Naval Phrases in Common Use

When we talk to one another, we try and choose our words very carefully. However, we rarely consider the sources and origins of the many expressions that litter our vernacular and crop up in our conversations. For those living in countries with a history of naval battles or working in union with the sea, terms sourced from this background are more prevalent.

Talk Like a Pirate

Have you ever watched a film about a pirate or dreamed of being on the open ocean, chasing down merchant ships? Well, we might not be able to fully for fill those dreams, but we can still talk like those pirates! We have found several phrases that you may know from pirate folklore and some you might not be aware of:

Walk the Plank

To be ousted, removed, or fall from a plank into the sea below.

Anyone who has watched a film about pirates or played them as children will know the phrase ‘Walk the Plank.’ It is a staple of pirate folklore; walking the plank was a form of impromptu naval execution in the 1700s and 1800s. This era was known as the Golden Age of Pirates.

Learn the Ropes

To take time to understand how to perform a new task.

The history behind the phrase, ‘Learn the Ropes,’ is that it was used on tall ships. Sailors would have to practice and learn a ship’s various systems of ropes and pulleys. These rope-based systems were complex, so sailors had to memorise the configurations so they were used correctly.


Someone who dislikes, prefers not to be, or is not commonly on the water.

A nautical term used by sailors to describe people who spent most of their time on land or who preferred not to be at sea.


Shiver Me Timbers

An expression of annoyance or surprise.

Back in the 1300s, the word ‘shiver’ meant to become broken or fall to pieces. While there is still debate among linguists about this phrase’s true origin, we can still use it to replicate our favourite fictional pirates.


Nautical Know-How

Many modern-day phrases are based on the nautical knowledge of sailors that used these following phrases frequently.


To attempt to figure out or get to the bottom of something; to deduce based on facts.

A fathom is a nautical unit of measurement equivalent to six feet and used to measure water at sea.

Taking the Wind Out of His Sails

To demotivate someone or remove their initiative.

If a vessel should sail between the wind and another ship, the first could be slowed down as the amount of wind in their sails was reduced.

In the Doldrums

To be sad, tired, or dull.

The phrase was used during the 1800s to describe an area of calm waters typical around the direct north of the equator, between what was called the trade winds. Any of the ships caught in this area could sometimes remain stuck in place, without wind, for extended periods of time. It would lead to long periods of crewmates suffering low spirits.

To stop yourself from getting stuck with no wind in your sails, Offshore Supply has a range of top engines that can help you push through any blockage. We also supply a motor ship test kit that can propel you on your journey.

Wait, that is Nautical?

There are so many different phrases that come from sailors and their time aboard large ships. We have gathered a selection of the most common phrases used today and where they originated.

Under the Weather

To be feeling ill.

On an early naval vessel, various watches were assigned to crew members to keep an eye out for danger. Often considered the worst watch station, the ‘weather’ side of the bow was often subject to the pitching and rolling of the ship, as well as waves breaking over the bow. At the end of his shift, the crewmate would be drenched and described as having been ‘under the weather.’

Toe the Line

To act cautiously, to follow the rules.

On a naval ship, the crew would line up with their toes along the seam of the deck’s wooden planking.

The Bitter End

To pursue something to a conclusion and normally insinuate some tough circumstances.

The phrase comes from the term ‘bitter.’ It was a wooden post through the deck or gunnels of a ship. They would be used as a modern-day cleat to secure lines, and the end of the line in the part hung or secured to the bitter.


Taken Aback

To be in a state of surprise, unable to speak.

This phrase’s history revolves around an inattentive crewmember at the helm of a ship. In this event, the wind could end up on the wrong side of the sails, causing the ship to be pushed backwards.

Pipe Down

A call for silence.

In the early naval days, the boatswain’s pipe was used to communicate with the ship’s crew. In this sense, ‘piping down of the hammocks’ was the final signal delivered for the day, meaning that the crew could go below and rest for the night.

Keep Your Boat Looking Shipshape and Bristol Fashion

Whether you have one boat or an entire fleet, keeping it in tip-top shape is critical for your safety out on the open water.

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