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Block Island Ferry

Learning the (Nautical Saying) Ropes

A few months ago, we posted a blog about different ship parts and nautical lingo to add to your vocabulary. While we were putting that together, we came across a bunch of facts about common saying and idioms that originally were based on ship speak. We thought thy waere so interesting, that we thought we’d share them with our visitors!


Idiom Meaning: When you do a difficult task until it is finished.
Nautical Meaning:
There is a post at the bow of a ship where the sailors attach the ends of ropes or cables.This post is called a bitt. If the anchor is dropped and its cable is paid out all the way, this means either the anchor did not hit bottom, or the ship is drifting as far as it can go. The cable has hit the bitter end.


Idiom Meaning: When something is crammed full.
Nautical Meaning:
Blocks are pulley systems used to direct lines on ships. Sailors will use multiple blocks on the same line in different spots to make loads easier to pull. This multiple block system is called a chock. If it’s a particular heavy load and the multiple blocks end up sliding down the lines and butting up against one another, you cannot lift the load any further because the blocks are as close together as they can be.


Idiom Meaning: Starting something fresh.
Nautical Meaning:
Awatchkeeper is someone who assigns crew duties as well as keeping track of navigation information (speed, distances, headings, etc.). Back in the day, they used to write this information down on slate chalkboards. At the beginning of each watch, the slate is wiped clean and the current information is recorded.


Idiom Meaning: When a novice learns how to do a job or task.
Nautical Meaning:
On ships with sails, there can be upwards of 130 named ropes that make up the rigging. Each rope has a specific function, and the sailors are required to know what each does. When a new deck hand has joined a crew, they are taken under the wing of a senior hand and taught what each does. They are literally learning the ropes.


Idiom Meaning: Being in a very tight and cramped space.
Nautical Meaning:
Back in the day, when someone on a ship had committed a crime while at sea, they potentially were flogged on the ships deck in front of the rest of the crew. The whip used was called a cat o’ nine tails. If there were a lot of sailors on the crew, the deck could fill up quickly, making it difficult to swing the whip without hitting innocent deck hands.


Idiom Meaning: To keep quiet.
Nautical Meaning:
A whistle used to be blown to signal the end of the day. When sailors heard that whistle, they where required to extinguish their smoking pipes, turn off their lanterns, quiet down, and go to sleep for the night.


Idiom Meaning: An account, usually used for illicit income and expenses
Nautical Meaning:
When a ship’s cook boiled salted meat, the fat and grease that floated to the top of the pot was referred to as slush. The cooks would skim that layer off and save it. When they got ashore, they would sell the fat to tallow makers and the proceeds would be used by the sailors for their own purchases. This money was not counted as a part of the ship’s funds.


Idiom Meaning: Being very, very drunk
Nautical Meaning:
Sheets are lines that attached the deck that can be adjusted to control the sails in relation to the wind. On a three masted ship, if these lines are loose, the ship loses control and meanders downwind in an erratic direction.


Idiom Meaning: Feeling sick or in low spirits
Nautical Meaning:
There are two sides to a ship: the lee side is the one that is sheltered from the elements and the weather side that is getting the full brunt of it. When two sailors are on watch, one is assigned to each side. The one on the weather side has the unfortunate pleasure of being exposed to the wind and spray.

These are just a few examples of nautical idioms. There are many other resources online with many more saying that you may find very interesting. If not, well at least now you have some new anecdotes you can share at your next dinner party!

Skim some fat and Sail Away…