Sea what I mean?


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Did you know that many old English proverbs and idioms originate from sayings used by seafarers?  Here are a few of our favourites...

"Shake a leg"

Today we use this to mean "hurry up" or "get a move on". It is thought that the phrase was originally used at sea as a morning call to get the crew up; literally, to get a leg out of their hammock.  

"Give a wide berth"

This phrase meaning "to keep a safe distance" has its origins in 17th century seafaring days, when it was used to avoid collisions. 

"The cut of one's jib"

Now often used to express whether we like or dislike the manner of somebody ("I don't like the cut of his jib"), this saying derives from the fact that the shape (the cut) of a ship's jib sail differed depending on the ship's nationality. The ship could therefore be identified as friend or foe depending on the cut of the jib.  

"At a loose end"

In nautical terms, a loose end refers to a rope that has been left unattached or unused and therefore has no purpose. Hence the term has been adopted into modern language to mean "to have nothing to do". 

"A clean slate"

A ship's course was traditionally recorded during each watch on a slate which was then wiped clean for the next watch. These days the term connotes a fresh start.  

"In the Doldroms"

The Doldroms are areas either side of the equator in which winds are known to be calm. As a consequence of the light wind conditions, sailing ships sometimes became stranded in those areas and the phrase "in the Doldroms" was coined to describe their state.  This idiom has been adapted to mean "in low spirits".  

"To know the ropes"

Sailors had to learn the purpose for each rope onboard and correct knots. Thus "to know the ropes" or "to learn the ropes" is used to describe becoming proficient at something.  

"Under the weather"

These days we use this term to describe someone who is feeling unwell. It is thought that this usage derives from the fact that a sailor or passenger who was unwell was sent below deck, away from the weather and where the rocking of the ship was less intense.  

"No room to swing a cat"

The "cat" in this phrase is not a furry pet as we know it but a cat o' nine tails, a type of whip used for punishment onboard naval ships. Allegedly the "cat" was used above deck because there was insufficient room to swing it below deck.  


So the story goes, this word is derived from the nautical phrase "portside out starboard home", referring to the favourable location of the cabins of well-to-do passengers. The passengers' luggage was apparently labelled with the antonym "POSH" as an instruction to the baggage handlers of where to take the bags.  

"Pipe down"

The pipe in this expression refers to the bosun's pipe, which was used to signal lights-out at the end of the day. Unsurprising therefore that it is now used as slang for "keep quiet". 

Laura Starr

Senior Claims Executive