Words and Phrases with a Nautical Heritage

The English language is a rich and varied language that developed over centuries, borrowing words and terms from other languages. England’s strong maritime culture also played a large role in shaping language, with many common terms being used today tracing their origins to Britain’s nautical history. For fun, we highlight some of those below:

Aloof – today it means indifference or emotionally distant but during the 18th-century it meant sailing into the wind to stay clear of the shore.By and large – means in general or for the most part, but it didn’t always have that meaning. If a ship could sail well both by (toward) the wind and large (away from the wind) it was said to be able to sail by and large.

Groggy – feeling dazed, confused or unsteady? Then you’re feeling groggy. It’s based on an old custom of doling out a mixture of rum and water, or grog, to sailors in the Royal Navy. Too much and you were groggy.

Hand over fist – means quickly and in large amounts. The origin comes from how a sailor would climb a rope hand over hand.

Pipe down – stop talking and be quiet! It comes from when the boatswain on a ship would dismiss the crew with a whistle or pipe, and the command pipe down would be given. Presumably crews would get quieter after being dismissed.

Shake a leg – means to hurry up. However, the original phrase was said to refer to getting out of bed or the hammock on Royal Navy ships. In the morning, the botswain would call out for sailors to shake or show a leg, then hurry up on deck.

Taken aback – refers to being startled enough to jump back in surprise. However, the original meaning referred to when the wind was on the forward side of the sails, pushing them against the mast and stopping forward motion of the ship

The bitter end – means the very end of something, regardless of how difficult it is. The bitt or cleat is a fastening on a deck of a ship for attaching lines or rope. When an anchor is let out to its full extent, it is said that the line reached the bitter end.

Three sheets to the wind – today it means, someone who is really drunk or intoxicated. It originally referred to lines which are used to control sails coming loose. This would cause the sails to flap in the wind and the ship to lose its course and wander around.

Touch and go – means a condition that could easily be dangerous or unsettled. According to one account, it refers to when the keel of a ship would briefly rub against the ground while sailing, but no damage was done.

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