Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
E-mail this article
Print this Article

Recently, a team of volunteer sailors from Patuxent River Naval Air Station embarked on an Atlantic voyage, and they often spoke to one another in a language shared by generations of seafarers.

They yelled out terms like “jib and jigger,” a way to use sails to travel. Or “starboard,” which some historians say was coined by Vikings. Those ancient sailors called the sides of their ships “boards.” The oar was the “star” and they put it on the right side of the ship.

“It goes back to our old days of sail,” said Tim Holland, commodore of the Navy Patuxent Sailing Club. Order had to be followed correctly because lives hung in the balance, he said. Captains barked short, clear commands so that sailors “would respond instinctively.”

Today, sailors and landlubbers alike might recognize these nautical terms that have made their way into everyday conversations.

ź Above board: Pirates, pretending to be merchants, hid their crew below boards of ships before an attack. Today, it essentially means honest.

ź Ahoy: Originally a Viking battle cry, the phrase became tradition for greeting other vessels.

ź Fathom: Derived from the Anglo-Saxon word meaning “to embrace.” A man often stretches his arms to embrace his lover. The English often used body parts (such as feet) to make measurements. In this case, a fathom was the average distance from fingertip to fingertip of men’s outstretched arms, as if ready to embrace. It equaled 6 feet. The word also has come to mean evaluating, or taking measure of, one’s thoughts.

ź Feeling blue: This modern term for sadness apparently spawned from a tradition where crew members flew blue flags and painted a blue band along the entire hull if a ship lost its captain or any officers during a voyage.

ź Head: The sailors’ word for bathroom comes from days when the place to relieve oneself was typically located near the front — or more specifically, over the sides of the front — of the ship, near the bowsprit, where the figurehead was attached.

ź He knows the ropes: Referred to a sailor so new, he only knew names and uses of critical ropes on a boat. Today, someone who knows the ropes knows a job well.

ź Hunky-Dory: Legend says this phrase, which means things are going well, derives from a street or district in Japan that catered to the pleasures of sailors.

ź Knots: About 200 years ago, sailors would throw a floating “log line,” marked by knots tied into it at 47.33-foot intervals, over the side of the boat. It was allowed to remain in the water 28 seconds. Sailors counted the knots that passed over the side to measure the boat’s speed.

ź Log book: Ship records used to be written on shingles that had been cut from logs, hinged and made into books. Modern versions are paper or electronic but share the same name.

ź Long shot: In olden times, ship guns were largely inaccurate at long distances and, as a result, were used mostly at close range. It was considered lucky if a long shot hit its target. Today, the term is synonymous with “unlikely.”

ź Mind your P’s and Q’s: This phrase suggests one should pay careful attention to their behavior. Long ago, sailors purchased pints or quarts of drinks on credit and settled the debt on paydays.

These nautical terms were compiled from, and at, a site for Navy chiefs.