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Here Are Some Salty Phrases To Start Your Week — Part 1

We hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving, filled with family, friends, turkey, and afternoon naps. Judging by the masts we saw heading out through the channel, a number of you were able to cast off the docklines and enjoy yourselves on the water. But alas, the weekend is over, and for those of us with regular jobs, it’s back to work today. To help keep that long-weekend sailing vibe alive just a little longer, we’re sharing a list of Salty Phrases that Latitude editor John Riise (JR) put together a while back, just for fun. The list is long and interesting, but in the spirit of keeping things brief, (and because we don’t want to be too distracted from what we are “meant” to be doing) we’re going to share just a few today.

Schooner racing
Yacht racing on San Francisco Bay circa 1884. The tall ships of yesteryear gave rise to many of today’s sayings now commonly used on land.
© 2022 Courtesy Vallejo Yacht Club

JR wrote: Most sailors are familiar with the main seagoing words that have made their ways into everyday jargon. But you might be surprised at how many familiar phrases also came down the gangplank. Here are a few — and pay attention to how many are related to flags. In the days before radio, flags were the main way ships communicated with each other and the shore.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, we can’t guarantee that all these are 100% accurate. If any need corrections or clarifications, please let us know.)

Above Board: The term today means someone who is honest and forthright. In the old days it just meant visible. The phrase apparently came from a practice by pirates, masquerading as merchantmen, to hide most of their crew behind the bulwarks (“below board?”) until the ship was within striking distance. By contrast, the crew of a genuine — or honest — merchant ship would be visible “above board.”

As the Crow Flies: In everyday language, “as the crow flies” means the shortest distance between two points. In the old days, it gave you a bearing to land. Coastal ships in Europe — perhaps back as far as the Viking days — often carried one or more caged crows. When it was foggy and/or they were unsure of their position, they would let a crow loose, knowing it would fly straight for the nearest land. The practice of carrying the birds in a cage suspended aloft is also where we get “crow’s nest.”

Bamboozle: To get the better of someone through trickery. Said to originate in the 17th century to describe the Spanish custom of raising false flags to deceive — or bamboozle — enemies.

Batten Down, or Batten, the Hatches: Make preparations, particularly for some kind of looming disaster. Aboard cargo ships, battens were long lengths of wood. When a storm was coming, heavy tarps were thrown over cargo hatch covers, and the battens were wedged along the outside edges to ensure the hatches would not leak.

Turn a Blind Eye: Today, if you turn a blind eye, you intentionally ignore something. In 1801, during the Battle of Copenhagen, then Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson deliberately put his telescope to his blind eye in order not to see the flag signal from his commander to disengage. And, being Nelson, he emerged victorious. What a guy!

By and Large: In the old days, sailing “by” the wind meant sailing as close as possible to the wind (which in those days wasn’t very close). Sailing “large” meant running or broad reaching. So aboard a ship “by and large” meant “in most circumstances.” The meaning ashore has changed a bit to mean, “in general.”

Let the Cat out of the Bag: This common phrase, meaning to reveal a secret, had more dire meanings aboard ship. The “cat” was the cat o’ nine tails — a whip with nine ends used to punish recalcitrant sailors. One can easily imagine that a warning to a misbehaving sailor about letting the cat out of the bag would make him shape up pretty fast.

Cup of Joe: In 1913, Woodrow Wilson appointed Joseph Daniels to be the new Secretary of the Navy. Among Daniels’ reforms was abolishing alcohol consumption aboard warships (then limited to wine in the officers’ mess). From then on, the strongest drink aboard a Navy ship was coffee, and it wasn’t long before it got nicknamed “a cup of Joe.” (Does Starbucks know this?)

Devil to Pay: The “devil” was a nickname given to the seam where the covering board met the deck planking. It was so named because it was both the longest seam on the ship, and the most difficult one to get at for periodic caulking. “Pay” was a type of tar used in caulking. So “the devil to pay” literally meant “that long, difficult seam that has to be caulked.” Landsmen mistook “devil” to be literal, and adopted the phrase to mean some unpleasant result from something someone does — as though Satan is exacting retribution. (This is also where we get the phrase “between the devil and the deep blue sea.”)

We’ll share more of JR’s Salty Phrases in the future. In the meantime, feel free to share your favorites or alternate versions in the comments below.


  1. Chuck Cunningham 1 year ago

    Great article. Always fun to learn thd derivation of a saying and how it applies to modern use.
    Cheers to all at Lat 38.

  2. Tom Carr 1 year ago

    I thought ‘sailing by the wind’ meant keeping the sail in trim by altering course rather then re-trimming to stay on a specific bearing. So ‘by and large’ would seem to mean sail ‘large’ by the wind.

  3. David Hume 1 year ago

    I was taught that the ‘Devil’ was the lowest seam next to the keel. Boats were often repaired by going aground and letting the tide go out to reveal the damaged seam caulking. The Devil was the last seam exposed and the first one covered by the oncoming tide, hence the most difficult because you had the least amount of time.

    • Gordon Worley 1 year ago

      The devil being the seam between the keel timber and the garboard strake is what I have always head as well. The Encyclopedia of Nautical Knowledge (Cornell Maritime Press, 1953) defines devil as “Any planking seam difficult to access in caulking …when vessels were careened on a beach for bottom repairs, (the) seam between the garboard strake and the keel.” They report the original phrase as “the devil to pay and no pitch hot” meaning a situation “unsurpassed for serious trouble.”

  4. Craig Russell 1 year ago

    Here is one you may not know: Hunky Dory is an abbreviated version of a street name in Japan known for the services provided to the sailors who visited there. It is meant to mean all is well or perfect.

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