Nautical Terms

Did you know that many everyday expressions originated from nautical terms? Here are some examples…


From the Old Dutch word “loef”, meaning windward.  It was adopted by English sailors in the 16th and 17th centuries, and in books of old voyages it is written variously as ”aluffe”, “a-luff” and ”aloof”. It describes a vessel which is sailing along a lee shore with her head pointing into the wind to prevent her being set ashore. It was also said of a vessel amongst a fleet of ships which sails higher into the wind so that she draws apart.  Thus it has come to mean “one who stands apart”.

Flogging a Dead Horse

A ”dead horse” was a sea man’s term for the first month at sea – a month for which they had already been paid and spent the money very quickly afterwards. So it seemed to them, with the money all gone, that first month was spent working for nothing. To mark the end of the “dead horse” month the crew would make an effigy of a horse and parade it around the decks.

Son of a Gun

A complimentary term for a sailor suggesting he was a natural born to the job, or more precisely born on the job. It comes from the time when women shared the gun deck accommodations with men aboard ships in port and sometimes at sea. Since the working spaces and gangways had to be kept clear, the only undisturbed place a woman could give birth to a child would be behind screens between guns. The expression also meant being conceived alongside a gun, since a hammock was not convenient for that sort of thing.

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