The Nautical Roots of Common Expressions

The Nautical Roots of Common Expressions

We use them virtually every day. But how many of us know that the origins of many common expressions date back to our nautical heritage? Here are some of our favorites:

Bottoms Up

This came from an era when English sailors could often be tricked into joining the navy. The trick involved giving the unsuspecting man a beer with a coin at the bottom. Once the poor man had hold of the coin, he was deemed to have accepted payment and was swiftly enrolled or press-ganged into the Royal Navy. It is said that as people began to wise up to the con-trick, they would say “bottoms up” to the people they drank with in order that they could check for any hidden coins at the bottom of their glasses.

Feeling Blue

If a captain or officer of a ship died while at sea, the crew would fly blue flags and paint a blue band along the ship’s hull. Over time, this symbol of grieving was equated with feeling sad or melancholy.

Show One’s True Colors

It was once common practice for ships to hoist their national flags before commencing battle. Some ships would carry flags from many countries and hoist “false flags” to confuse or mislead their enemies at sea. A practice that was especially common among Spanish ships in the 17th century. This practice also introduced the term “bamboozle” into our language.

Three Sheets to the Wind

A little sailing knowledge is required here. Small harbor boats that shuttled between the larger ships and the dock were frequently sloop rigged — a main sail and a foresail, or jib. The “ropes” that controlled these sails are called sheets. The jib had two sheets, usually only one of which was used depending upon whether one was on starboard or port tack, and the mainsheet. Additionally, they used rudders. You can control the boat with two sheets without the rudder, or even one sheet with the rudder, but not just the rudder alone. So if all three sheets were blowing in the wind, you were out of control — hence, very drunk.

Caught Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

This phrase is a way of saying that someone is in a predicament or a dangerous place with no easy way out. It is believed to have its source in the historical nautical practice of sealing the seams between a ship’s wooden planks with hot tar. In this context, the devil is the name given to the ship’s longest seam, which is typically the most prone to leaking.

Pipe Down

Ships’ crews received a variety of signals from the boatswain’s pipe. One signal was “piping down the hammocks,” which instructed the crew to go below decks and prepare for sleep.

In the Doldrums

The doldrums refers to a belt around the Earth near the equator where there is often little surface wind for ships’ sails. Sailing ships got stuck on its windless waters. Over time, people equated the calmness of the doldrums with being listless or depressed.

Toe the Line

Sailors in the British Royal Navy were required to stand barefoot and at attention for inspection. While at attention they lined up along the seams of the planks of the deck with their toes touching the line. This became known as “toeing” the line.


Our thanks to NOAA, Owlcation and SolentEvents.