Sailor Slang

We at Trilogy Excursions are sailors at heart. From our founders, the “sailing Coon” family, to our captains and crew who bring their experience and love of the ocean and adventure from all corners of the world, sailing is in our blood.

Harnessing wind in the form of sailing has been one of man’s greatest innovations. Used since ancient times to expand civilizations, conquer new lands, conduct trade, fishing, and commerce, the art of sailing and the life of a mariner has an old and rich history. In fact, today’s everyday language is peppered with seemingly nonsensical phrases and sayings whose origins come from sailing terminology. Have you ever wondered, for instance, why we call someone who is of a high class “posh” or why exposing a secret is known as “letting the cat out of the bag”? Read on to learn about the nautical meanings and fascinating history behind these and many other slang words and terms in our modern day language!

Bitter End:  The loose and unattached end of a line, as opposed to the "working end" which may be attached to an anchor, other vessel, or cleat. Now this term is commonly used describe a painful or final conclusion.

Cat’s out of the bag- The cat o’ nine tails whip was used to punish sailors, so if it was out of the bag in which it was stored, that meant that the secret of someone’s wrongdoing was known. This phrase now is used to mean that a secret is out.

Deep Six: The unit to measure depth of the sea is called a fathom, which is 6 feet- about the height of a sailor. This term was used to refer to throwing something overboard, and it has come to mean getting rid of something.

Dressed to the nines: When a maritime victory was celebrated, a ship would return to her home port "dressed" in bunting and flags. The crew would also be dressed in their best and out on the nine yards of a tall ship to greet their country. Today the phrase is used to describe a person who is very elaborately dressed.

Feeling Blue:  This term refers to a custom to mark when a ship had lost her captain at sea.  The ship would have a blue band painted along her hull and would fly a blue flag when she returned to port. Now, the term refers to being sad or down.

Freeze the balls off a brass monkey:  Commonly used nowadays to convey that it’s very cold. On Navy (or pirate) boats, cannon balls were piled on deck in a pyramid shape and held in place by a “brass monkey” or ring. When the temperature dropped below a certain point, the brass ring would contract faster than the iron cannon balls, making the pyramid unstable and causing cannon balls to go rolling around.

Gung Ho: This phrase is an anglicized version of a Chinese term meaning “come together”, used when ships’ crew would work towards a common goal.  The term was brought into the English vocabulary when American WWII Lt. Colonel Carlson used the term for a motto for his division. Now this term seems to represent being enthusiastic or ready for action.

Holy Mackerel: Though markets weren’t normally open on Sundays in 17th century England, fishmongers were allowed to sell mackerel on the day of rest because it spoils quickly. This phrase today expresses surprise.

Knot: Now a measure of speed over water, meaning one nautical mile per hour. One nautical mile is equal to one minute of latitude or 1.15 land- based miles. The term comes from the method of using a rope or line marked with even intervals of knots. The other end of the line would be thrown off the stern, with a log or other floating object fastened on. The knotted line was allowed to pay out for a specific amount of time after which sailors pulled it back in, counting the knots between the ship and the log to measure distance over time.

Overwhelm: This word is from the Middle English word meaning "to capsize" or “to turn upside down”- like a boat overtaken by a large wave. Today the word represents being overcome, inundated or defeated.

Passed with flying colors: If sailing ships wanted to be identified while passing other ships, they would “fly their colors” - put up their flags and burgies. Now, this is used to refer to someone passing a test or task with great success.

Pooped: This term refers to waves breaking over an aft deck when a vessel is sailing downwind in high seas. This now means “exhausted”, as a sailor assigned to bailing the pooped deck might have been.

Posh: Now meaning exclusive, expensive, or fancy, this word comes from travel between Boston and England, where the trunks of the wealthy passengers would have the label "POSH", which stood for "Portside Out Starboard Home" instructing on where to place the luggage to avoid harsh sun.

Scuttlebutt: Now a slang term for gossip, this term is thought to have referred to the drinking ladle on boats. Captains often cut small holes or “scuttles” in it to reduce the chatter and wasted time at the water barrel, encouraging the sailors to drink fast before the water ran out.

Square meal: Now a somewhat confusing way of describing a wholesome, filling meal, this term comes from the square plates that the Royal Navy served sailors’ meals on.

Three sheets to the wind: This expression refers to not having control of a boat because the sheets or lines connected to sails had been let go or lost. Today the expression is used to talk about someone who’s drunk, and doesn’t have control of themselves.

Took the wind out of his sails: Today this expression is used to describe getting the upper hand in an argument. It originates from a sailing maneuver whereby a boat would take the wind (and power) out of an opponents sails by sailing to windward of the opponent, causing the other boat to slow.

Whole nine yards: This term is now used to mean “the whole lot” or “everything”. It’s thought that this expression comes from square-rigged sailing vessels that had three masts with three sails hung from yard arms on each.  The whole nine yards meant all sails were up.

Know of any other good sailor slang? Tell us about it in the comments below!