Sailor Sayings: 12 Common Words with Nautical Origins

Torpedoes Away!

While we’re all for talking like pirates, today we’ll be speaking sailor and taking a look at some words that you may not know have nautical origins.


“The President thus remained aloof, not personally involved in the U.N. debate.”

Ted Lewis, “LBJ’s Aloof Pose Was Calculated,” The Spokesman-Review, June 21, 1967

Aloof, meaning distant physically or emotionally, was originally a nautical word. When a captain wanted to “keep the ship’s head to the wind,” therefore staying “clear of a lee-shore or some other quarter,” he’d order the ship to keep aloof. Aloof comes partially from luff, “the sailing of a ship close to the wind.”


“It was the doctrine of his officers that he could not be ruled by anything short of violence, and the man to tame and hammer him was the ‘bucko’ second mate, the test of whose fitness was that he could whip his weight in wild cats.”

Ralph D. Paine, The Old Merchant Marine, 1920

Bucko, “a blustering or bossy person” (and Richie Cunningham’s insult of choice), may play off the word buck meaning a “fashionable man; a fop; a blood; a dandy.” Such a type of sailor was often referred to as a bucko mate.



“Mustering up much skill, one attempts getting the food on chopsticks from the tables to one’s mouth. The first few times most of it falls on the floor or one’s lap.”

Dinner a la Japanese,” Baltimore American, June 12, 1900

British sailors first encountered chopsticks in China in the 17th century. The word is a partial transliteration of the Chinese term, kuai zi or “nimble ones.” This is also where we get chop chop, “right away, quick.”


“After a fellow has served eight days in the front line trenches he may be lonesome for a while after losing his ‘cooties,’ but he must be ‘de-loused.'”

“‘Cootie Cars’ Bring Relief to Sammies,” The Toledo News-Bee, May 9, 1918

The word cootie, otherwise known as the body louse, gained popularity as British slang during World War I but also had earlier nautical use. The word may come from the Malay kutu, “dog tick.”


“To our astonishment the heroine said as she looked with tenderness into the eyes of the hero, ‘You clumsy galoot, you stepped on my foot just now.'”

Mary Pickford, “Daily Talks,” The Day, December 7, 1915

A galoot is a clumsy or uncouth person. The Online Etymology Dictionary says the word was “originally a sailor’s contemptuous word for soldiers or marines.”

The origin of galoot is uncertain. Anatoly Liberman of the Oxford University Press’s blog proposes that it may come from the Middle Dutch galioot, which seems to refer to a sailor, pirate, galley slave, convict, or pimp.

hail from

“There will be no dearth of baseball in Ambridge this summer, judging from the number of teams that will hail from that town.”

Ambridge Will Have Plenty of Baseball,” The Daily Times, March 26, 1913

To hail from, or “to be a native of,” was originally “said of a vessel in reference to the port from which she has sailed,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).


“‘I’m all hunky-dory, Gen’ral,’ answered the youth, resuming his temporarily interrupted apple.”

Robert Henry Newell, The Walking Doll: Or, The Asters and Disasters of Society, 1872

There are a few theories behind the origin of this term meaning “perfectly satisfactory; fine.” The Online Etymology Dictionary says it may be a reduplication of hunky, meaning “all right; in good condition.”  However, a 1876 theory traces hunky-dory “to Honcho dori, said to be a street in Yokohama, Japan, where sailors went for diversions of the sort sailors enjoy.”

Hunky meaning “having a well-developed physique; sexually attractive” comes from hunk, which may come from the Flemish hunke, “a piece of food.” Bohunk is a disparaging term for a person from east-central Europe, especially a laborer,” and may be a combination of Bohemian and Hungarian.


“Standing anyhow and all wrong, upon this open space like something meteoric that has fallen down from the moon, is an odd, lop-sided one-eyed kind of wooden building, that looks like a church, with a flag-staff as long as itself sticking out of a steeple something larger than a tea-chest.”

Charles Dickens, “American Notes,” Charles Dickens’ Complete Works, 1881

The word lopsided, originally lapsided, was first used of ships that were disproportionately heavy on one side, says the OED.

Lop in this case refers to “a short, ‘loppy’ sea,” or “to break in short, ‘loppy’ waves.” Loppy means short and lumpy as well as “hanging limp.” To be lop-eared means to have droopy ears.


“I’ve lived in New York City long enough to expect the unexpected and keep cool in the presence of insanity, but an Orthodox Jew cold busting his human beatbox, dressed only in his skivvies and swilling Jack Daniels, still feels to me worthy of the term ‘spectacle.’”

Patrick Egan, “Family Feud: Teeth of the Sons,” The Huffington Post, May 9, 2011

The origin of skivvies, a North American term for underwear, is unclear. The OED puts the earliest citation at 1932. However, World Wide Words puts it much earlier, 1918. Another meaning of skivvy is London slang for a “female domestic servant.” However, this seems unrelated.

According to World Wide Words, the word might come from a term meaning “Japanese prostitute,” which was used by American servicemen in the Philippines in the early 1900s, possibly as an alteration of the “Japanese sukebei, randy or lecherous.” Sukebei “was later generalised to mean any Japanese, though it remained derogatory and was deeply resented by those so described.”

spin a yarn

“He was fond of society, was a good story teller, having traveled much, and was always willing to spin a yarn, but when asked about himself he immediately became taciturn.”

Perhaps Jack the Ripper,” The New York Times, March 17, 1892

While the phrase spin a yarn may seem like it comes from the telling of tales in a knitting circle, it’s actually a sailors’ expression from the early 1800s. The saying is based on the “notion of telling stories while engaged in sedentary work such as yarn-twisting.” A yarn is not just a story but one “often implying the marvelous or untrue.”


“The rule dates to a time when so-called squeegee men, who roamed the roadways demanding tips in return for washing windshields, were common.”

Michael M. Grynbaum, “Under Rule, Hailing a Cab for a Stranger Can Be Illegal,” The New York Times, November 25, 2011

Squeegee is another word that we know little about except that it has nautical origins. It could come from squeege, “a dialectal form of squeeze.” A squeegee band, another nautical term, is an improvised band, according to the OED, and is also known as a washboard band.

taken aback

“Admiral Davis was taken aback and considerably shocked at the tone and contents of this letter.”

Admiral at Government House,” The Age, January 22, 1907

Like aloof, taken aback, meaning surprised, originally referred to the positioning of a ship, in this case “in reference to a vessel’s square sails when a sudden change of wind flattens them back against the masts and stops the forward motion of the ship.”

Finally, if you’re missing some pirate-speak, enjoy our classic post on pirate words.

[Photo: “Torpedoes Away!” Public domain by National Library of Ireland on the Commons]
[Photo: “Chopsticks,” CC BY 2.0 by Clare Bell]

WotD Perfect Tweets Challenge

Every week, we pose a challenge: using any word of the day from this week, create a perfect tweet, otherwise known as a twoosh. If we like it, your tweet will appear on our blog.

This week, we asked you to tweet like a pirate. Here are our favorites.

Thanks to everyone for playing! Next week you’ll have another chance to perfect your word of the day perfect tweets. To get the word of the day, just follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, or subscribe via email.

Yo Ho Yo Ho!


Ahoy, me mateys! It’s Talk Like a Pirate Day!

Talk Like a Pirate Day was started in 1995 by John Baur and Mark Summers. Relatively unknown at first, the pseudo-holiday shot into the mainstream in 2002 with an article from humor columnist Dave Barry. Now every year on September 19, buccaneering enthusiasts in the U.S., the UK, Australia, and Netherlands speak swashbuckly.

Just how does one speak like a pirate? Let’s start with the basics. Ahoy is a nautical expression “used to attract the attention of persons at a distance,” and may come from the Middle Dutch hoey, a greeting, and was apparently Alexander Graham Bell’s first choice for the telephone greeting. In addition, a hoy is a “a small vessel, usually sloop-rigged, employed in conveying passengers and goods from port to port on the coast.”

Avast is a nautical command meaning “stop! hold! cease! stay!” and comes from the Middle Dutch hou vast, “hold fast.” A hearty is “a seaman’s familiar form of address”; a matey, “a fellow sailor.” A sea dog is “a sailor who has been long afloat,” while a landlubber is “a person who, from want of experience, is awkward or lubberly on board ship; a raw seaman; any one unused to the sea: a term of reproach or ridicule among sailors.”

Aye is yes. Yar is the same as yarr is the same as arr. Thar is there, land-ho is “Land is over there!” and yo-ho-ho is “a nonce word, now associated with pirates and seafaring.” Shiver me timbers, or for those more formal pirates, shiver my timbers, is “an exclamation of surprise, disbelief or annoyance.” My timbers! is a nautical oath “attested from 1789.”

To have your sea legs means to have “the ability, when walking aboard a ship, to anticipate the motion of the deck so as to walk steadily without losing balance.” To show a leg means “to wake up and get out of bed.” To go on the account means to “turn pirate in the captain’s vessel,” while walking the plank is what it sounds like but also “to be forced to resign from a position in an organization.”

Walk the plank and you may meet up with Davy Jones (not that Davy Jones), “the spirit of the sea; a sea-devil,” while Davy Jones’s locker is “the bottom of the ocean, especially as the grave for sailors.” While locker refers to “a close receptacle, as a chest, a drawer, a compartment, or a cupboard, that may be closed with a lock,” the origin of Davy Jones is more obscure. It may refer to David Jones, an actual pirate in the 1630s. It may be an alteration of duppy, a West Indian term for a ghost or spirit, or refer to Jonah, “in the Bible, a prophet who was swallowed by a great fish and disgorged unharmed three days later,” and also “a person on shipboard regarded as the cause of ill luck.”

Swag is “plundered property” and comes from the Old Norse sveggja, “to swing, sway.” Nowadays the word also refers to “handouts, freebies, or giveaways, such as those handed out at conventions,” or “appearance, style.” Another way to say stolen-pirate-stuff is booty, or “spoil taken from an enemy in war; that which is seized by violence and robbery.” It comes from the Dutch buiten, “to exchange or plunder.” The Dutch vrijbuiter gives us freebooter, “a robber; a pillager; a plunderer,” and filibuster, “a freebooter: in history, a name distinctively applied to the West Indian bucaneers or pirates of the seventeenth century,” and also “a delaying tactic, especially the use of long, often irrelevant speeches given in order to delay progress or the making of a decision, especially on the floor of the US Senate.” (So a politician who employs a filibuster is actually talking like a pirate!)

Feeling thirsty? Head over to a shanty where from the hogshead, you can get yourself a nipperkin or noggin of rum, rumfustian, bumbo, or grog, “a mixture of spirit and water served out to sailors.” Grog is supposedly “an allusion to Old Grog,” the nickname of Edward Vernon, an 18th century British admiral who wore a grogram cloak and “who in August 1740 ordered his sailors’ rum to be diluted.” Grog gives us groggy, “slowed or weakened, as by drink, sleepiness, etc.”, and could give you grog blossoms if you partake too much and too often.

While at sea, you may be limited to hardtack, a “large, coarse, hard biscuit baked without salt and kiln-dried”; salt horse (actually beef) also known as salt junk; lobscouse, a stew of hardtack and salt horse; and burgoo, “boiled oatmeal seasoned with salt, butter, and sugar.” As a result, unfortunately, you’ll probably get scurvy, “a disease caused by insufficient intake of vitamin C,” perhaps an alteration of scurfy, which comes from the Old Norse skyrbjugr, “a swelling (bjugr) from drinking sour milk (skyr) on long sea voyages.”

For posts on the pirate accent, turn to the Dialect Blog and Language Log. Google the pirate way, and learn even more pirate vocab from this list, this one, and this one. Check out this tango of pirates (a tango is a group of pirates), and this assortment of ruffians, villains and scamps; explore these seaworthy words, these nautical tags, and these nautical words and phrases that have taken on metaphorical meanings; or dig up some buried treasure from this secret stash.

Still not enough? Follow us on Twitter for a week’s worth of pirate-themed words and lists of the day.

Fair winds and God speed to all ye sea dogs and landlubbers alike!

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by Kate Haskell]

Scrabble for Cheaters

The heroes at 826NYC, the Brooklyn-based children’s writing workshop and local 826 affiliate, are hosting the Wordie event of the season:

“On Saturday, January 19, 826NYC will host SCRABBLE FOR CHEATERS, a tournament of verbal smarts and fraudulence. Teams of two compete in a tournament to determine the “World’s Best Cheater at Scrabble” and raise money for charity. Cheating is allowed, and encouraged. The more money raised, the more a team can cheat. The more a team cheats, the closer they are to glory. Sign up to play. Pledge money to your favorite team. Cheating is the only way to be champion.”

Scrabble is joyless, and I loathe it; there’s no better way to cheapen words than to put them on a grid and assign them points. So subverting it pleases me to no end, almost as much as pirate supply stores.

If anyone out there wants to field a team, Wordie will sponsor you with the entirety of the site’s advertising revenue for 2007: $71.48. Almost enough to buy a vowel and trade out a letter on the tournament cheats menu.