The Nautical Origins of Common Phrases

Ahoy, Mateys!

We hear many phrases and words which we think we know the origin of – or at least they seem to have simple explanations.  Have you ever wondered, though, how the word Loophole came to mean “a way to get around something; an ambiguity in law?”  As a marine engineer, Mr. Steve Lindholm knows that words from the sea often wash ashore!  Read on, Landlubbers, and we’ll Cut to the Chase.


When ships are inspected, the inspection agency assigns a letter and number combination to the quality of the vessel.  In the days of sail, it was A1 for vessels in the best condition (the letter signifies the condition of the hull and the number is the condition of the equipment).  ‘A1 sauce,’ then, is the best to coat your steak in.

Above Board.

In this case, the ‘board’ is ships’ decks.  Above board refers to that which can be seen on deck – and thus, not hidden.  Conversely, Below Decks are secrets and hidden things – nefarious, for sure.


From the Old Dutch word ‘loef,’ windward.  A ship windward of the others has to keep further away to allow the wind to reach the other vessels; the vessel is stand-off and distant.


To belay the rigging is to wrap the rope around a pin or cleat and fasten tight.  A rope belayed is thus stopped and held in place.

Bitter End.

In sailing ships, the anchor line was attached at one end to the anchor (of course) and at the other to a bitt, a stout timber or beam.  The end of the anchor line at the bitt was the bitter end.  If the bitter end comes loose, the anchor is lost and the vessel adrift.


Oddly enough, this has nothing to do with explosives.  A Bombard is a pitcher containing 8 pints of liquid; to fully drink a bombard of ale, port, or Madera in one sitting would get a sailor bombarded or, simply, bombed.

Clean Slate.

Each watch onboard a sailing vessel would write down the observations on a slate board.  At the beginning of the next watch, if there was nothing on the slate to do, the slate was wiped clean for that watch – a clean slate.

Cut to the Chase.

During the tea trade, the vessel arriving earliest could command the best prices.  Merchant vessels would give chase to leave port early and arrive first.  Setting up the anchor line and rigging so that by cutting those, the vessel could depart quickly – cut to the chase.

Deep Six.

The six-fathom line (36 feet of depth) was plenty deep for ships of yore and was considered being at sea.  Once the leadsman called “by the deep, six!” the Master knew he was free of obstructions and at sea.  


The fairway is a narrow channel leading into bay, river, or haven – just like the narrow green for golf leading to the hole.

Knock Off.

In the days of galleys, the cadence was set by knocking on a wooden drum.  When the knocking stopped, rest could be taken.


From Old English ‘londloper,’ one who runs on land.  Given a few years and many recitals, it became landlubber, the scourge of seamen.


The loophole on a merchant sailing ship is a small hole in bulwarks to allow a rifle or pistol to be shot through to repel boarders.  Not easily seen, and it protects the shooter from direct exposure – as a loophole in the law protects the sly.


From ancient Greek – ‘Naus’ is a ship, which in a storm produces those ill effects we associate with nausea.  Thank you, Physician, for your tireless use of Greek to describe illness.


From Middle English ‘whelven,’ to turn upside down.  A ship which is overwhelmed has completely capsized and is upside down.

Rub Salt in the Wound.

Salt is plentiful onboard a ship, especially in the days of sail, when it was used as a preservative.  It also can be a quick antiseptic, and after a flogging, the sailors would rub salt in the wound of the punished to prevent festering sores.  Feels like more punishment, though.


Small wooden casks called butts were used to store water and other liquids.  For the cask used for daily drinking water, a scuttle, or opening, was drilled about ½ the way up to prevent the water from standing too long.  That cask was the scuttlebutt, where the crew would congregate to drink and share stories.  The term washed ashore in the 1930’s from the Navy.

Slush Fund.

The slush is leftover fat from rending salt pork.  Cooks would save this fat and sell it to candlemakers and tanneries once the ship got to port.  The monies generated by this were the vessel’s slush fund which the crew could use to buy goods not otherwise on the provisions list.

Taken Aback.

When the wind shifts suddenly due to unsettled weather (or inattention by the helmsman), the ship is taken aback and slows or stops without warning.

(There are Many Ways) to Skin a Cat.

The full phrase is ‘…to skin a catfish’ which has a particularly tough skin for its delicate flesh.  Catfish were a common food for pirates and sailors in the Caribbean, as they are plentiful in the local streams and rivers.  Everyone developed a different way to skin a catfish to keep the meat relatively whole.

Touch it with a 10 Foot Pole.

The typical pole used on inland barges for propulsion is 10 feet long.  The conjecture is that bargemen could use this to keep each other (or pirates) at a distance, allowing for safe passage.

There are many more phrases and words with nautical connections; this is just a sampling to give you the Lay of the Land (easy, identifiable features).

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Thanks to Terry Breverton, Breverton’s Nautical Curiosities (ISBN 978-1-59921-979-0) and Olivia A. Isil, When a Loose Cannon Flogs a Dead Horse There’s the Devil to Pay (ISBM 0-07-032877-3) for the definitions.