Expression Session... Curious Phrases With a Nautical Origin.

The English language is littered with curious nautical terms and expressions.

By Jo Morgan • 22 September 2022

Scrape The Sky, Cranky & Toe the Line

Did you know that the word ‘skyscraper’ comes from a small topsail which seemed to ‘scrape the sky’? Or that being ‘cranky’ comes from the dutch word ‘krengd’, meaning unstable boat?

Whether you’re ‘toeing the line’ or ‘tiding over’ until your next pay, you often have sailors to thank for the rich expressions that have passed down through the centuries. 

Here’s just a few!

Port Hole:

When England’s Henry VIII wanted bigger guns on his ships, he was told they would be too big for the deck. Being a king, he went ahead and ordered them anyway, and left someone else to figure out the execution. That person was a French man, who came up with the idea to build circular openings or ‘doors’ in the hull that the cannons could be fired out of.

French word for door? Porte. And that’s where ‘porthole’ derives from. Thanks Henry. Things might not have worked out so well for your wives, but below deck is a much nicer place to be thanks to you!

The Head:

While ‘going to the head’ is now largely an expression only used by sailors, the use of the word ‘head’ for toilet lives on in the superyacht industry in the room known as the dayhead.

On old sailing ships, sailors went to the bow of the boat, near the figurehead, to hang over the edge to go to the toilet. They chose this spot because the wind would be blowing from behind to move the ship forward, thereby dispersing any bad odors out ahead. Going to the figurehead soon became ‘the head’.


A chandler is a candle-maker. Originally, a chandlery was simply somewhere sailors would go to buy candles for the ship in the days before oil lamps. Seeing the opportunity, chandlers started expanding their stock to include other maritime products.

To the Bitter End:

Fighting to the bitter end is yet another term derived from our nautical past. A ‘bitt’ is a cleat to tie the line to, and when all the line or chain has run out, you have got to the ‘bitter end’.

Tide Over:

In the days of sail, when the wind died down, the boat would have to float with the tide until the wind returned. They called this ‘tide over’.

Push the Boat Out:

We now relate this expression to extravagance, but the term found its beginning as an act of generosity, when people would help others push their boats off the shore when the tide returned.

Pipe Down:
Centuries before crew carried radios, basic commands on a ship were given via a trill on the boatswain’s pipe. One signal was ‘piping down the hammocks’, which was the signal for the sailors to get down below, be quiet, and go to sleep. 
Toe the Line:
Many people mistakenly think this is spelt ‘tow the line’. But the expression stems from British Royal Navy vessels when mustering their crew on deck for inspection. Sailors had to line up their toes against a seam of caulk in the deck to ensure they were standing in a straight line. Hence ‘toe the line’.
These are literally hundreds of sailing expressions that have added colour to our language. 

How many of these expressions do you use?