Everyday Phrases That Have A Nautical Past


Ever wonder where some seemingly normal phrases come from? Well it turns out the world’s history with sailing has a lot to do with them. Check out the ones we were able to uncover.

crow flies“As the crow flies” is a term used to talk about the shortest route between two points

It was common in the 18th and 19th centuries for ships to carry crows on board for use as a last resort when other attempts at navigation failed. When released, they thought that the crow would instinctively head to shore. Navigators would often time the crow’s flight as a means of measuring the distance from ship to shore, however this was probably not the best bird to test distance with. Unlike many birds that travel over long distances, their flight isn’t especially straight. Crows normally fly in large wheeling arcs, looking for food. Speaking of Which, if your all out of crows, you can calculate any distance from point A to B here: http://tjpeiffer.com/crowflies.html

drunk pirate“Three sheets to the wind” (Basically to be VERY very drunk)

The word sheets actually refers to the ropes that are used to secure a ship’s sails. If the 3 ropes used were loose in the wind, the sail would flop around, causing the ship to wobble around, much like a drunk.

“To turn a blind eye to”  To ignore information that you don’t want to hear

hortaio nelsonThe term is actually credited to the famous British Admiral “Horatio Nelson” whose naval exploits during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) are the stuff of seafaring legend. Nelson was injured early in his naval career, leaving him completely blind in one eye. As the story goes, during the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, the fiery Nelson was serving under a much more reserved and cautious Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. With the tide of battle seeming to turn against them, Parker raised the signal flag, ordering retreat at the discretion of the captains. When Nelson was notified by his flag captain of the signal, he replied, “You know, Foley, I have only one eye – I have a right to be blind sometimes.” Supposedly the then calmly raising his telescope to his blind eye and aiming it in the direction of the signal to withdraw, he continued, “I really do not see the signal.” Thus, he had “turned a blind eye” to the signal of retreat, he continued to fight, and within an hour had secured victory. Despite the popular belief that he was disobeying orders, the signal gave Nelson permission to withdraw at his discretion. Even at the time, some of the people on his ship may have believed otherwise as they were unaware of the exact content of the signal.

“Son of a gun”  expressing contempt against a person or object

gun deckBack in the day, it was not uncommon for prostitutes (or wives) to be kept aboard ship. In the event that one of these women became pregnant and carried to term while aboard, the most convenient place to deliver the child was often between two of the ship’s guns, which the lady would lean on for support during the delivery. Upon delivery, the child’s name along with the name of father and mother would be recorded in the ship’s log. If no paternity could be established, the child would be entered as “son of a gun.”

Know some other ones? Add them to the comments section below!

-Tabitha Bitchin’


  1. "You won't catch me between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" !!

    This is an expression that is derived from the fact that when a square rigger was sailing on a broad reach (trade-wind routes) , the press-ganged crew were ordered over the side to scrape weed and barnacles from the hull below the water line which was now exposed.

    The Devil was the name given to the top plank just below the gunwale and was so named by shipwrights as it is of double shear and very difficult to fit an / or replace. It is a skivers expression.

    David S Wheatley [S/Y "Surabaya Girl" – Portsmouth Harbour UK]

  2. "By and Large"

    This refers to the set of the sails on a square-rigger when 'sailing-by' or on a broad reach (wind abaft the beam).

    David S Wheatley [S/Y "Surabaya Girl" – Portsmouth Harbour UK]

  3. The square meals a day.

    From Clive H – "The expression "three square meals a day" come from the 18thC Royal Navy. Back then a ship's crew were served meals on square wooden plates called 'squres' (what else?). The original expression was "three squares per day". Which over time became the modern version of, "three square meals per day"."

  4. My favorite, is the term given to manure,that was shipped back to the old world for use as fertilizer. It was dried and bailed to hold down the odors and also make it lighter. The last thing they wanted was to get these bales wet in the bilge of their leaky wooden ships, So this cargo was marked ( SHIT ) short for Ship High In Transit.

  5. Following along the lines of the previous comment comes the origins of the word, "HEAD." In the really old sailing days square-rigged ships could not sail more than 90 degrees to the wind. Since there was no "indoor" plumbing, the crew relieved themselves over the side. In order to keep the odor away from the ship, a form of an outhouse would be constructed near the bow of the ship just outboard of the rail. Since this toilet (really just a hole in a rough floor with sometimes a sort of privacy wall was placed near the bow, it became known as the "HEAD."

  6. Scuttlebutt: Was the name of the fresh water container onboard. Not too sure of the era but I think it was also around the time of the Napoleonic Wars and Nelson. As the men gathered around to have a ladle full of water to drink, they would gossip, and the rumors became known as 'scuttlebutt'. The old day office water cooler!

  7. Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.A brass monkey is the device they piled the cannon balls on and brass contracts faster than iron . As it got colder the brass monkey would shrink quicker than the cannon balls and they would roll all over the decks.

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