Nautical origins of common phrases

Joan Wenner, boating safety writer, looks into the meaning of sailing phrases from the time of masted sailing ships, that those newer to sailing may not be familiar with.

Did you know?

Long Shot – Early ships’ guns tended to be inaccurate. If a shot made impact from a great distance , or a “long shot” it was considered out of the ordinary.

Flotsam and Jetsam – Flotsam (from word “float”) describes items not deliberately thrown overboard; Jetsam (from the word “jettison”) were items deliberately heaved overboard.

Tide over – A small amount until a larger amount available. When no wind to fill sails, sailors would float with the tide until the wind returned. They would “tide over.”

Taken aback – Meaning startled or surprised to us, the sails of a ship “aback” when the wind blew them flat, or back, against their supporting structures.

Pipe down – Crews received a variety of signals from boatswain’s pipe. One was “piping down the hammocks” for going belowdecks to prepare for sleeping.

Toe the line – British Royal Navy to stand barefoot for inspection (or in some cases punishment) with toes touching seam lines of the deck planks. Known as “toeing” the line.

The Doldrums – Refers to the belt around the Earth near the equator with often little surface wind for sails with ships getting stuck on its windless waters.

Joan Wenner, J.D. is a long-time boating safety writer with a law degree. She also has a special interest in maritime history. Comments are welcomed at

M.O.S.S Australia
Cyclops Marine