How to Talk Like a Sailor (without Swearing)

Your little skippers will be ready for a high-seas adventure after learning a few fun words and phrases and their nautical origins. And if you like these, check out our pirate dictionary. You never know, one of these terms just might bale you out of the doldrums in just a couple of shakes. Read on!

photo: andreas160578 via pixabay

Adrift: Evolved from the word ‘drift’ or float, it became a way of describing a ship moved by wind and tides. It is now used to describe anything that is lost, as in, “Her matching sock were adrift among the piles of laundry.”

Bale/bale out: To remove water from a vessel, this phrase now means to help someone out of a sticky situation. (Note: alternate, Old nautical English spelling of bail).

Becalm: To cut off the wind from the sails of a ship. Can be used interchangeably with sooth, as in, “The mother was able to becalm her child temporarily with the promise of a cookie.”

Booby: A fearless little sea bird that is known for being easy to catch. The term booby or boob is sometimes used to describe someone who may not be that bright.

Bumboat: A privately owned boat that sells goods or merchandise. Fun to say.

Caboose: Sure, you know it as the little red car at the end of a train but a ship has a caboose too! It’s the kitchen or galley on a small ship.

Cats paws: A term to describe small waves produced by light, variable winds on otherwise calm waters.

Chew (chewing) the fat: Salt pork or fatty, jerky-like meat was common food on sailing vessels as it lasted a long time without rotting. Sailors would complain about the food while gnawing away at the fat, thus the term became synonymous with gabbing, casual conversation or gossip.

Cranky: A crank was an unstable ship or vessel, now a term to describe a toddler who hasn’t napped.

Cringle: Not to be confused with Kris Kringle or the delicious pastry, kringle, this nautical term describes a rope loop at the corner of a sail for fixing the sail to the spar (see definition of spar below).

Dinghy: A dinghy can be a small boat carried or towed by a larger ship, often inflatable and used as a life raft; a type of racing yacht; or a rowboat.

Dog watch: A short watch period (for sailors on deck) from 4–6 p.m. or 6–8 p.m. it can also refer to any night shift, most often the last shift. As in, “Tonight Dad was on dogwatch for the little one’s feeding so mom could get some much-needed sleep.”

Doldrums: An area in the equatorial region of the Atlantic Ocean with calms, sudden storms and unpredictable but light winds. Because of the variable weather ships would get stuck in the doldrums. Now we use it as a term to describe being stuck or stagnant. As in, “Our nightly dinner routine is in the doldrums.”

Dolphin: A man-made structure in the sea or river used as a marker.

Earings: Nope, not (earrings) the kind with bling. These are the small lines that secure the upper corners of the largest sail to the yardarms. (See below for yardarms definition).

Fore and aft: From stem to stern or lengthwise of a ship. “Please vacuum your room fore and aft and not just the entryway.”

Ghost: To sail slowly.

Gob-stoppers: Grapeshot put in the mouth of a young, gabby sailor. Now used to describe the hard, chipped-tooth-inducing candy.

Grapeshot: Small cannonballs; basically smallish balls of lead fired from a canon used to damage rigging or aimed directly at sailors on an enemy ship (cannon balls would be used to cause more structural damage and sink the ship).

Hog: A rough flat scrubbing brush for cleaning the ship’s bottom underwater. No comment.

Horse: To move or adjust a sail by hand, using brute force rather than running rigging.

Hulk: An old ship that has become obsolete. (not all that incredible).

Jack, also jack tar:  A sailor. Also sometimes a flag on a ship.

Jury rig: The act of rigging temporary mast or sails, also the actual mast or sail that has been temporarily rigged. This is now used interchangeably with makeshift.

Mind your P’s & Q’s: When sailors would go to a port town and visit the local tavern, the barkeepers would give them credit. A “P” would indicate pint and a “Q” was a quart. So when payday came and it time to pay their tab, they’d be minding their Ps and Qs. It is now considered a term for good manners.

Ship Shape: A term now used to say something is clean, tidy and ready to go, in the 1800s, ships were inspected to make sure they were okay to port. If a vessel was in “ship shape” it was free of disease or other unsavories. “Timmy’s room was in ship shape before the play date.”

Show your true colors: A warship would have many colored flags on board to try and deceive enemy ships. The true color would only be revealed when it was too late. Now it’s a term used to describe someone who has shown their true nature.

Spar: Not to be confused with the verb which means to fight, a spar is a pole, usually of wood or metal, used to support the ship’s sail. Sometimes called a pelican striker.

Spin a yarn: This phrase means to tell a story or a tale and is comes from the stories sailors would tell to pass the time while doing monotonous tasks such as making spun-yarn.

Starboard and Port: Starboard is the ship’s right and port its left. Fun fact: the term “posh” originated from port out, starboard home, said to be the way to get the best view, and so where the elite class was seated or bunked.

Two shakes or a couple of shakes: Used to describe a short period of time, as in, “Give me two shakes and I’ll have your PB&J ready.” Sailors would measure short periods of time by the shaking of the sails.

Whole nine yards: Old ships had three masts, each of which had three-yard sails, so the whole nine yards meant all sails were up. Now it means all of something.

Yardarms: Either end of a yard of a square sail.

What’s your favorite nautical term or phrase? Share it with us in the comments below. 

—Amber Guetebier