10 Nautical Terms Found in Everyday Language

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Sailing culture has maintained a prominent presence in the English language for hundreds of years.


From political to cultural references, the English language is full of hidden words and phrases that originated in the vernacular of those who spent their lives at sea. And you probably use them more often than you realise.

In our paradise world of sailing holidays, we’re usually too distracted by the gorgeous beaches and endless summer activities to notice how often we use these terms.

Our guess is you don’t realise either.

So, from the dialect of the crew of ancient pirate ships and global explorers of the 1700s, you’ll be surprised to discover which of their phrases you use during everyday speech.

Checkout our top 10 to see which ones you know!


Feeling Blue

The phrase ‘feeling blue’ has been used as a cultural reference for years, ingrained in the language of music and in reference to how we’re feeling. This phrase stems from the event of losing a captain at sea; when arriving back in port, ships would fly a blue flag and the ship’s hull wore a blue band.


By and Large

We use this popular phrase to refer to ‘the big picture’, ‘on the whole’. This term originated on sailboats – the word ‘by’ was used if a sailboat was sailing into the wind, and ‘large’ would mean sailing off the wind. So, for example, sailors would say, “Both by and large this ship sails quite nicely.”



This familiar word we associate with feeling warm, comfortable and cosy originally came about as a nautical term used to describe ships that were fit for sailing and appropriately prepared and constructed for bad weather. These days, feeling snug leaves us appropriately prepared for bad weather.



This adjective, used today to describe something as ‘very full’ or ‘packed to the brim’, was used on boats to refer to a device that aided with heavy lifting. This device comprised of a simple block and pulley system attached to a hook. Once the weight limit has been reached, the two blocks would meet, creating the term ‘chock-a-block’.


A Slush Fund

This is one of our favourites. We hear the term ‘slush fund’ – used to refer to money that is kept aside for illegal or illicit purposes – all too often in politics and the media. During the 1700s, ‘slush’ was knows as the leftover fat waste that remained after the ship’s chef had brewed salt beef for the crew’s dinner. This fat was kept, stored and sold when the ship returned to port. The money from the proceeds of the fat waste was referred to as the ‘slush fund’ and was later used to buy special items for the crew!


Pipe Down

Ever recall your parents screaming at you to ‘pipe down’ when you were making too much noise? Us too. ‘Pipe down’ was originally known as the last signal from the senior deckhand’s pipe at the end of the day. This signal was to inform the sailors that it was time for lights out, silence and everyone to head to bed.



To refer to someone as ‘aloof’ is to say they are cold, unfriendly and distant. The word ‘aloof’ originated as an adverb from the Old French word ‘lof’, and adopted the meaning ‘away and to windward’ over the years. During the 1600s, a sailor would be ordered to remain ‘aloof’, meaning to steer the ship’s bows as close as possible towards the wind.


A Clean Bill of Health

This term first came about during the 1700s when sailboats and ships were less than hygienic. Boats were required to carry a certificate stating whether or not any infectious diseases were present among the ship’s crew. Now, we generally use it to refer to our own health status.


Toe the Line

Today, we use this term to refer to accepting and obeying the authority or policies of a specific person or group. It first emerged, however, as a phrase used on ships when a captain called the crew to gather in a straight line with their toes meeting the edge of one of the planks of the deck. Thus, ‘toeing the official line’ was born.


Son of a Gun

As the story goes, sailors in the 17th and 18th centuries were a rowdy bunch. So much so that every so often a lady friend of the crew would end up giving birth on the ship. This usually occurred on the gun deck where the was the most space. When the child was not claimed by any of the sailors, which happened all too often, it would be referred to as ‘the son of a gun’!


Feeling ready to hoist the sails and feel the wind in your hair? Head to our home page for some serious sailing holiday inspiration.



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