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Brass Monkeys… and other seafaring phrases

Feb 26 2019


If you’re at a loose end then join us as we chew the fat and discover just some of the words and phrases with a naval or maritime history that have been absorbed by our language. Let’s start with a Clean Slate, Batten Down The Hatches and Forge Ahead with our blog about Maritime Etymology

Etymology is the study of the origin of words and the historical development of their meanings (not to be confused with entomology, the study of bugs.) Seafaring has been a huge contributor to many phrases that have soaked into modern language over the many thousands of years, we thought we would take a look into the history of some phrases and what they mean now! The obvious nautical references may be self-explanatory such as giving a wide berth and calm before the storm however there are a few that we didn’t know. We have picked out some of our favourites here…

All Hands On Deck

An obvious phrase, traditionally it means for all seamen to get to their positions and prepare for action. These days it is used to gather a team together to complete a project usually within a tight timescale.


Above Board

Pirates would often hide many of the crew below deck. Ships that displayed their crew openly on deck were considered to be honest merchant ships and became known as ‘above board’. These days when something is classed as ‘Above Board’ it means it’s honest/ legitimate/ legal.


Barge In

The word barge refers to the flat-bottomed workboat which is hard to manoeuvre and difficult to control.  They would bump and bang into other boats thus the term . . . “barge in.”



Senior officers in the English Navy were known as “bigwigs” because they wore huge wigs. Today it is still used to refer to the most important person in a group, the boss of the company, the board of directors etc…


Chew the Fat

Sailors used to talk and complain about the poor food while eating their salt pork.  In the days when brine was added to barrels of meat, it had a hardening effect on the fat. It was still edible but it took considerable chewing so they would chat while trying to chew their way through their meal. To “chew the fat” has come to mean to talk endlessly.


Clean Slate

Sailing ships would record courses, distances and tacks on a log slate. The new watch would always start with a clean slate disregarding what had gone before and starting anew. In a similar way, today we refer to a new beginning as starting with a “clean slate.”


Dummy Run

The naval name for a trial or practice in which all the motions are gone through but nothing else. The expression is now used throughout many difference industries to mean a rehearsal, also known as a dry run!


Feeling Down in the Doldrums

The doldrums are areas around the equator where the prevailing winds are calm, making progress frustratingly slow for sailing ships. Feeling down in the doldrums these days is used to demonstrate feeling sluggish, in low spirits.


Freeze the Balls off a Brass Monkey

Cannon balls where piled on deck beside the cannon in a pyramid and held in a ‘brass monkey’ or ring so they didn’t fall over. If the weather was very cold the brass ring would contract faster than the iron cannon balls causing some of them to topple. From this, the expression was, and is today, used to describe something which is very cold.


Fudge (as used in expressions like “fudging the books”)

This expression is believed to come from a Captain Fudge, also known as “Lying Fudge” who was a notorious liar in the 17th Century.



This term, meaning everything is alright, originated from a street named “Honki-Dori” in Yokohama, Japan. This street was known by the sailors as the street that catered to the pleasures of sailors.  If life was Honki Dori, a sailor had money, plenty of grog, and a pretty girl.

Loose Ends

Today the term “at loose ends” is used to reference someone who has spare time and does not know what to do with themselves. The term comes from the practice of having the ship’s crew members repair and splice the ship’s ropes when they didn’t have something else to do. The crew member performing this task was said to be at “loose ends.”



This word comes from the naval abbreviation of the word “perquisites” meaning the allowances or benefits (often money) offered with any specific appointment. Today the word is used outside of the navy and is synonymous with benefit or advantage, like getting a company car.


Showing Your True Colours

This is an expression which originated from the old warship custom of having flags from many places available onboard to deceive a potential enemy.  Showing your true colours meant to use the ship’s correct flag. The expression now means much the same– to reveal one’s true intentions.


Square Meal

This is an expression synonymous with a proper or substantial meal.  It originated from the square platters that were used to serve meals aboard ships.


Three Sheets to the Wind

This expression meant that one did not have control of the vessel because one had lost control of the sheets or lines. Today the expression is used to refer to someone who is drunk or does not have control of himself or herself.


Under the Weather

This expression came from boat passengers who would go down to lower levels or ‘under the weather’ where the rocking of the ship was less.  Today the expression is used to describe someone who is generally not feeling well.


If you have any that you’d like to share, or you have a favourite please let us know!