We don’t know about you guys but there’s lots of terms and phrases we use in everyday life which, we have at best, only limited knowledge of their origin. Unsurprisingly loads of these developed at sea. Take the word ‘tidy’... Even that derived from the tides due to their methodical, well arranged nature. So we thought we’d share some with you. We are sure Old Harry used a few himself!



A B O V E    B O A R D

Trading ships would hide illegal cargo below the ship’s deck. Legal cargo could be placed in plain view, so anything illegal was considered ‘below board’.

B I T E    T H E    B U L L E T

Those subjected to a flogging with a cat-o’-nine-tails were often given a bullet to bite on, to stop them screaming in agony (someone who did scream was liable to dubbed a ‘nightingale’!).


Thought to relate to either clothes or mooring ropes that were left behind when heading out to sea.

C U T   &   R U N

Relatively self explanatory: When in need of a quick getaway, the rope attached to the anchor would be cut, leaving the anchor stranded on the seabed. To ‘Cut to the Chase’ refers to the axing of the anchor rope to enable a rapid escape, or indeed pursuit.

C U T   O F   H E R   J I B

French and Spanish ships in the Bay of Biscay had their foresails thinly cut so as not to be blown off course. On sighting an enemy vessel with a thin foresail a British sailor might well have uttered this.

E A T   M Y   H A T

Sailors kept chewing tobacco in their hats, the linings of which became soaked in sweat and tobacco juice. If they ran out of tobacco, they would take the linings out of their hats and chew them!

G E T   I N T O   A   F L A P

Sails ‘flog’, flags ‘flap’. When signalling each other, warships used semaphore. Preparing for battle or a manoeuvre often called for a panicked flurry of ‘flagging’ termed getting ‘a bit of a flap on’.

( A   F I N E )   K E T T L E   O F   F I S H

Fish were frequently boiled in huge pots or kettles. Often the results were pretty foul, and hence were sarcastically referred to as ‘a fine kettle of fish’.

K N O C K   O F F

Galleys used to be rowed to the rhythm of a hammer hitting a wooden block. When the hammer ceased striking the galley slaves could rest easy.


O V E R   A   B A R R E L

Before the development of modern day resuscitation techniques, a near-drowned person was placed over a barrel which was then rolled back and forth in an attempt to revive him by draining the water from their lungs.

P U T   A   N E W   S L A N T   O N   T H I N G S

‘Slant’ is the position of the wind relative to the ship, so a change in wind would require a change in position.


S L I N G   Y O U R   H O O K

When unpopular shipmates were told to go and sling their hammocks elsewhere.

S T R A I G H T   A S   T H E   C R O W   F L I E S

British coastal vessels frequently carried a large cage of crows. Crows hate large expanses of water and head straight towards land when released at sea; a very useful trait for a helmsman when lost in fog or unsure or one’s bearings. The lookout perch on these vessels thus became known as the crow’s nest.

T H E R E   A R E   M A N Y   W A Y S   T O   S K I N   A   C A T

In this phrase the cat refers to a catfish. Catfish have very tough skin, and delicate flesh. There were many methods of removing the skin without tearing the flesh itself and the expression endures.

Material referenced from Nautical Curiosities: A Book of the Sea by Terry Breverton