15 everyday phrases that you didn’t know came from boating

Sailing yacht under full sail at the regatta. Photo by Alvov/

Ever notice how many of our common phrases have nautical roots? Learn all about the boat-related origins of these familiar terms and then try them out at the cottage this weekend.


Originally a nautical term from the 1700s, this word has been getting a lot of love from Gen Z recently as internet slang. Once used to describe pirates who would fly a friendly nation’s flag to deceive other ships, the meaning hasn’t changed. Past and present, the term is used when someone is fooled or cheated. 

Going overboard

First recorded in 1931, this term refers to someone falling off the boat, usually in water. Although, perhaps, explaining the origin might be going overboard. 

Feeling blue

You might be surprised to find out that this term has a more literal explanation than how we use it today: when a captain or officer died on the ship, the crew would fly blue flags and paint a blue band on the ship’s haul to signal respect. 

Under the weather 

At the signs of strong winds and crashing waves, the crew would retreat to their chambers in the ship’s base and hide until the storm passed—they were literally ‘under the weather.’ The term is now used in a more figurative way when someone is sick. 

All hands on deck 

If a captain wanted all hands on deck, then it was a command for all crew to come together and help navigate the boat in a storm. Today, it’s a call for everyone to work as a team and help out. 

That ship has sailed

Back in the 1800s, if you missed the ship’s departure, then tough luck, because there was no way to catch up to it and the next boat wasn’t scheduled until the following week. Today we use it to mean that you lost your chance and opportunity.

Batten down the hatches/Batten the hatches

To prepare for turbulent weather ahead, sailors would use battens (planks of wood) to prevent water from coming inside the boat through the hatches. Now it simply refers to preparing for rough weather. 

Sink or swim

“Sink or swim” today is a motivational push to either face your fears and succeed or fail on your own merits. Nobody likes the prospect of failure but, it doesn’t compare to this term’s terrifying origin. Suspected witches were once catapulted in the water to determine whether they were guilty or innocent of witchcraft.  If they were real witches, it was said that they’d be able to swim with the help of the devil’s power. Either way the suspected witch would die: by drowning as a wrongly accused innocent, or, if she lived, she’d be executed by officials for surviving. 

Runs a tight ship

If the ropes were taut, then it signalled that the captain was in control of the crew and the boat was smooth sailing in the 1900s. There might not be ropes involved today (or a ship), but we still use the term to describe an organization or team that works effectively and efficiently. 

Pipe down

We have all been scolded as children (or adults) for being a bit too rowdy and told to be quiet and “pipe down”. This saying originated after a boatswain (an officer)’s pipe signalled the crew to “pipe down the hammocks” and go to sleep. 


Some sayings like ‘hunky-dory’ never die. One theory links this funky phrase to Honcho dori, a road in 1876 Japan, where sailors would go for some fun. Fast-forward to present times, we guarantee that your cottage dad also uses hunky-dory to describe the perfect day he just had. 

Taking a different tack

Today we use this phrase to describe finding another way to tackle a given situation. This comes from a nautical term that refers to finding another way to navigate the boat through wind in order to travel in a certain direction

Learn the ropes 

A sailor would need to literally learn the location and use of the ship’s ropes in order to be a successful member of the crew. Nowadays, it is more broadly used to mean getting acquainted with the skills and basics for a new setting usually as a first step to being a helpful part of the team   (which at a cottage could include using rope to tie a knot—but only if you really want to).

Bottom’s up

Did you know that men used to be tricked into joining the navy? Recruiters would put coins at the bottom of beer glasses, and when the unsuspecting sailor got to the coin, it was deemed that they’d taken payment for joining the Royal Navy. A drinking mate would say “bottom’s up” to hint that a friend should check the bottom of their glass to avoid the coin. Presently, there’s no tricks at play—just a clink! And a lighthearted “bottom’s up,” as we cheers our homemade Caesars to a great weekend at the cottage.

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