Chances are, you already talk like a sailor

Here's some curious phrases that have their roots in sailing


  • A scuttlebutt was the equivalent of the modern day water cooler. It was a vessel that contained fresh drinking water below deck and like the water cooler, it became a gathering place to share banter, information, and ship board rumors.


A Clean Bill of Health

  • Before being hired on as crew aboard a ship, sailors often had to produce a certificate showing they were free of disease.


Feeling Blue

  • When a ship’s captain or officer died at sea, it was common practice to fly a blue flag for the rest of the voyage and sometimes the crew would paint the hull with a blue stripe so that as they came in it would alert those ashore of their misfortunes.

Above Board

  • Board refers to the planks of wood that the ships decks were made of. Anything kept above board was considered out in the open and in plain view.


Jury Rig

  • A common phrase that used to call a hasty repair that was necessary to keep ship sailing until it could make it to the nearest port for a proper fix. Today we use it to describe a shabby repair.


Learn the Ropes

  • Tall ships had a system of ropes and pulleys and it took study for a new crew member to come aboard and learn how to operate them.


Long Haul

  • When a sailing task required pulling in a very long and tiring length of rope it was said to be a long haul.



  • In order to measure their speed, ships used to attach a long rope with knots tied in measured distances along its length and then tie it to a wooden board or log. A sailor would throw into the ocean and would count the number of knots that would pass through their hands during a certain amount of time.  This helped them determine home many knots they were traveling—the speed of the ship.  They would record this speed in a book that tracked how fast the thrown log would drag the line of knots behind the boat.


  • See above (logbook)


A Square Meal

  • Plates on board ships were often square so you can see how this one easily got coined.


Pipe Down

  • Ship’s had a pipe that went down into the ship and the Bosun would use this to give the crew below directions or notify them of things like “lights out.”


Over a Barrel

  • This term was coined after it became common practice to punish a misbehaving sailor over the barrel of a cannon and chastise them with lashings.


Toe the Line

  • When sailors were called up for inspection they would gather in a line with their toes often lined up behind the seam of a plank.


By and Large

  • “by” meaning into the wind and “large” meaning off the wind. So sailors would say: “By and large this ship handles quite nicely.”


In the Doldrums

  • The doldrums are a windless area in the ocean, a place ships are almost at a standstill. Being in the doldrums was to be stagnated and brought with it a certain malaise.


Loose Cannon

  • Rough seas could make the cannon on a ship break free from it’s lashing. And loose cannons would quickly become an out of control situation. 


Hand Over Fist

  • This is how line is often pulled onboard a sailing vessel, its often fast and furious. Anything that comes at breakneck pace, like making money often borrows this handy term from sailors.


Showing Your True Colors

  • All ships fly their country of origin flag as a way of designating where they are from. Sea farers with nefarious intentions would often trick other ships by flying flag colors that identified them as friendly in order to trick them. Showing your true colors meant you were flying the proper flag.



  • The bottom part of a sail is called a foot, and when it comes loose and flaps about it is footloose.


and everybody's favorite term...

“It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”

Brass Monkeys were the metal rings near each cannon that would keep the cannon balls ready to be fired but contained from rattling dangerously about the deck.  When the weather got severely cold the brass monkey holding the balls would get so cold they would contract to a smaller size which would cause the cannon balls to break loose from the rings containing them.