The English language is sprinkled with idioms¹ that have a nautical origin. Some people may use them routinely without being aware of the fact. The following are 10 such idiomatic expressions. They illustrate, not only how the shipping world has impacted on everday language, but also how it has helped unify peoples across the English-speaking world.
¹As defined by The Free Dictionary, an idiom is “a speech form or an expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements, as in keep tabs on”.
above board: legitimate and honest, not hiding anything to deceive anyone
The reference is to the deck of a ship.
Example: Not all manning agents are above board in their dealings.
batten down the hatches: to prepare for a difficult or challenging situation
In the Age of Sail, ship hatches were secured before a storm by covering them with tarpaulin, which was nailed down with battens (strips of wood).
Example: Maritime schools battened down the hatches on the eve of another inspection visit by the European Maritime Safety Agency.
blow out of the water: to thoroughly defeat or destroy someone or something
In naval warfare, a warship that explodes after being hit directly by a broadside is said to be blown out of the water.
Example: Their football team played so well that it blew the competition out of the water
deep-six: to discard, dump or abandon something or someone
The expression is believed to have its origins in the practice of burying sailors at sea to a depth of six fathoms.
Example: She was sensible enough to finally deep-six her boyfriend.
flotsam and jetsam: various unwanted or discarded items; figuratively, persons who are considered unimportant or of little value
In nautical lingo, items floating on the sea after a shipwreck are called flotsam, whilst those thrown overboard because they are unwanted or useless are called jetsam.
Example: Despite all the talk about seafarers’ rights, those who work at sea are pretty much flotsam and jetsam to the maritime establishment.
You may also like
in the doldrums: in a state of inactivity, stagnation, or (emotional) depression
The term “doldrums” or “calms” refers to the equatorial regions of light ocean currents. Crews of sailing vessels hated the doldrums because it meant there was little or no wind to move the ship. (see Britannica article about doldrums)
Example: Many coffee shops are in the doldrums as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions.
jettison: to discard or abandon something
The nautical term “jettison” refers to the act of throwing goods overboard to lighten a ship in stormy weather.
Example: The original plan was jettisoned because it would have cost a lot of money.
red herring: a piece of information intended to mislead or draw attention away from the main point being discussed or considered.
Literally, a red herring is a species of fish that has turned red by smoking (in contrast, a white herring is one that is fresh).
Example: The suspect threw some red herrings, but the detectives were relentless in their questioning.
taken aback : shocked or surprised by something one hears or sees
A sail is aback when the wind pushes against its forward side and towards the stern.
Example: I was taken aback when the union president remarked that it was no big deal if manning agents skimmed money from seafarer remittances.
toe the line: follow the rules or the established order; obey the commands of someone in authority
Sailors of old lined up wiith their toes touching a mark on the deck when the captain called out to address them.
Example: The captain expected his crew to always toe the line on pain of being sent home.