Maritime Sayings & Idioms

How the Sea Influences the Way We Speak


PLACE YOURSELF IN a dark and stormy 18th century scene: a schooner full of sailors dwell in a cabin for weeks at a time navigating a journey with constellations as their guide. They have no communication with the outside world yet hope for a dry destiny. In this scenario, it's only fitting that unique maritime sayings arise to describe voyages with possibly no end in sight.

We often don't realize how notorious maritime sayings transition into idioms that become woven into our everyday lives, making journeys at sea a reflection of life as we know it. The following nautical terms and idioms transcend time and prove the ocean's power of connection, even to the average landlubber.


"Bottoms Up"

A cheers or toast with encouragement to drink or completely finish a drink

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the English Navy recruited men to the military by offering a king's shilling, and when accepted, it meant consenting to join the ranks. Recruiters tricked men into enlisting by dropping a coin in a drunken man's beer and by the time he finished, payment was deemed accepted and his name was listed in the Royal Navy ledger. Saloons began to serve drinks by saying, Bottoms up! to assure no coins were slipped in. This in turn became a popular toast to encourage finishing an entire drink. (Don't swallow the coin though!)

Photo by David Dibert | Maritime Sayings | Marinalife
Photo by David Dibert

"Three Sheets to the Wind"

To be extremely drunk or out of control

A simple explanation tells why you refer to the drunkest person in the room by saying something like, They need to be cut off; they're three sheets to the wind. The sheet is the line that controls a ship's sail. If not secured, the sail loosely flops in the wind and loses headway. If all three sails are loose, it means the ship is officially out of control just like your drunken friend. It's fine, as long as they are not at the helm.

"Down the Hatch"

To consume food or drinks, usually referring to alcohol

When someone hands you a shot of whiskey and yells, Down the hatch, it's hard not to imagine white-bearded watermen grunting and throwing back shots of liquor like it's water after a hard day hauling loads across sea. It's probably because that's exactly where it originated. A hatch or hatchway is a covered opening in a ship's deck where cargo enters or is lowered for transporting below. You can imagine how many times crews signaled out the warning Here it comes down the hatch!


"Down in the Doldrums"

Depressed or in low spirits; lethargic

Yes, sailors get depressed too, especially when they are stuck at sea, but that's not exactly how this term originated. The Doldrums are a region of calm winds north of the equator between two belts of trade winds that neutralize one another. This expression is rooted from times when no wind was present during a voyage that solely relied on wind power, and sailors could get stranded for weeks at a time. When you feel down like you are getting nowhere, you are down in the doldrums.

Photo by Patrick McGowan

"Caught Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea"

Trapped between a difficult decision or predicament

This expression dates back to the 1600s and doesn't have to do with religion. It actually alludes to sailors facing danger when cleaning their ship or caulking the seams with hot tar. Since the garboard or the longest seam was prone to leaking, it was referred to as the Devil. It was a common difficult decision to choose between risking your life to seal the ship or jeopardizing the ship sinking.

"Show your True Colors"

To reveal someone's real personality or hidden intentions

Unlike many nautical sayings, this idiom is not as obviously connected with the sea, which makes it even more interesting. But when you think about, it makes total sense. Flying flags on the ship's mast was required, as its colors indicated who was approaching. Pirates, privateers and wartime enemies often deceived other ships by flying false flags to execute an attack. After the pirates conquered an opponent, they would raise their real flag and show their true colors in victory.


"Batten Down the Hatches"

To prepare for trouble

Aside from bottoms up, this is probably the most popular nautical expression used in our present day. Sailors' protocol was to secure the hatchway to prepare for a bad storm. If a hurricane is in the forecast of your vessel, or if you just need to pull things together and get ready for something unfamiliar in life you better batten down the hatches!

"Run a Tight Ship"

To have someone or something under strict control

You most likely heard this phrase in a workplace: My boss runs a tight ship. It refers to a strict captain running a disciplined crew, but the expression originated as common talk for the ship itself, not the people on it. A tight ship is one in tip-top shape with tight ropes, well-caulked seams and perfection in every little detail, meaning its voyage will be orderly and controlled.

Washington ca. 1900 by Wilhelm Hester | Maritime Sayings | Marinalife
Washington, CA sailors in 1900 by Wilhelm Heste

"Left High and Dry"

To be stranded or left alone to cope with a difficult situation

The earliest explanation for this idiom refers to ships that were beached or out of the water above the tide line. If there wasn't enough water to float the ship away at high tide, then it may have been lingering for a while and could remain that way, because removing a ship without water could seriously damage its hull. Therefore, high and dry became synonymous with stranded.

"Loose Cannon"

An unpredictable person liable to cause damage

Many 17th century wooden warships hauled cannons as their primary weapon, so this expression roots from exactly what it sounds like when a cannon broke loose in a storm or in battle and wreaked havoc among the crew. It's clear how this phrase transitioned into referring to a person as the loose cannon. We all know at least one person who causes chaos in our life... or maybe a few.

"Knowing the Ropes"

To have knowledge and experience of the appropriate procedures

Square-rigged ships are known to have horizontal spars and miles of rope in the rigging, making for a difficult task to keep track of their functions. Historically, it took an experienced sailor to memorize each rope's placement and duty. The famous maritime saying has also been cited as a theater reference from stage crew slang of knowing the ropes for scene changes and curtain calls. But we can make an educated guess that tying sailor knots and rigging ropes for a nautical quest is where the homage should be paid here.

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