Nautical terms pepper discourse of old salts and landlubbers alike

It was the English cleric and author Charles C. Colton who wrote, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” If that’s the case, then merchant mariners should be very flattered these days because throughout every strata of American society there is a fascination with all things nautical. People who have no connection to the sea now regularly use our maritime terms and sayings as their own — possibly unaware of the origin of the words. Like the news headline I read recently that said, “Former Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly gets clean bill of health.” I doubt many reading that headline would know that a “bill of health” was a shipping practice that began in the 17th century, established to help slow the spread of disease. A “clean bill of health” was a certificate issued to the master that attested to there being no infectious outbreaks at the port from which the ship had departed — essentially clearing the vessel for entrance at the arrival destination.

Businesses large and small often employ nautical terms and slogans, too. When I was the relief mate on a large oil spill response vessel berthed in Perth Amboy, N.J., I had the weekend off and decided to take the train into New York City to visit the iconic Manhattan rock-and-roll club The Bitter End, where years earlier I’d seen the band Soft White Underbelly. My guess was that no one there that night knew the name of the famous club had a nautical origin: the inboard end of a ship’s line or chain that was secured on a bitt. When the line or chain had been let out completely and all that remained was the part wrapped around the bitt, “the bitter end” had been reached. As Vern Poulsen, an excellent boatswain I sailed with as a cadet on a containership once told me as we were docking in Yokohama, “When you are handling lines, be careful not to pay out too much, cadet, because by the time you reach the bitter end you are definitely at the end of your rope.”

The public often uses maritime sayings colloquially. At a holiday party held at our friends’ beautifully decorated home, I was hanging out near the buffet table, discussing the Seahawks’ playoff chances with a retired Boeing engineer, when I noticed one of the other guests at the counter pouring his third or fourth mug of spiked eggnog. With each additional cup of holiday cheer he became more animated, and not long afterward he was going around wishing everyone a slurry Merry Christmas. That’s when the host declared him to be “three sheets to the wind,” cut him off from eggnog and got a sober friend to agree to drive him home.

Today, being “three sheets to the wind” means that someone is drunk enough that they stagger, but the phrase actually originated during the days of sailing vessels. Sheets were lines or chains attached to the lower corners of a square sail, known as clews, that were used to help control the trim of the sail. In bad weather, the sheets would break loose. By the time a ship had “three sheets to the wind,” the sails would be flapping wildly in the breeze, the vessel rolling and lurching as it was buffeted by the storm.

In late January, several weeks after that holiday party, my wife and I were at our weekly Friday morning yoga session. As we were putting our gear away at the end of class, our instructor — all 5 feet and 100 pounds of her — announced in her best command voice, “There’s a big winter storm coming, so when you get home don’t forget to batten down the hatches.” I’ve sailed on two vintage ships, one of them the California Maritime Academy training ship Golden Bear II, where we had to “batten down the hatches.” I explained that battens were long, flat metal rods that were used to secure a hatch for sea. A hatchway was an opening in the deck for loading and unloading cargo. Hatch covers were essentially a bunch of heavy planks, called hatch boards, placed over the opening. These were neither weatherproof nor waterproof, so we would cover them with heavy-duty tarpaulins and then “batten them down” to help protect the cargo from the elements.

Society has embraced the use of nautical terms and phrases so enthusiastically that the phenomenon has spread worldwide. I remember one late summer day down at Pike Place Market in Seattle. We had just come out of the Market Spice store and were walking by the fish stall when a group of about eight people dressed in pirate garb and waving foam swords made their way through the crowd, calling out “ahoy mateys” and “avast ye landlubbers.” Tourists were laughing and taking photos of the group, and after they passed, I asked my wife what she thought that was all about. Before she could answer, a guy next to us turned and said, “It’s International Talk Like a Pirate Day,” an idea thought up by two landlubbers from Albany, Ore., close to 25 years ago. Since then, millions of people around the globe have celebrated every Sept. 19 by “talking nautical” for fun.

A number of my mariner friends and colleagues are annoyed by the public’s fascination with nautical terms and sayings, maintaining that society is taking away our heritage and history. Personally, I disagree. In fact, I think it is good that the public has a fondness for all things nautical. The more people who are aware of our industry, of ships and shipping, and of our country’s maritime history, the better it is for our profession and us. When our political enemies attack, we need the public’s support, and it might be people like the newspaper reporter, yoga instructor or business owner who help our cause. So, if they want to talk like a pirate for a day or use nautical words in the headline of an article, that’s A-OK with me.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’

Kelly Sweeney holds a license of master (oceans, any gross tons), and has held a master of towing vessels license (oceans) as well. He sails on a variety of commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff