My recent adventure on the high seas (well, the North Sea to be precise) got me thinking about the numerous nautical idioms that permeate the English language.
As an island nation, Britain has a rich maritime heritage. Our reliance on the sea for trading purposes resulted in a wealth of mariners’ lingo – much of which we still use today. However, over the passage of time the majority of these seafaring phrases and sayings have become metaphorical, with their original meanings long forgotten.
I’ve added in links for some of these nautical idioms in case you’d like to learn more about their origins and etymology.
A shot across the bows = warning shot
All hands on deck = all members of the team are/should be involved
At close quarters = very close
Broad in the beam = having wide hips or buttocks
Chock-a-block = rammed so tightly together as to prevent movement
Loose cannon = unpredictable person or thing, liable to cause damage if unchecked
On board = as a member of a team or group
To batten down the hatches = prepare for trouble
To go by the board = finished with
To know/learn the ropes = understand how to do something
To take something on board = fully consider a new idea or situation
Rats deserting a sinking ship = people abandoning a failing enterprise or organisation
Shipshape and Bristol fashion = with everything in good order
Ships that pass in the night = transitory acquaintances
To be in the same boat = be in the same unfortunate or difficult circumstances
To give someone/thing a wide berth = stay away; avoid close contact
To push the boat out = spend generously, often to mark a special occasion
To rock the boat = say or do something to aggravate an existing situation
To run a tight ship = be very strict in managing an organisation or operation
When someone’s ship comes in = when someone’s fortune is made
Life on the ocean waves
(All) at sea = in a state of confusion or indecision
Anchors aweigh = said in preparation of getting underway, especially of a ship
Between the Devil and the deep blue sea = caught between two difficulties
In deep water(s) = in trouble or difficulty
In smooth water = in quiet and serene circumstances, especially after difficulties
Plain sailing = smooth and easy progress
Sail close to the wind = come close to breaking a rule or the law
To get underway = begin a journey or a project
To make waves = cause trouble
Miscellaneous nautical idioms
By and large = on the whole; generally speaking; all things considered
High and dry = stranded without hope of recovery
In the offing = nearby; likely to happen or appear soon
The cut of one’s jib = a person’s appearance or demeanour
Three sheets to the wind = very drunk
To cut and run = run away
To fathom out = ascertain something; deduce from the facts
To pipe down = become quiet
Mythical nautical terms
Seafaring has also provided more than its fair share of false etymology. Contrary to popular belief, cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey has nothing to do with a ship’s brass fittings, nor does the acronym POSH actually stand for ‘Port out, starboard home’.
This collection of nautical idioms is by no means exhaustive. Which ones do you like best? Any that were new to you?
If you’ve enjoyed these, do check out some of the other posts in my idioms series.
(image courtesy of njaj via Freedigitalphotos.net)