Five Phrases that have a Nautical Origin

Many common phrases used by the seafarer have found their way into common usage by the landlubber. Many more are wrongly ascribed. Here is our list of the best;

1. By and Large: meaning generally correct, all things considered

In the halcyon days of sail and the square rigger, when the wind was ‘large’ it was abaft the beam and allowed for good progress. When ‘by’ it meant the wind was forward of the beam. When a sailor therefore commented on the handling or seaworthiness of a ship he might say “By and large, she handles well”.

2. Chock-a-block: packed tight together so as there is no movement

A block and tackle is no stranger to a sailor. A chock is a wedge used to jam something in place. It is thought that choc-a-bloc was used to describe a block and tackle when the two pulleys jammed together at full stretch and left nowhere to go. ‘Chocka’ was later used as seafarer’s slang to describe when someone was ‘fed up’ or upset.

3. Fathom out: To deduce the facts

As most us us know, the most common definition of a fathom is six feet in length. Used as a definition for establishing the depth of water when sailing, to ‘fathom out’ might easily be to work out the depth of water. In doing this sailors used a lead and line to measure the depth by taking soundings. Using this line to establish depth led to the phrase ‘sounding out’ which you may also have heard ashore. Usually meaning ‘to make enquires of someone’.

4. Three sheets to the Wind: Very, very drunk

Perhaps an understandable analogy for those that have sailed - and also been drunk!  Imagine a sailing vessel at sea with several of its sheets flogging in the wind and the hull lurching, uncontrolled, from swell and wave. Now imagine your least elegant, well lubricated, late departure from your local hostelry. Any similarities?

5. Up the creek without a paddle: To be in a serious quandary with little chance of a positive outcome

Probably my favourite of all the sayings, this phrase requires a knowledge of Portsmouth and Gosport, located next to the Solent in Hampshire. During the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the largest naval hospital in the World was based in Gosport, on the banks of Haslar Creek, opposite the naval city of Portsmouth. If you found yourself being transported up Haslar Creek towards the hospital, and you were not doing the rowing, you were said to be going ‘up the creek without a paddle’ - in other words you were a naval casualty on his way to a 19th century hospital. Good luck with that..

Do you have any more phrases with a nautical origin? We’d love to hear them.