Common Phrases with Nautical Origin


Many phrases that we use today originate from maritime culture. The 10 phrases described below are just a few.

1. Long Shot

An occurrence that would take a great deal of luck.

Early ships’ guns tended to be inaccurate. If a shot made impact from a great distance, or a “long shot,” it was considered out of the ordinary.

2. Flotsam and Jetsam

Odds and ends.

While the words flotsam and jetsam are often used together, they have different meanings. “Flotsam” (from the word “float”) describes items that weren’t deliberately thrown overboard, while “jetsam” (from the word “jettison”) describes items that were deliberately thrown overboard.

3. Tide Over

Make a small amount last until a larger amount is available.

Not to be confused with “tied over,” this phrase has its origins in seafaring. When there was no wind to fill the sails, sailors would float with the tide until the wind returned. They would “tide over.”

4. Feeling Blue

Experiencing feelings of sadness or melancholy.

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.

5. Taken Aback

Startled or surprised.

The sails of a ship were described as “aback” when the wind blew them flat, or back, against their supporting structures.

6. The Cut of His/Her Jib

A person’s general appearance.

A jib is a type of sail. At one time countries would display their own unique jibs, allowing outsiders to instantly know the ship’s origin, and form an impression of it by the cut of its jib.

7. Pipe Down

A request or command to be quiet.

Ship 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.