Accessibility links

Breaking News

Language From the Sea, Still Fresh After Centuries

Or download MP3 (Right-click or option-click and save link)

(SOUND: Seagulls, ship horn)

AA: I'm Avi Arditti, with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- the catch of the day, terms from the sea.

Lots of nautical expressions have washed ashore into everyday English. Alan Hartley researches them for the Oxford English Dictionary -- that is, when he's not supervising the loading of grain onto foreign ships in the Great Lakes. We called him at his office in Minnesota, and immediately made headway.

ALAN HARTLEY: "When you make 'headway,' you're making progress forward. 'Way' is usually the forward motion of a ship. It could also be rearward motion, and that was called 'sternway.' But there are a lot of analogous terms in English that never made it into the general vocabulary. 'Headway' and 'sternway' are a good example of a pair, one of which made it and the other didn't.'"

AA: Maritime metaphors lend themselves to all kinds of situations on land. Let's say you're making headway on that big project at work, going "full steam ahead." It's all "smooth sailing" toward that big promotion. Or so it seems.

All of a sudden you're "weathering a storm." You reach the "end of your rope" (anchor rope, that is). You look for "safe harbor." You "go overboard" to make things better. The last thing you want is to "scuttle" your career and wind up "on the rocks," all because you've "run afoul" of the boss.

Language From the Sea, Still Fresh After Centuries
Language From the Sea, Still Fresh After Centuries

ALAN HARTLEY: "If you encountered another ship accidentally, you got too close to it, maybe you got tangled in its anchor cable, in that case you have 'run afoul' of the other ship and had an accident, essentially."

AA: "And today we might talk about to 'run afoul of the law.'"

ALAN HARTLEY: "Sure, exactly. It's a very typical case of the extension into everyday English. And it shows that, you know, the word would be kicking around in nautical use for a few decades and gradually it would be picked up in general use."

RS: "Some of these words I find interesting because I didn't even know that they were maritime words."

ALAN HARTLEY: "Same for me. 'High and dry,' for instance, is something you say all the time. A ship got stuck on the mud flats or on a reef, the tide went out and the ship was left high and dry."

RS: "Well, here's an expression I never associated with the seas, usually associated with my doctor. When I go to the doctor I really like to come out with a 'clean bill of health.'"

ALAN HARTLEY: "Everybody does. And the crew of an old sailing ship would have felt the same way. It didn't mean quite the same thing then, but a ship on arriving at a port would have to be cleared by the local port authorities as having no communicable disease on board. And once they were cleared they got a 'clean bill of health.' Sometimes that took a long time. They would be in quarantine, which was a forty-day period. That's where the 'quarant' comes from."

RS: "Do you have a favorite maritime expression?"

ALAN HARTLEY: "The one that's maybe most striking to me is that phrase we use nowadays, the phrase 'to be taken aback.' A person is taken aback if he is surprised in a negative way, and that derives from an old sailing term in which if the ship were headed too close to the direction of the wind, the wind would strike the sails on the forward surface instead of the after -- or rear -- surface.

"So if the wind got around too much toward the bow, toward the front of the ship, it could stop you in your tracks. But also, if you were taken aback hard enough, you could break the entire mast that the sail was suspended from. So it was a very dangerous and startling situation."

AA: Nowadays, don't look to the sea for many new expressions. Alan Hartley points out that we're still using mostly terms from the days of sailing ships.

ALAN HARTLEY: "A lot of the vocabulary that's developed since then is very technical, very specific to modern ships. It has very little application in everyday life."

AA: Alan Hartley is a ship-loading superintendent in Minnesota and a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary. He's put together a list of nautical language for our website. That address is And our e-mail address is

Time to set sail! With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

(MUSIC: "Across the Sea"/Bobby Darin)


Originally broadcast August 2002

Words That Have Made Their Way from Nautical Language
into Everyday English

Alan H. Hartley, August 2002

(Note of explanation: 1666||1681 means that FIRST-RATE was, according to the 2nd edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, first recorded in nautical use in 1666 and in general use in 1681. The average lag between first nautical appearance and first general use is more than 100 years, but, as that includes some odd cases with very long gaps, I'd be inclined to say instead that it's usually a matter of “a few decades”.)

Before proceeding to sea, the crew will BATTEN DOWN THE HATCHES in order to prevent flooding below decks that might cause the ship to FOUNDER (1600||1613).

A ship just leaving its moorings GETS UNDER WAY (1743||1822): way is the forward (or sometimes backward) motion of a ship. If the ship continues on its desired course, it will MAKE HEADWAY (1748||1775), the ship's bow being called the head. (The analogous nautical term sternway never made it into popular English: we prefer progress to reversals.) A ship making a lot of headway will leave a slower one in its WAKE (1627||1806), the track it leaves in the sea.

A ship that sails well BY AND LARGE (1669||1706) sails well into (by) the wind as well as with a following (large) wind, that is, under most conditions. A ship that sails really well by the wind can stay ALOOF (1532||1583) from (upwind of) other vessels. It will sail best if it is nearly ON AN EVEN KEEL, drawing the same depth of water along its whole length, rather than being much deeper at the bow or the stern.

To FORGE AHEAD (1769||1861), to proceed with effort and determination, probably comes from a common Mediterranean nautical expression meaning 'to press ahead by force of oars or sail' (cf. Italian forza di remo / di vela).

To FATHOM meant originally to measure the water's depth by the fathom (6 feet), roughly the span of a man's outstretched arms, and later to understand the depth of a subject. Failure to watch the depth carefully might leave the ship HARD AND FAST (1867||1867) aground, and perhaps even HIGH AND DRY (1822||1838) when the tide goes out.

A ship may wait IN THE OFFING (1627||1779), or off-shore, if it is inconvenient or dangerous to approach the coast. At night or in unfavorable weather (to WEATHER A STORM), a ship might stand ON AND OFF the coast, that is, take a zigzag course alternately toward and away from the coast, giving the dangerous shore a WIDE BERTH (1829||1829) and assuring adequate LEEWAY (1669||1827), or room to maneuver, if the wind starts to blow the ship toward the lee shore. Jogging on and off requires the ship to make a leg in one direction and then TAKE A DIFFERENT TACK, a course different with respect to the direction of the wind.

Masts and other spars and rigging may GO BY THE BOARD (1630||1859), or GO OVERBOARD, by an accident at sea. By the board now refers to something no longer in effect: “those regulations have gone by the board.”

The main-mast might go by the board if the enemy—like a FIRST-RATE (1666||1681) man-of-war of 100 guns, firing a BROADSIDE (1597||1833) that raked the ship FROM STEM TO STERN (1627||1842)—shot away the MAIN-STAY (1485||1787, Thomas Jefferson). The main-stay is the heavy rope leading down and forward that supports the main-mast. It might be necessary to JURY-RIG a spare mast, that is, set it up temporarily until the ship could reach a port where proper repairs could be made.

In rigging, it won't do to use JUNK (1485||1842), old or inferior rope. The word probably comes from Old French jonc, a rope made of rushes (such a rope being weak and inferior); compare with jonquil, a plant with leaves shaped like those of the rush.

Damage to ship or cargo is legally called AVERAGE (1491||1735), which is derived ultimately from an Arabic word for damaged goods. The damages had to be distributed equitably, or averaged, among those owning interests in the ship or cargo.

Maneuvering in CLOSE QUARTERS (1753||1809), one ship might easily RUN AFOUL (1809||1824) of another. FENDERS (1626||1919, U.S.), made of such things as old rope, serve to protect a ship during contact with a dock or another ship.

The pilot will SEE HOW THE LAND LIES (1700||1809) and use LANDMARKS (1570||1667)—distinctive features on shore—to keep the ship in the designated channel, or FAIRWAY (1854||1910, in golfing), and STEER CLEAR of obstructions. (In poor visibility, as in rainy or HAZY (1615||1665) weather, the pilot might LOSE HIS BEARINGS.)

A river-boat might HIT A SNAG (1804, Lewis and Clark||1829), which is an old tree-trunk or branch forming a dangerous obstruction.