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The Nautical Origins of 10 Popular Phrases

NOAA Ocean Podcast: Episode 29

Many phrases that we use today derive from the Age of Sail — the period of time between the 16th and 19th centuries when masted ships ruled the seas. In this episode, podcast host Abby Reid shares the origins of 10 commonly used phrases.

Print shows congestion of horse-drawn carts and wagons overburdened with merchandise on Dock Street, also handcarts, teamsters and longshoremen, and railroad locomotives and cars for hauling goods from ships to markets, includes many wholesale buildings and a transportation terminal, and the masts of many ships docked along the waterfront.

This Library of Congress print of a wood engraving shows horse-drawn carts and wagons overburdened with merchandise on Dock Street in Philadelphia in the 1800s. The image depicts the hauling of goods from ships to markets and the masts of many ships docked along the waterfront.


This is the NOAA Ocean Podcast. I’m Abby Reid.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about language. How it develops and evolves, and how phrases that we use every day have some pretty interesting origins.

In fact, many phrases that we use today come from the Age of Sail — that’s the period of time between the 16th and 19th centuries, when masted ships ruled the seas.

Today, I’m going to define and share some background on ten such seafaring phrases, although there are many, many more out there.

So let’s get started.

Have you ever been in a situation where you really wanted something, but it would take a great deal of luck? You might call that a “long shot.” 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.

Back when I was in my 20s, I moved around a lot. Every time I moved I thought about all of the flotsam and jetsam I accumulated over time, but it never occurred to me to think about where that phrase came from. While the words “flotsam” and “jetsam” are often used together, they have different meanings. “Flotsam” comes from the word “float,” and describes items that weren’t deliberately thrown overboard a ship, while “jetsam” (from the word jettison) describes items that were deliberately thrown overboard.

Full discretion for this next saying — I’ve been spelling it wrong my whole life! As a kid, you were probably given a snack to “tide you over” when you were hungry until you could eat something more substantial. I always thought that the phrase was spelled “t-i-e-d,” but in fact, it’s spelled “t-i-d-e,” like an ocean tide. When there was no wind to fill the sails on a ship, sailors would float with the tide until the wind returned. They would “tide over.”

Speaking of snacks, sometimes, when I’m feeling blue I like to indulge in some chocolate. When researching this topic, I had no idea that the term “feeling blue” had nautical origins. 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.

Another term for feeling sad, “in the doldrums,” refers to the belt around the Earth near the equator. Because there is often little surface wind for ships’ sails to use in the doldrums, sailing ships got stuck on its windless waters. Over time, people equated the calmness of the doldrums with being listless or depressed.

The sails of a ship were described as “aback” when the wind blew them flat, or back, against their supporting structures, much like a person might physically respond when they hear shocking news.

This next one, I think, is particularly interesting. You may have heard someone say in passing, “I like the cut of his jib.” Usually that means liking someone’s general appearance. But what, you may ask, is a jib? A jib is a type of sail. At one time countries would display their own unique jib , allowing outsiders to instantly know the ship’s origin, and form an impression of it immediately.

If you’ve been told to “pipe down,” and I know I have, you may have been a little on the loud or rowdy side. Back in the day, ship crews received a variety of signals from the boatswain’s pipe. A boatswain was, and still is, a ship's officer in charge of equipment and crew. One signal was “piping down the hammocks,” which instructed the crew to go below decks and prepare for sleep.

If you’ve felt pressured to conform to the policies of a group, you may have been told to “toe the line.” Members of the British Royal Navy were required to stand barefoot and at attention for inspection. While at attention they lined up along seams of the planks of the deck with their toes touching the line. This became known as “toeing” the line.

This final phrase might sound self explanatory, but you may not know that it has a nautical origin. To “take the con” meant to take control of the navigational duties on the bridge of a ship.

Well I don’t mean to cut and run, but by and large, it’s time for me to sign off. (I’ll leave it to you listeners to look up those last two).

If you like what you heard today, you can subscribe to the podcast in your podcatcher of choice. Search for NOAA Ocean Podcast. And visit oceanservice.noaa.gov to explore over 330 facts about the ocean.

Thanks for listening.