Everyday Phrases You Didn’t Know Came from Sailing

It’s easy to assume that the impact of sailing on our culture is quite limited – perhaps not stretching any further than Pirates and the Titanic! However, this assumption would be misguided, particularly when considering the influence of sailing on the English language. This post highlights some of the most well-known and most frequently-used phrases that have origins in sailing.
Batten Down the Hatches
The first phrase here is one that we’d understand to mean preparing for crisis or trouble. Its origins actually lie in sailing, in relation to a specific nautical predicament – bad weather. The hatches on a sailing ship allow ventilation for the lower decks and were usually grated. Therefore, to prevent the lower decks flooding, the hatches were covered with tarpaulin, which was held down with wooden poles called battens. The hatches thus were battened down, hence the phrase!
Cut and Run
If we were to say to ‘cut and run’, we’d be suggesting running away, and rather quickly too! This phrase originates in reference to a similarly fast departure, but in a sailing context. The ‘cut’ is believed to mean cutting the anchor rope, which would obviously be a faster approach than pulling the anchor back in, while the ‘run’ refers to running before the wind to maximise sailing speed.
Give a Wide Berth
This is mostly commonly used on an everyday basis to mean keeping a good distance from something – and that is precisely what it means in the nautical sense from which it originates. The phrase was first recorded in the 17th Century; it could mean keeping distance from other ships, ports, or simply natural features.
High and Dry
Another phrase with quite a clear origin, this in everyday terms refers to being without necessary resources and potentially having little chance of recovering. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sailing origins of the phrase refer to boats that are stranded or beached for some time – in this case, it is water that is the much-needed resource!
Push the Boat Out
Undoubtedly the most obvious sailing term in this post, pushing the boat out means exactly what it sounds like! For hundreds of years, people have made a habit of building boats that were too heavy for one person to move. Therefore ‘pushing the boat out’ was, and still is, considered an act of generosity. This makes sense given the more modern understanding of the phrase, relating to spending a lot of money and/or celebrating, usually for someone else. The generosity of putting on a big party for a friend for example is, in a way, the 21st century equivalent of helping to push somebody’s boat out!
Three Sheets to the Wind
Use of this phrase today, unlike some of the phrases featured, still carries the same meaning as it did when it first came into existence. The term is a sailing metaphor for being very drunk. Sheets actually are ropes, and the phrases refers to three ropes that usually would attach to the sail flapping in the wind, leading to a very unsteady ship, just as being drunk sometimes leads to a very unsteady person!
Shake a Leg
This final phrase is perhaps the most commonly used out of any in this post, and is unanimously known to mean to get started, often in the form of getting out of bed! That is in fact precisely what the phrase originally meant when it originated on Royal Navy ships, although back then it was ‘Show a Leg’ instead. This was an order given to sailors in the mornings to mean getting out of their hammocks – by showing a leg, it would mean they are climbing out of their hammock, ready to face another day on the seas.
It really is quite surprising how these phrases have remained common, despite some of these dating back to over 400 years ago. Though perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked - all those pirates’ shanties showed they had a way with words!