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Nautical Terms, Metaphors, Superstitions and Mermaids

Nautical Terms, Metaphors, Superstitions and Mermaids

To know is to understand. For example, when it comes to knowing your way around a ship or boat, it’s useful to know these terms[1] to avoid being ‘all at sea’:

  • Aft – The back of a ship or boat. Well, that’s easy enough, except the aft is also known as the stern.
  • Bow – The front of the ship or boat is called the bow.
  • Port – Port is always the left-hand side when you are facing the bow.
  • Starboard – Starboard is always the right-hand side when you are facing the bow.
  • Leeward – (Also known as Lee), Leeward is the direction opposite to the way the wind is currently blowing (windward).
  • Windward – This is the direction in which the wind is currently blowing. Windward is the opposite of leeward (the opposite direction of the wind).
  • Boom The boom is the horizontal pole extending from the bottom of the mast. Adjusting the boom towards the direction of the wind is how a sailboat can harness wind power to move forward or backwards.
  • Rudder – A rudder is located under the boat. It’s a flat piece of wood, fibreglass, or metal used to steer the ship. Larger sailboats control the rudder via a wheel, while smaller sailboats will have a steering mechanism directly aft.
  • Tacking – The opposite of jibing, this basic sailing manoeuvre refers to turning the bow through the wind so that the wind changes from one side of the boat to the other side.
  • Jibing – The opposite of tacking, another basic sailing manoeuvre refers to turning the stern through the wind so that the wind changes from one side of the boat to the other side. Jibing is a less common technique than tacking since it involves turning the ship directly into the wind.

A life on the ocean wave, and a sail with never a reef, a jolly jack tar so brave, and plenty of 'Wilson's Beef.' [front]
Picture Credit: “A life on the ocean wave, and a sail with never a reef, a jolly jack tar so brave, and plenty of ‘Wilson’s Beef.’ [front]” by Boston Public Library is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Nautical Terms and Glossaries
The internet is full of glossaries of nautical terms: some remain current, and many come from the 17th to the 19th centuries. To list all the nautical terms here would take more space than I have available in this article – accordingly, I have listed just a random selection[2]. An excellent book on the subject is “Jackspeak: A Guide to British Naval Slang and Usage”, available from Amazon, here. I could only buy a used copy, but it was in good condition.

  • Aback: A sail is aback when the wind fills it from the opposite side to the one usually used to move a ship forward.
  • Abaft: Toward the stern, relative to some object (e.g. “abaft the cockpit”).
  • Abeam: On the beam, a relative bearing at right angles to the ship’s keel.
  • Able Seaman (AB) Also ‘able-bodied seaman’: A merchant seaman qualified to perform all routine duties or a junior rank in some navies.
  • Above Board: On or above the deck; in plain view; not hiding anything.
  • Accommodation Ladder: A portable flight of steps down a ship’s side.
  • Admiralty Law: The body of law that deals with maritime cases. The Admiralty Court, a special court within the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court of Justice, administers the law in the U.K.
  • Ahoy: A cry to draw attention. It is used to hail a boat or a ship, e.g. “boat ahoy”.
  • Anchor Buoy: A small buoy secured by a light line to an anchor to indicate the position of the anchor on the bottom.
  • Anchor’s Aweigh: Said of an anchor to indicate that it is just clear of the bottom and that the ship is no longer anchored.
  • As the crow flies: The shortest distance between two points in the way that a crow or other bird would travel rather than a ship, which must go around land.
  • Banyan: A traditional Royal Navy term for a time of relaxation.
  • Barrack Ship: A ship or craft designed to function as a floating barracks for housing military personnel.
  • Bilge: The part of the hull that the ship rests on if it takes the ground; the outer end of the floors.
  • Binnacle List: A ship’s sick list.
  • Boom: (1) A floating barrier to control navigation into and out of rivers and harbours. (2) A spar attached to the foot of a fore-and-aft sail. (3) A spar to extend the foot of gaffsail, trysail or jib.
  • Bridge: A structure above the weather deck, which houses the ship’s command centre.
  • Clean Bill of Health: This widely used term has its origins in the document issued to a ship showing that the port it sailed from suffered from no epidemic or infection at the time of departure.
  • Coxswain: A coxswain or cockswain was the boy servant in charge of the small cock or cockboat kept aboard for the ship’s captain to row him to and from the ship.
  • Down the hatch: A drinking expression that seems to have its origins in sea freight, where cargoes are lowered into the hatch. First used by seamen, it has only been traced back to the turn of the 21st century.
  • Duffle: A name given to a sailor’s personal effects. It referred to his principal clothing and to the seabag in which he carried and stowed it. The term comes from the Flemish town of Duffel near Antwerp and denotes a rough woollen cloth made there.
  • Fathom: Although now a nautical unit of length equal to six feet, it was once defined by an Act of Parliament as “the length of a man’s arms around the object of his affections.” The word derives from the Old English Faethm, which means “embracing arms.”
  • Foremast: The mast nearest the bow of a ship
  • Foresail: The lowest sail set on the foremast of a square-rigged ship.
  • Frap: To draw a sail tight with ropes or cables.
  • Freeboard: The distance between the water-line and main deck of a ship.
  • Gaff: The spar on which the head of the fore-and-aft sail is extended.
  • Gangway: Either of the sides of the upper deck of a ship.
  • Garboard: The plank on a ship’s bottom next to the keel.
  • Keel Hauling: A naval punishment on ships that was adopted during the 15th and 16th centuries. A rope was rigged from yardarm to yardarm, passing under the ship, and the unfortunate delinquent was secured to it, sometimes with lead or iron weights attached to his legs. He was hoisted up to one yardarm and then dropped suddenly into the sea, hauled underneath the ship, and hoisted up to the opposite yardarm, the punishment being repeated after he had had time to recover his breath.
  • Mayday: The distress call for voice radio, for vessels and people in serious trouble at sea. The term was made official by an international telecommunications conference in 1948, and is an anglicising of the French “m’aidez” (help me).
  • Shows his true colours: Early warships often carried flags from many nations on board to elude or deceive the enemy.
  • Tar, Jack Tar: Tar, a slang term for a Sailor, has been in use since at least 1676. Jack Tar was in use by the 1780s. Early Sailors wore overalls and broad-brimmed hats made of a tar-impregnated fabric called tarpaulin cloth. The hats, and the sailors who wore them, were called tarpaulins, which may have been shortened to tars.
  • Toe the line: The space between each pair of deck planks in a wooden ship was filled with a packing material called “oakum” and then sealed with a mixture of pitch and tar.

Nautical Metaphors
A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or something tangible to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea. A metaphor may also be used for any rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via association, comparison or resemblance. In this broader sense, antithesis, hyperbole, metonymy and simile, would all be considered types of metaphor. Aristotle used both this sense and the regular, current sense above. Unlike an analogy, specific interpretations are not given explicitly with a metaphor. Of particular interest are Nautical Metaphors. Take, for example, the following selection from a listing[3] where the item shown has its meaning alongside:

  • By and large: comes from a term for sailing a ship slightly off of the wind.
  • Clear the decks: to get everything out of the way as a warship went into action.
  • Sail close to the wind: means to operate hazardously on very slim margins usually applied in a financial sense. It is derived from the technique of sailing close to the direction of the oncoming wind.
  • Show someone the ropes: to show or explain to someone how to do a task or operation. Taken from the use of ropes to orient and adjust the sails.
  • Sun over the yardarm:[4] this phrase is widely used, both afloat and ashore, to indicate that the time of day has been reached at which it is acceptable to have lunch or partake of alcohol.
  • Swinging the lead: is to avoid duty by feigning illness or injury, original a confusion between Swing the leg which related to the way dogs can run on three legs to gain sympathy and the sailor’s term heaving the lead which was to take soundings.
  • Take sounding: in suspected shallow waters, a crew member may have the task of repeatedly throwing into the water a lead line or piece of lead tied to a string knotted every fathom, to estimate the depth of the sea.
  • Taken aback: on a square-pingas, the sails were ‘taken aback’ when the wind was blowing on the wrong side of the sails, causing a dangerous situation. It was later used to indicate a difficult or unexpected situation.
  • Three sheets to the wind: meaning “staggering drunk,” refers to a ship whose sheets have come loose, causing the sails to flap uncontrolled and the ship to meander at the mercy of the elements. It also means being unsteady from alcohol.
  • With flying colours: the “colours” was the national flag flown at sea during battle, a ship would surrender by lowering the colours, and the term is now used to indicate a triumphant victory or win.

Strange and Humourous Nautical words
Warning: These nautical words[5] will probably raise a smile or eyebrow and will undoubtedly make you more knowledgeable on the water:

  • Baggywrinkle: This is a soft covering for ropes aboard yachts that prevent chafing of the sails.
  • Bilge: The bilge is the lowest part of the interior of a ship. It marks the spot at the inside-bottom of the hull, below any floorboards, and it sits below the water-line.
  • Cat-head: The cat-head is a large wooden beam that extends from vessels at a 45-degree angle and is used to assist in raising and lowering the anchor.
  • Escutcheon: This is the place on the stern of a ship where its name is written.
  • Futtock: Futtocks are the curved timbers used to form the interior ribs on the hulls of wooden ships.
  • Mainsheet: The mainsheet is a rope or line attached to the boom that allows the sailor to control the speed of a boat by adjusting the mainsail.
  • Poop deck: A poop deck is a deck at the rear of a ship, generally formed by the roof of a cabin.
  • Rollocks: A commonly used spelling for “rowlocks”, the spaces cut into the vessel, or small clasps raised up from the side of smaller boats used to rest oars when the boat is under paddle.
  • Scuttlebutt: The scuttlebutt is a cask on a ship containing the vessel’s drinking water.
  • Widow-maker: This is a colloquial term for a boat’s bowsprit – the long pole, or “spar,” extending from the bow used by sailors to tend to sails.

Picture Credit: Howard Pyle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons – Walking the Plank: originally published in Pyle, Howard (August–September 1887). “Buccaneers and Marooners of the Spanish Main”. Harper’s Magazine.

Walking the Gangplank[6]
Walking the plank was a method of execution supposedly practised on special occasions by pirates, mutineers, and other rogue seafarers. For the amusement of the perpetrators and the psychological torture of the victims, captives were bound so they could not swim or tread water and were forced to walk off a wooden plank or beam extended over the side of a ship. The earliest known instance of the use of the term is by Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales (1390): ‘He sent his prisoners home; they walked the plank.’

Walking the Plank’ is recorded in the second edition of English lexicographer Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1788[7]. Grose wrote: ‘Walking the plank is a mode of destroying devoted persons or officers in a mutiny on ship-board, by blindfolding them and obliging them to walk on a plank laid over the ship’s side; by this means, as the mutineers suppose, avoiding the penalty of murder.’

Nautical Superstitions
Because of the dangers faced by sailors and fishermen, there are countless superstitions about safety and luck on the sea. Some are lucky, but most are warnings to avoid this or that to be sure that you aren’t dogged by bad luck. See what you think[8]:

  • Cats: Having a cat on board a ship is considered likely to bring good luck.
  • Clergymen: having a preacher on board is deemed to be bad luck.
  • Don’t pass the Salt: It was considered that bad luck would follow if a crew member passed the salt pot to another directly.
  • Fresh fruit is good but not bananas: Carrying bananas were considered so unlucky they could result in a ship being lost at sea.
  • Having the Caul (the amniotic membrane enclosing a foetus of a new-born child) on board: Thought to prevent anyone on board from drowning.
  • It is considered very unlucky to kill an albatross: in Coleridge’s poem, the narrator killed the bird and his fellow sailors eventually force him to wear the dead bird around his neck.
  • Knives and Forks are for eating, not stirring your tea: Stirring tea with a knife or fork is sure to bring bad luck. Equally, turning a loaf of bread upside down once cut brings bad luck too.
  • Non-sailing days: It was considered to be unlucky to sail on Thursdays (God of Storms, Thor’s day) or Fridays (the day Jesus was executed), the first Monday in April (the day Cain killed Abel), the second Monday in August (the day Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed), and on 31st December (the day on which Judas Iscariot hanged himself).
  • Red-heads and flat-footed people: If you met one before boarding, it could bring bad luck.
  • Re-naming a boat: Don’t do it – it’s unlucky to change the boat’s name.
  • Step onto a Boat with Your Right Foot: The left foot brings bad luck for the journey ahead.
  • Tattoos: A rooster and a pig were often tattooed onto sailors’ feet in the belief that it would prevent the sailors from drowning by showing them the way to shore.
  • Women: Women were believed to make the seas angry, resulting in dangerous voyages. Having women on board could bring bad luck by distracting and tempting the crew. But naked women were OK.

A mermaid, as you may know, is a mythical sea-dwelling creature. You’ll immediately recognise one when you meet her. She has the head and body of a woman and the tail of a fish below the waist. Mermaids appear in the folklore of many cultures worldwide, including Europe, Asia, and Africa.

In some cultures, the mermaid signifies life and fertility within the ocean. In others, she embodies the destructive nature of the water, luring sailors to their deaths — serving as an omen for storms, unruly seas and disaster.

In days gone by, when sailors spent months crisscrossing vast oceans, it’s not surprising that beliefs and superstitions of figures controlling the unpredictable weather appeared in nautical stories over the centuries. Here are just a few of them[9]:

  • The mermaids of Greek and Roman mythology are considerably close to the appearance and character of the European myths we think about today. Many ancient Greek myths equate sirens with mermaids.
  • In ancient Assyria, the goddess Atargatis transformed herself into a mermaid out of shame for accidentally killing her human lover.
  • One Greek folktale claimed that Alexander the Great’s sister, Thessalonike, was transformed into a mermaid upon her death in 295 BC and lived in the Aegean sea. Whenever a ship passed, she would ask the sailors one question: “Is King Alexander alive?” If the sailors gave the correct answer (“He lives and reigns and conquers the world”), Thessalonike would allow the ship to continue on its journey. The wrong answer would anger her, and she would conjure a storm and doom the vessel and its sailors to a death at sea.
  • Archaeologists have found accounts in Mesopotamian mythology of Oannes, a male fish god from over five thousand years ago.
  • One of the earliest mermaid legends appeared in Syria around 1000 BC when the goddess Atargatis dove into a lake to take the form of a fish. But as the gods would not allow her to give up her great beauty, only her bottom half became a fish, and she kept her top half in human form. Archaeologists have found Atargatis’ figure on ancient temples, statues and coins.
  • The earliest depiction of a mermaid in England is in the Norman chapel in Durham Castle, built around 1078 by Saxon stonemasons. Historians believe the mermaid symbolises the temptations of the soul.

Mermaids often appear as figureheads on the front of nautical vessels. The figurehead, which was popular between the 16th and 20th centuries, is a carved wooden decoration located on the bow of ships.

Attribution/Credit: By Chiswick Chap – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Sourced/Excerpted from and Further Reading
  1. Source:
  2. Main Sources: and
  3. See:
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  5. Source:
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  8. Sources:, and
  9. Source: Excerpt from Royal Museums Greenwich at

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