Below are some common phrases and their nautical origins. Enjoy.
Three sheets to the wind: - A state of complete intoxication.
Most people who aren’t sailors sometimes assume the word sheet refers to the sails, but it actually refers to the control lines for the sails. If a sail had its sheets loose the sail would flail about in the wind often causing the ship and the sail to appear staggering, as if drunk.
To the bitter end: To see something through to the end, even if unpleasant.
The bitter end of a rope is the end that is tied off as opposed to the working end. A bitt is a metal block with a crosspin to tie lines to. This referred to the anchor being payed out all the way to the end that was attached to the ship (the bitter end). If all your anchor rode has been payed out and you’re still dragging, it may well be a bitter end for you.
Over a barrel: To be helpless, or stuck in an awkward position.
This related to corporal punishment handed out aboard ships. In the age of sail, sailors would get into all sorts of shenanigans and punishment could be severe. If the offense was egregious enough sailors would be flogged while bent over the barrel of one of the ships cannon.
As the crow flies: A straight line over all obstacles. The shortest route between two points.
Before GPS sailors relied upon more basic navigation methods. Sailing vessels would carry a cage of crows during their trips. When the captain thought they were close to land a crow would be released and the birds would fly straight to the nearest land, thus indicating the direction of land.
First Rate: This implies excellence or the best.
This described the largest and most heavily armed ships. Navy ships were ranked by how many cannon they carried aboard. A first rate ship would have over 100 guns, a second rate ship 90-99, third 64-89, and so on down the line.
Civilization has roots near the oceans, seas, and rivers. Water has been essential to our survival and our mastery of it has helped us get to where we are today. It’s no wonder many common phrases are built upon a nautical heritage. There are many words and phrases derived from our history at sea. What are some you use regularly?