SOS Next post: The origins of SOS and Mayday

shutterstock_184111544 Previous Post: Unusual words with surprising meanings

Nautical terms

Sailing the seas of nautical language

I recently endured a weekend of mini-disasters (and it was supposed to be a relaxing Bank Holiday, too!). When I related the catalogue of catastrophettes to my father, his first response was ‘Well, worse things happen at sea!’. Though I was piqued, as he clearly didn’t think my weekend ranked high on the scale of human suffering, I thanked him for reminding me of this saying. It prompted me to muse that, whether we’re aware of it or not, the salty tang of the sea is never far from our thoughts, lips, pens, or keyboards. Nautical words and phrases season the discourse of our daily lives, from official reports and the outpourings of the media to our conversations and emails between family and friends.

You don’t need to indulge in the cheesy pseudo-piratespeak of shiver me timbers, scurvy dogs, and avast me hearties to navigate these linguistic waters, either (entertaining though it can be!). Although some words and sayings are transparent in their links to life on the briny (including ‘worse things happen at sea’) we use others without ever being aware of their marine origins, so far have they voyaged from their first or literal meanings.

Here’s a selection of words and expressions with nautical roots: some may surprise you!

to take someone aback

To take someone aback is to shock or surprise someone:

Everyone at our table was taken aback at his rudeness towards a customer.

This phrase was first recorded in 1730, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)’s current research, when it was used to describe a sail rather than a surprised person. If a sail is taken aback (because of poor steering or a change in the wind), it’s suddenly pressed back against the mast, preventing the ship’s forward progress. Later, the expression was also used to refer to a ship which was suddenly caught in this way. The OED records the first use of the phrase’s most common current meaning later in the eighteenth century, showing that the metaphorical use probably followed closely on the heels of the nautical and literal one.

a slush fund

It often seems that you can’t read a newspaper or watch the news without hearing of another instance of a slush fund. It refers to a fund of money that’s kept for illicit purposes, especially to bribe people in political or other organizations:

He’s giving evidence about his role in the establishment of an alleged union slush fund.

On ships in the eighteenth century, slush referred to the waste fat which was left after the ship’s cook had boiled salt beef for the crew to eat. Sailors had a limited diet, so there was a fair amount of this fat, which was skimmed off and stored in barrels. In the US Navy, the fat was sold and the proceeds of this sale were called a slush fund. The money was spent in buying luxuries for the crew. The term later became used to describe a fund used to supplement the salaries of US government workers, then gained its current meaning and entered more widespread use around the world.

to give someone or something a wide berth

If you give someone or something a wide berth, it means that you keep well away from him, her, or it, either in a literal or a figurative sense:

Every sensible consumer should be giving these products a wide berth.

In nautical use, berth was first used to mean ‘adequate sea room‘. If one ship gave another vessel a wide berth, it meant they allowed a safe distance between them as they passed each other.  Captains might also give a wide berth to hazards such as rocks. The transferred and more general use of the phrase, with its current meaning of avoiding something or someone undesirable, developed in the mid 19th century.


Today, the adjective snug has two main meanings: ‘comfortable, warm, and cosy’ (the cabins are snug and luxurious, with much ornamentation) and ‘fitting someone or something closely’ (he wore a loose button-up shirt and snug black jeans).

However, when snug was first recorded in English in the late 16th century, it was a nautical term used to describe vessels that were shipshape, compact, and adequately prepared for bad weather (Captain Read… ordered the Carpenters to cut down our Quarter Deck, to make the Ship snug, and the fitter for sailing). The OED shows that, in the eighteenth century, snug was also used to refer to people who were neat or trim in their appearance.

The word’s origin isn’t known for sure, but it’s thought it may derive from either a Low German word, snügger (meaning ‘slender, smooth, dainty’) or a Dutch word, snuggher (‘slender, slim, active’).

by and large

This very familiar phrase now means ‘on the whole, in general’ (by and large, the food was good). It’s come a significant distance from its original meaning, which derives from a sailing term. If a ship is said to be sailing by the wind it’s travelling as closely as possible towards the direction that the wind is blowing from. Sailing large on the other hand, means that the wind is blowing from a direction nearer to the stern of a ship.

Clearly, ships could not sail by and large at the same time, but the term was used to describe the action of vessels which could handle well in both situations. From here it was a short step for the phrase to transfer into landlubber’s use, with the meaning ‘in all ways, on the whole’.


We use this adjective, found chiefly in British English, to describe things such as assurances, evidence, and guarantees that can be relied on or trusted completely:

He failed to give a copper-bottomed assurance that he would lead the party into the next election.

I’d always thought, being a keen cook,  that this term was related to sturdy saucepans, so was interested to discover that it actually derives from the use of copper to cover the bottom of wooden sailing ships. A layer of copper ensured that the ship’s planks were protected from damage by the teredo, a marine mollusc which drills into wood, also known as the shipworm. Copper also prevented shells and weeds (which impede the vessel’s motion) from accumulating on the keel. A copper-bottomed ship was thus more reliable and seaworthy than one without such a covering, hence the term entering general use with the current meaning in the late nineteenth century.

to up sticks

If a person ups sticks, it means that he or she goes to live elsewhere:

We’ve all wanted to do it – up sticks and live in the sun.

This expression is used in informal British English, and – you guessed it – derives from nautical slang. On a sailing ship, a stick is either a mast or a portion of a mast. Masts can often be unshipped (removed from their fixed or regular position) when the ship is at anchor, so to prepare a ship for departure again, the mast or masts must be upped (that is, set up). Once this happens, the ship is ready to sail away.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this voyage of discovery around some of our rich heritage of nautical language. Next time, I’ll take to the air and explore some expressions with their origins in the world of aviation.


The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.