Sailing is deeply embedded in the history of western civilization, where for centuries it was a vital method of travel, enabler of trade, and weapon of war. As a fundamental component of the culture sailing terminology found its way into the English language and is still integrated into phrases we use regularly today. Today we are sharing five commonly used phrases and their surprisingly nautical origins.


  1. “Pipe Down”: Historically, signals were given to sailors through the sounding of the boatswain’s pipe. The final signal of the night, the ‘piping down the hammocks’, was the signal for sailors to go below deck for bed- the lights out, quiet down notice.


  1. “By and Large”: While today this phrase is used to express the same idea as words like generally, and for the most part, but its origins lay in some complex sailing terminology. In the simplest terms, large refers to a favorable wind blowing from behind the ship’s direction of travel, and by means facing into the wind. So the original expression, the ship sailed by and large, described a development in sailing which enabled boats to sail upwind and downwind, which earlier ships were incapable of.


  1. “Loose Cannon”: The origins of this phrase provide a terrifying visualization, as it developed to literally describe when a cannon came loose from its lashing and slid dangerously across the deck.


  1. “A square meal”: Today we use square meal to describe a meal that is satisfying and well-balanced, but historically the squareness of the meal referred to the fact that the plates sailors used on older ships were square shaped.


  1. “Hand over fist”: Today hand over fist is usually used in reference to financial gains, but in sailing history, it referenced a sailor either rapidly hauling a rope to raise a sail, or climbing a rope as quickly as possible.  

While we have provided just a few examples, further references to sailing culture exist frequently in our language. We would love to hear some of your favorite nautical expressions, and the history behind them too!

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