It’s okay to assume that we use common phrases without fully understanding their origin. That said, these idioms have backgrounds that make you say, “Oh wow. That makes sense!” So, let’s dissect the meaning of these nautical turn of phrases that have been established into our everyday vocabulary.
The average mariner won’t be surprised by this one. When someone agrees to something, and they confirm by saying, “I’m on board,” it means they are willing to be part of the crew and understand their assigned tasks.
When someone instructs you to give a wide berth, they ask that you leave space for them and veer around. At sea, a berth is where a ship drops its anchor. In harbors, a berth is assigned to each boat. However, a vessel will organically move with the tide when anchored with the specific length of the anchor’s chain. Thus, giving other ships a wide berth or plenty of room is always advantageous in preventing accidents.
Today, we use the term scuttlebutt interchangeably with the word gossip. It’s more similar to “water cooler gossip,” which is more often applied to an office setting. That’s why in Disney’s movie, The Little Mermaid, the seagull that delivers gossip is named Scuttle. However, Scuttlebutt derives from the nautical term for the cask used to serve water. The time corresponds to the colloquial concept of a water cooler in an office scene, sometimes becoming the focus of congregation and casual discussion.
You’ve likely referred to someone as a loose cannon. This idiom refers to a person who seems unpredictable, erratic, or potentially dangerous. Before the expression entered the language as a metaphor, the phrase referred to an actual weapon. “Loose cannon” refers to the mayhem caused on a ship when a cannon breaks free from its mooring during a storm or in battle. In the days prior to vessels being equipped with fixed-turret guns, muzzle-loading cannons were mounted on wheels, and they would roll back and forth between gunports. A cannon not adequately secured could break loose either from the force of recoil or from the swaying of the vessel in choppy waters, creating a hazard to sailors.
Calm seas make everything hunky-dory, but what does that mean? Hunky-dory means things are okay or going well. A phrase commonly attributed to American sailors who used it to describe a particular street in Japan called Honcho-dori. This street was known to lonely sailors for the services it provided. According to Merium Webster, the first known usage of the term was in 1866, and the etymology is defined as “obsolete English dialect hunk meaning home base + -dory meaning of unknown origin.”
Did you know the term is actually “landlubber” and not “land lover”? And while the ladder still makes sense, the word describes someone who prefers not to be at sea. This nautical phrase, said by seasoned sailors, describes someone happier on dry land. The word lubber represents a clumsy seaman. The feeling that sailors had towards landlubbers was illustrated in the novel Omoo, written in 1847 by Herman Melville,
“Now, nobody is so heartily despised as a pusillanimous, lazy, good-for-nothing landlubber; a sailor has no bowels of compassion for him… whenever there is any plain, hard work to be done, he is put to it like a lever.”
Lastly is the send-off we hear in bars— “bottoms up!” The cheers is an encouragement to finish the remainder of your drink. This command originates from an era when English sailors were commonly tricked into joining the navy. The scheme involved giving the gullible man a beer with a coin at the bottom. Once the unsuspecting man drank his way to the coin, he was considered to have accepted payment and was swiftly enrolled or press-ganged into the Royal Navy. As people began to catch wind of the con trick being passed around, they would say “bottoms up” to the people they drank with so that they could check for any hidden coins at the bottom of their glasses.