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January 13, 2013 / Kelly

DailyWritingTips–30 Nautical Expressions

This is a re-post from Daily Writing Tips. I can’t take credit for writing this, but I can take credit for noticing it and bringing it to your attention. I am always interested to learn about how idioms originate, and maybe you are, too.

“Learn the ropes” and “loose cannon” are commonly-used sayings that came from sailors (or maybe pirates!). I find it interesting that these had a precise, literal denotation; the cannon was actually loose! Today, it is an idiom in the American vernacular; if a person is a “loose cannon,” he/she is about to have an emotional breakdown or an angry outburst. It’s not a compliment, to put it lightly.

30 Nautical Expressions

1. All at sea: lost because of lack of knowledge of one’s position (confused and disorganized)
2. At loose ends: a reference to idle sailors being assigned to check that rigging is secure (idle)
3. Bail out: remove water from (assist or rescue)
4. Broad in the beam: said of a wide vessel (said of a large-hipped woman)
5. By and large: said in reference to steering slightly off the wind to ease effort and decrease the risk of slowing (in general, without special consideration)
6. Cut and run: sever the anchor line in an emergency (leave abruptly and abandoning others)
7. Fall foul of: collide with or become entangled in (come into conflict with)
8. First-rate: the largest class of warships during the sailing era (best)
9. Flog a dead horse: a reference to a period of work after getting — and spending — an initial payment (focusing on something already completed or settled)
10. Flotsam and jetsam: items lost or thrown overboard, respectively (odds and ends)
11. Give a wide berth: provide sufficient space when anchoring or docking to avoid other ships (keep at a distance)
12. Go by the board: a reference to something lost overboard (said of something to be abandoned or ignored)
13. Hail from: referring to the point of origin of a ship (come from, live)
14. Half seas over: partly submerged or keeled over so that waves are breaking over the deck, and therefore unable to maneuver effectively (drunk)
15. Hand over fist: using one hand at a time in quick alternating movements (rapidly)
16. Hard and fast: grounded (inflexible)
17. Hard up: a reference to the tiller being pushed as far to one side as possible (short of money)
18. High and dry: beached or caught on rocks and standing out of the water as the tide recedes (stranded or without resources or support)
19. In the offing: in sight, from the term for the expanse of ocean visible from shore (about to happen)
20. Know the ropes/learn the ropes: a reference to understanding knots, ropes, and rigging (familiarity with or training in how to perform a task)
21. Loose cannon: a piece of artillery that is not secure and therefore can cause damage or injury when it rolls on its wheels from the ship’s movement or from its recoil after being fired (out of control or unpredictable)
22. Ship shape: ready for sailing, with equipment and materials secured (clean, neat, in good condition)
23. Skylarking: sliding down rigging for fun (engaging in playful antics)
24. Take another tack: change the ship’s direction in relation to the wind (try another approach)
25. Take the wind out of one’s sails: a reference to the loss of movement when another vessel comes between the wind and one’s ship (to undermine another, usually by anticipating an action)
26. Taken aback: halted by a sudden shift of wind (surprised by a revelation)
27. Three sheets to the wind: a reference to the sheets (ropes) of a sail becoming loosened, rendering the sail useless (drunk)
28. Trim one’s sails (before the wind): adjust sails as appropriate (act according to circumstances)
29. When one’s ship comes home: a reference to the arrival of a fully laden cargo ship that will bring profit to the owner or investors (achievement of fortune or good luck)
30. Whistle for it/whistle for the wind: from the tradition of superstitiously whistling to summon the wind (hope for the impossible)

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One Comment

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  1. bowiefan1970 / Jan 13 2013 1:34 pm

    I particularly enjoyed “know the ropes” and “loose cannon”.

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