a blind eye

Modern Use: to willfully ignore

The logic of this phrase is pretty self-evident: a person looking at something with a blind eye would not be able to see it. Its origins, however, refer to a specific event. Horatio Nelson, a British officer for the Royal Navy, was blinded in one eye during battle. Later on, during the Battle of Copenhagen, he wanted to press on but was discouraged from doing so by Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. The only way Parker could alert him, however, was using signal flags, and Nelson decided to look at those flags by pressing his blind eye into a telescope and declaring he couldn’t see any signal, thus continuing his attack. The silly gambit worked, as later he replaced Parker as head of the Royal Navy.

show someone the ropes

Modern Use: teach someone the basics

The nautical world is filled with knots, and any good sailor needed a comprehensive knowledge of how the ropes worked on a ship. Thus, being shown the ropes was an early version of onboarding.

the cut of one’s jib

Modern Use: someone’s style, personality

A jib is one of the sails on a boat. There was a time when the jib would be cut or styled in different ways so another boat could learn information about it: where it’s from, who’s in charge of it, etc. If you don’t like the cut of one’s jib, that means you don’t like how they’ve fashioned themself (or that you just don’t like that person at all).

taken aback

Modern Use: surprised

When a sailing vessel was facing straight at the headwind, the main sail would be taken aback against the mast. This was not a particularly good way to make progress when sailing, so it usually only happened by accident. That’s why it now means to be taken by surprise by something particularly unpleasant.

squared away

Modern Use: to handle, to put right

While out at sea, a ship was squared by the lifts and braces, meaning that the sails were put at angles such that they caught the downwind and helped the ship go as fast as it could. When anchored, the ship being squared means the decks would be cleaned and cleared. Thus, when things were “squared away,” they were put in their proper place.

three sheets to the wind

Modern Use: very intoxicated

When you think about it, it might not be surprising that “three sheets to the wind,” once you determine that the sheets are sails. When the sails are accidentally set loose from their rigging, it puts the boat at the mercy of the wind, which can knock it around. This imagery mirrors the walk of someone who is quite drunk.

in the doldrums

Modern Use: sad, depressed

The doldrums are an actual place you can be. It’s a band around the equator where there are often long periods without wind, so sailing ships can get stuck there pretty easily. It’s not a huge logical leap from that idea to the more modern use, where someone in the doldrums might feel listless or like it’s impossible to make progress.

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