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Common English Idioms That Come to Us From the Sea

Your Friendly Neighborhood Grammar Geek, Volume VIII

Lots of English idioms have very interesting origins. In this iteration of "Your Friendly Neighborhood Grammar Geek," we’ll take a look at some phrases that come from the mighty sailor men of days gone by.


Its Modern Usage

A mainstay is a very important—usually the most important—thing for a group or a company. You could say, for example, that the F-150 is the mainstay of Ford’s small truck division. If it’s your mainstay, you can’t do without it.

Its Nautical Origins

On the old tall ships, they had masts and spars to hold the sails up, and these things were held in place by the rigging. There were two kinds of rigging: the running rigging, which the sailors pulled on to adjust the position of the sails, and the standing rigging, which was rarely adjusted, and kept the masts from falling over. The standing rigging included the shrouds, which were the triangular webs of rope that went from the mastheads to the rail. The shrouds served as ladders for the crew, and kept the masts from falling over sideways. The other half of the standing rigging were the stays. The stays went from mast to mast, either straight or diagonally, and kept the masts from falling over forward or backward. The mainstay was the stay that kept the mainmast in place, and was the thickest, strongest, most important rope on the ship, with the possible exception of the anchor cable.

The mainstay starts at one red arrow, ends at the other, and is roughly parallel with the dotted line.

The mainstay starts at one red arrow, ends at the other, and is roughly parallel with the dotted line.


Its Modern Usage

Scuttlebutt is rumor, but not just any rumor. It’s the generally accepted rumor for a given population; roughly synonymous with the phrase “the word on the street.” We often see a construction like this: “Office scuttlebutt says Bill’s going to be promoted.” To get the latest scuttlebutt at the office, people sometimes gather around coffee machine or the watercooler, which brings us to where the word came from.

Its Nautical Origins

Like mainstay, scuttlebutt is a compound word, and it's made of scuttle and butt. Butt has many meanings. It’s what you sit on. In archery—and in humor—it’s a target (as in the butt of a joke). In this case, however, a butt is a barrel. Specifically, a water barrel. A scuttle is an opening or a hatch. On a tall ship, the scuttlebutt was a water barrel propped up on one end, with a hatch or scuttle in the top. When thirsty—or merely when idle—the sailors would gather around the scuttlebutt to have a drink of water, and to discuss the goings-on in the ship. After a while, rumors heard and repeated at the scuttlebutt were themselves called scuttlebutt.


Its Modern Usage

If someone has been thwarted, he has been stopped—foiled—checked—prevented from accomplishing his goal. But why “thwarted?” It’s an odd word, isn’t it? Originally, thwart was an adverb meaning across, or transversely. One might have asked, “Why did the chicken go thwart the road?” Eventually, adverbial and adjectival thwart picked up an a at the beginning. (Many adjectival words have done so, like askance, across, askew, akimbo, ablaze, etc.) Therefore, we might eventually have asked, “Why did the chicken go athwart the road?” So how is it that thwart has a nautical origin, and how did it come to mean “prevented from accomplishing one’s goal?”

Its Nautical Origins

Recall that the original meaning of thwart was across. At some point, the word took on the function of a noun, and was used to mean the crossbraces of a boat, or the bench a rower would sit on in a boat. Often, the rowers’ benches would also function as crossbeams. So now we have thwart as a nautical word. After a bit, the word athwart appeared, following the pattern of nautical direction words as in the these example phrases: hard a-starboard, come aboard, dead ahead (or astern) etc. in 1809, the word thwart (without the initial a) was used as a transitive verb to mean “cut across the course of, so as to obstruct or be afoul of” in an official Royal Navy report. This usage was repeated a few times before the first appearance of the word thwart (meaning “obstructed” or “defeated”) in a non-nautical context, in 1828.

The red arrows point to the thwarts of this whale boat.

The red arrows point to the thwarts of this whale boat.

A Bit of Sea Chanty for You

Taken Aback

Its Modern Usage

When a person is taken aback, it’s usually because of a surprise, most often an unpleasant one. We might be taken aback by a friend’s sudden anger, for example. The phrase implies that the person who is taken aback actually takes a step backward to put some small distance between himself and whatever it was that took him aback.

Its Nautical Origins

Observant readers will have noticed the initial a in aback, and that it follows the pattern of other nautical words like astern and abaft and ahead. When a sailing vessel is moving ahead (or making headway), it’s going forward. But if you know anything about sailing, you’ll know that any headway a ship makes depends entirely on the wind. Sometimes, the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, and you have to sail into the wind. Unfortunately, you can’t sail directly into the wind; you must sail at an angle to it. This means that you’re not going directly toward your destination, and if you want to get where you need to be you have to tack, or turn your ship across the path of the wind. When well-executed, a tack maneuver doesn’t diminish the ship’s headway by much. But when executed poorly, or if the wind changes at just the wrong time, a square-rigged ship can be taken aback: the wind can push the ship’s sails back against its masts, checking its headway entirely and perhaps pushing the ship backward. If this happens in a strong wind, the ship can even be dismasted. Modern vessels with triangular sails do not get taken aback–they merely lose their headway, and are said to be ‘in irons.’ But for a square-rigged ship, being taken aback can spell disaster.

The mast of a tall ship taken aback. Note how the sails push against the mast--they aren't meant to do this.

The mast of a tall ship taken aback. Note how the sails push against the mast--they aren't meant to do this.

By and large

Its Modern Usage

The phrase by and large is roughly synonymous with for all intents and purposes. If something is by and large dependable, you can count on it in almost all circumstances.

Its Nautical Origins

If a ship is a good sailer by and large, it performs well under all conditions. But why “by and large” as opposed to “under all conditions?” By is short for by the wind. When a ship is sailing by the wind (or “close-hauled”) it is sailing as directly into the wind as it is able to do (probably about 30 degrees from the wind’s direction for a square-rigged ship). When the ship is sailing large, it is sailing with the wind, with sheets well-eased. If a ship sails well by and large, it is dependable no matter what.

This Dutch ship is sailing by the wind. Alas, I couldn't find a public domain image of a tall ship sailing large.

This Dutch ship is sailing by the wind. Alas, I couldn't find a public domain image of a tall ship sailing large.


Its Modern Usage

If someone is groggy, he's not at his best. He may be sleep-deprived, or may have just gotten up after a deep sleep. He may be drugged. He may be drunk.

Its Nautical Origins

Once upon a time it was really hard to keep fresh water in a potable condition at sea. After a few weeks in a barrel, it would get all nasty, full of bacteria (although at the time they had no idea what a bacterium was) and algae. But fresh water was vitally important for keeping sailors alive. What to do? Well, the solution was to do as they did on land—don’t drink water; drink beer. But beer, too, spoils with time. As maritime technology got better, voyages got longer, and the challenge of keeping enough potable drink on board ship became problematical.

Long about 1740 or so, an admiral of the Royal Navy called Edward Vernon hit upon a solution. In the 18th century, it was common practice when dealing with dodgy water to add some beer, wine, or spirits to the water to make it potable. They didn’t know why it worked, but they knew it worked. Well, when Great Britain took control of Jamaica, rum (distilled from sugar cane) became very, very cheap—just the thing to give to sailors. It also had the advantage of taking very little rum to make a lot of water safe to drink. Our man Admiral Vernon decided it would be smart to carry rum on His Majesty’s Ships, and to issue some to the sailors twice a day, to mix with their water. Oh, it’s important to mention that Admiral Vernon liked to wear a cloak of grogram material (silk and wool woven together, sometimes treated with gum, or rubber). Because of this, the sailors called him “Old Grogram” or “Old Grog.” The water-mixed-with-rum drink was named after him.

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The British Royal Navy issued grog to its sailors well into the 20th Century.

The British Royal Navy issued grog to its sailors well into the 20th Century.

What Else Would You Like to Know?

I'm curious about what you're curious about. If there's a particular word, phrase, or idiom that bugs you, please let me know. If I know why we say it that way, I'll probably put it in a future article. If I don't know, and if it's intriguing enough, I'll research it and put it in a future article, and we'll both be better off. You can ask about your particular curiosity in the comments below.


Kristin Trapp from Illinois on March 06, 2013:

That's a cool thing to have on your bucket list. The history is amazing there. The USS Constitution was very memorable to me because at five feet tall I was one of the only tourists that could stand straight up in the lower part of the ship where we learned about "scuttlebutt" and why the floor of the medical area was painted red. I'm sure you can figure out the reason.

Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on March 06, 2013:

ktrapp, I'm rather jealous--I'd love to visit Boston and tour the USS Constitution. It's on my bucket list.

Kristin Trapp from Illinois on March 06, 2013:

I'm always amazed at how many idioms we actually use, from the sea or elsewhere. You pointed out some that I had no idea were idioms, however, I learned about scuttlebutt years ago when I toured the USS Constitution in Boston.

Tricia Mason from The English Midlands on June 10, 2012:

Great stuff!!

Diana Grant from London on December 30, 2011:

I seem to remember as a child reading the expression about not spoiling the ship for a ha'porth of tar in "What Katy Did" by Susan Coolidge, which I believe is an American book.

No, I hadn't heard of a botcher either - maybe it's a rather specialised builder's term

Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on December 30, 2011:

Hi, Diana,

I've never come across the "ha'porth of tar" in use here in the US; might it be a Britishism? Wherever it's in use, it's a great saying: don't skimp on the small stuff, or you'll end up costing yourself more in the long run.

As for "botch" and "bodge," you've given me a bit of a poser. I've never encountered the word "bodge" before, either in print or in speech, and I've only seen "botch" used as a verb meaning to goof up, or to fail, sometimes spectacularly, as in "He wasn't paying attention and botched the job."

I've never heard of "botcher" meaning "a skilled craftsman" before. Time to hit the OED!

Diana Grant from London on December 30, 2011:

Another phrase which presumably relates to seafaring is "Don't spoil the ship for a ha'porth of tar".

Can you say what the difference in meaning is between "Botch" and "Bodge" and from where they are derived? One dictionary I read said they mean the same, and another only mentioned one of the words, omitting the other completely. My partner, a builder among other things, told me that a "botcher" is someone very skilled - he can make things out of nature, e.g. making a saw by bending branches - so that is almost the opposite of the dictionary definition.

Over to you :

Bernie the Pirate on November 14, 2011:

"Yo ho ho and a bottle a' rum, watch out stomach here it comes!"

Sid Udall on November 09, 2011:

I guess the only way the English could have good teeth was to join the navy.

Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on November 07, 2011:

Jack, the limey thing did come from the Royal Navy's practice of carrying lemons and limes aboard ship, not because they forgot to pack them. The English got called limeys because they were the only ones (for a long time, anyway) that bothered to carry citrus fruits on their voyages.

Jack Armstrong on November 07, 2011:

Where did the term "Limey" come from, then?

As for my submissions, I guess ignorance isn't bliss, it's just ignorance. But it is fun making things up!

Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on November 07, 2011:

Hi, folks! Thanks for the contributions. Jack, I must correct you--it's actually "keel-hauling," not hulling. The transgressing sailor is hauled under the ship, either from the starboard rail down under the keel and back up to the port rail (or the other way round) or from the bow down under the keel longways to the stern. Either way, it was a nasty punishment, as you'd be dragged along the barnacles attached to the hull.

Walking the plank is a cinematic thing, and most naval historians do not believe anyone ever actually was made to walk the plank.

And swimming with the fishes--are you sure you don't mean "sleeping with the fishes?" 'Cos I've been swimming with the fishes and didn't die. Then again, they let me back onto the boat afterward....

And, David, about the Limey thing: the British started packing limes/lemons when they figured out that fresh fruits and vegetables could stave off scurvy, a common and debilitating disease on tall ships, caused by nothing more than malnutrition. Interestingly, sauerkraut was also used as an antiscorbutic with great effectiveness.

David Clement on November 07, 2011:

"Limey" -- common derogetory term for an Englishman. It originated when England was a sea power that often forgot to pack limes for its sailors. Once they remembered, the sailors couldn't get enough of them.

Jack Armstrong on November 07, 2011:


"SWIMMING WITH THE FISHES" is not the dumping of a body into water. It is what the Body does once it is dumped.

Jack Armstrong on November 07, 2011:

"KEEL-HULLING" -- practice of disciplining a sailor by dragging him underwater from the keel to the hull of a ship. If he can hold his breath for the five or so minutes it takes, he survives.

"WALKING THE PLANK" -- cheapest and least time consuming method of capital punishment aboard ship. Also, along with "Keel-Hulling," great entertainment for all aboard.

"SWIMMING WITH THE FISHES" -- dumping of someones body into a lake or ocean and leaving it there. If the person is still alive when he is dumped, the sole intention is that he soon won't be.

Erik Fleming on November 06, 2011:

"Water? I never touch the stuff! Do you know what fish do in it?!" -- W. C. Fields

Bo Arroyo on November 03, 2011:

She's as cold as a fish.

Jackie O'Shaunessey on November 01, 2011:

"It doesn't float my boat."

Binky Sloane on October 31, 2011:

"Oh, what an adorable little yacht you have, Ms. Windsor, or may I call you "Liz"?

Jack Le Tourno on October 29, 2011:

For "Don't do anything here you wouldn't do at home" ---

"Don't Poop In My Sloop!"

Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on October 28, 2011:

Um....Ar? :)

Capt. Jeff on October 27, 2011:

A'hoy, me lad! What say ye? We're settin' out to port at sunrise. Would'ja care ta join us or do we hafta' Shanghai ye, my pretty one? Then ye shall never see home agin' once we git through with ye.

Jeff Berndt (author) from Southeast Michigan on August 29, 2011:

Hello, everyone. Sorry, I've been neglecting this hub for a while, it seems. Thanks for the kind words, Will, Ralph, kerly, Renegade, Kitty, and Maralexa. Dave, the initial a- in adjectival words is not unique to nautical terms (consider akimbo, askew, ablaze, awry, etc), but in modern usage, we do associate it with sailors (or movie pirates, maybe). It's hard to read words like astern or a-starboard without imagining a Long-John-Silver-sounding voice saying them. Why is there this holdover in nautical words and not general usage (how often do we hear the word "akimbo" anymore?) is an intriguing question. I'll have to do some research on that one, but my suspicion is that it has to do with the fact that sailing (in the Western world at least) has become a bit of an old-fashioned thing to do. Not many English-speakers make their living on sailing ships anymore, so the English vocabulary of sailing hasn't changed much in the last hundred or so years.

Marilyn Alexander from Vancouver, Canada on August 26, 2011:

What an extremely interesting hub! I love this sort of thing.

Very well written and obviously you have done much research. Your research though has been done with love and patience.

Thank you, I look forward to reading more of your hubs.

Kitty Fields from Summerland on August 05, 2011:

How intriguing! I never would've known that most of these words and phrases (except for scuttlebut) came from the sea! Voted up and awesome. You definitely kept my attention on this one, Jeff.

Dave on July 25, 2011:

Why do so many nautical words start with the letter "a"?

No capital D for Dave on the email address.

My short OED didn't help and I'm really curious!"

Dave on July 25, 2011:

Why do so many nautical words start with the letter "a"?


attemptedhumour from Australia on June 27, 2011:

Hi Jeff, what a good idea for a hub, i enjoyed reading about all these well known phrases. It would have been a rough old life out at sea dealing with those untamed elements. Then having to contend with the scuttlebutt on top. Cheers

Carolyn Dahl from Ottawa, Ontario on June 27, 2011:

Very interesting! I love learning new things!

kerlynb from Philippines, Southeast Asia, Earth ^_^ on June 26, 2011:

Very useful list. Thanks for this!

Ralph Deeds from Birmingham, Michigan on June 26, 2011:


WillStarr from Phoenix, Arizona on June 26, 2011:

I love this sort of Hub!

Well done, Jeff.

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