Nautical Phrases and Whatever Floats Your Boat Idioms

The language of the sea has long shaped the way we speak today. Many nautical terms have been adopted into modern-day boat idioms, with some of their true origins forgotten. We’ve compiled a list, chock-a-block with our favourite idioms and funny boating phrases to help you learn the ropes about maritime lingo. So, batten down the hatches and prepare to set sail on a vast voyage through 18th-century sailing jargon and a boatload of nautical phrases in common use today!

Grub and Pub terms

A Square Meal

Ever heard the term “Eat three square meals a day” and wondered what the shape of your meal has to do with a nutritious, balanced diet?

Well, during the mid-16th century, sailors were served their main meals on square wooden platters in the Royal Navy, hence the term "square meal". Being a sailor was extremely hungry work, and would often include long hours of hard, physical labour, so sailors would look forward to their square meals as this would be the heartiest, largest meal of their day. It’s since become a popular term to describe any full, satisfying meal throughout the day.

Bottoms Up!

You may have heard the term, “Bottoms up!” while staring down the barrel of a suspicious-looking shot glass that your friend has just handed you. It’s a phrase that has become synonymous with alcohol, often used to urge pubgoers to neck their drinks or toast a round of pints, but what does it actually mean?

According to 18th Century legend, English navy recruiters would slip a King's shilling into an unsuspecting sailor's beer glass to trick him into joining the navy. The poor drunken sailor would not realise a shilling in the beer until it was too late, and payment was considered accepted. As a result, saloons began reminding patrons to check their pints for shillings by saying, “Bottoms up!” before drinking. Over time, it became a popular slang phrase to encourage people to finish their drinks.

Down the Hatch

Like its gin-soaked sister “Bottoms up”, the term “Down the Hatch” has also become associated with alcohol-related antics. In sailing, the term ‘hatch’ is an opening in a ship’s deck planking, which supplies access to the inside of the ship for loading cargo and other goods. It would be common for crew members to shout, “down the hatch!” as they lowered things through the door. It’s clear how this phrase evolved into pub slang to encourage our pals to pour liquor down their metaphorical ‘hatch’.

Three sheets to the wind

By now you’ve had one too many “Bottoms ups” and “Down the Hatches” and you’ve entered “Three sheets to the wind” territory. Incredibly drunk, uncoordinated, and quickly losing control, it’s probably time to call it a night before you find yourself in some trouble!

This nautical phrase has many parallels with its idiom. The "sheets" in question are the lines that attach to the sails of a boat, and if they are too loose, the ship veers about wildly, rapidly losing control. If all three sail sheets are loose and flapping about in the wind, it means the boat is officially out of control- rather like an intoxicated individual trying to find their way home!

Life at sea terms - How to run a tight ship

All hands on deck

I'm sure many of us can relate to the phrase "All hands on deck!" being shouted at us while being handed a mop and pair of marigolds. The term has become heavily associated with pitching in with household chores or a situation where every member of a team must help to get a task completed.

“All hands on deck” was originally used as a signal onboard ships to crew and officers of all ranks to assemble on the deck for duties. Over time, the expression hasn’t changed much in meaning and is still something we commonly use today.

At the helm

A boss who says they are "at the helm" or "helmsman" of a company knows their position and role precisely. The term hasn't changed since its inception during the old sailing days, originating from a part of a ship known as the "helm". The helm is the steering mechanism used on a boat and can include a simple handle, tiller or wheel on large ships. Therefore, "At the helm" is synonymous with taking the wheel or taking charge of a situation.

Learn the ropes

Perhaps you've heard this phrase while learning to do a task at work, or maybe a newfound hobby in your spare time. Historically, sailors used the term "Learn the ropes" to memorise rope terminology and the practical application of the many ropes on a ship. To perform their roles effectively, experienced crew members must know the proper placement and function of each piece of equipment aboard the boat. In a similar sense, you would have to “know the ropes” to complete a task assigned to you.

Swing a cat

No cats were harmed in the making of this list.

A strange saying that we rarely hear these days, this phrase is usually used to describe a very small or crowded area where "There's no room to swing a cat".

But fret not feline friends, as the expression isn't literal.

Instead, it derived from the 16th Century when sailors were punished by being whipped with a cat o' nine tails, a sharp whip with nine lashes. Because there was no room below deck to swing the cat, the punishment was administered on deck. Whilst times have changed a lot since then, it can still be used as a quirky phrase to describe a commute on a cramped train carriage!

Going through the motions (of the ocean)

Feeling blue

It is common to say we are "feeling blue" when we are sad or down, but why have we become accustomed to associating the colour blue with sadness?

The term "feeling blue" originated from a maritime tradition of raising a blue flag to signify the death of a ship's captain. Upon returning to the home port, the blue flag was erected, thus informing the authorities in advance of the captain's death. Therefore, the negative connotation comes from the fact that the loss of their captain saddened the crew.

Under the weather

We all have felt a bit "under the weather" at one time or another. For some, it's the morning after a night out involving heavy drinking, while for others, it's a long car drive with too many bumps and turns. The phrase is often associated with sickness, but what does the weather have to do with it?

The phrase dates to the 1600s when the wind blew hard on high seas, and the water became rough. To avoid getting seasick, crew members would go below deck and to their cabins to ride out the storm. In this way, they could remain "under the weather."

Loose Cannon

You might want to give a wide berth to these kinds of people, as they are explosive as they are unpredictable! The term "loose cannon" has become a famous saying to describe characters in films and popular culture as dangerously uncontrollable or spontaneous.

During the 17th century, the term was used to describe cannons that had to be tied down on the gundecks. A 'loose cannon' was a gun that had broken free and moved about the deck dangerously, wreaking havoc on the ship.


Jokes aside, ensure you're riding the waves safely with comprehensive boat insurance.

boat insurance

Related Articles