20 Boat Sayings that will Shiver your Timbers

Boat Sayings That Will Shiver Your Timbers

Boating sayings and boating slang started centuries ago, and many of these remain a part of our daily vocabulary.

Get ready for a fun history lesson as we highlight 20 popular boat sayings and give you some insight into their origin.

Here are 20 boat sayings that will definitely shiver your timbers!

1. Shiver Me Timbers

There are several theories on the origin of this boat saying, yet the meaning is the same; it is an exclamation of disbelief or surprise  attributed to pirates. Arrrrrggggghhhh!

Cartoon Pirate with SwordCartoon Pirate with Sword

2. Above Board

Above board meant anything above or on the deck that could be easily seen. Nautical history suggests there was a practice of hiding pirates below board or below decks to create a false sense of security for the ship’s crew. Today, we use it to indicate legitimacy and honesty. 

A Square MealA Square Meal

3. A Square Meal

When the weather at sea was good, the crew’s meal, or mess, was warm and served on a square wooden platter. Fast forward to today, and a square meal means a plate of food that includes healthy food types.

4. Clean Bill of Health

We use this boating slang to mean a healthy report from our doctors. The origin of this came from the certificate signed by a port authority verifying that a ship’s crew and port of departure were free of any contagious disease at the time of sailing.

5. Fathom

A fathom is a nautical measurement that is approximately six feet and is used to measure water depth.

We use it today as a term to figure something out or to find the underlying cause of something.

6. Footloose

This is for Kevin Bacon fans! Footloose, a wildly popular movie in the 1980s, was all about dancing. This boat saying came about (sorry, sailors) from the foot of a sail, known as the bottom. If the foot is not secured, it dances in the wind. Now you know! 

Pirate Ship CartoonPirate Ship Cartoon

7. Pipe Down

Believed to have started in the mid-1800s, the boatswain, better known as a bosun or deck boss, would let the crew know that it was lights out through his pipe or whistle. Today, although a whistle may not always be used, it has the same meaning.

Stacked Wood Water BarrelsStacked Wood Water Barrels

8. Scuttlebutt

Barrels were known as butts on ships. Scuttle meant to cut a hole in something. So, a scuttlebutt was typically a water barrel with a hole cut into it, making it easy for sailors to reach in and dip out drinking water. The scuttlebutt was the area on the ship where gossip was shared. It is the version of today’s water cooler talk.

9. Hand Over Fist

From British nautical history, this was quite competitive, as it meant moving up a rope or hoisting a sail. This skill was taken quite seriously by sailors. We now know it means to advance or accumulate quickly.

10. From Stem to Stern

The stem, also known as the bow, is the front of a ship. The stern is the back of the boat. From stem to stern means something in its entirety.

Bayliner boat in blue Caribbean watersBayliner boat in blue Caribbean waters
Code of signal flags flying in the windCode of signal flags flying in the wind

11. Flying Colors

From the days of battles on the high seas, when a ship came through a fight relatively unscathed, her flag(s), also known as colors, was flying high. Now you see why we say, “They passed the test with flying colors.”

12. Three Sheets to the Wind

Square sails are controlled by a rope line called a sheet. The sheet controls the tension of the square sail. On a three-masted fully rigged ship, when the ropes of the three lower course sails are loose, they will flap, also known as ‘in the wind.’ You know where we are going with this, right? A ship with these loose sails would typically stagger and wander without direction downwind.

Those who have imbibed in too much alcohol are known to be three sheets to the wind.

13. Toe the Line

Believed to have started in either the 1700s or 1800s by the Royal Navy, when the ship’s crew was called to line up at attention, they would stand on the deck with their toes touching a seam in the deck planking. Typically, this lineup was some form of punishment.

Today, its meaning is similar: to behave and be a rule follower.

Rough Weathered Wood FloorboardsRough Weathered Wood Floorboards

14. Clear the Deck

To prepare for naval battles, ships should have nothing loose on the decks. Crew members would either remove or fasten down all loose objects before the match. We snuck in another boat phrase here known as ‘Batten Down the Hatches’ as it refers to fastening down items. 

When we clear the deck today, we make sure things are organized and in their appropriate places before starting something. 

15. Jury Rig

A jury sail, or temporary sail, was created to help the disabled ship make it to its destination port when a ship's sails were damaged at sea.

Today, we use this boat phrase to mean something quickly cobbled together.

Bell with Tied up RopesBell with Tied up Ropes

16. Know the Ropes

Tall ships have many ropes. Understanding and knowing how to use these ropes was essential for sailing vessels. When sailors were discharged from service, it was known as 'Knows the Ropes.'

Today, it still means someone with skill and experience.

17. Slush Fund

To have a little extra cash, the ship's cook would take the slushy slurry of fat found on empty salted meat storage barrels, boil it, and sell it ashore. This extra money was usually shared with the crew and known as a slush fund.

18. Turn a Blind Eye

While naval historians do not agree upon this boat phrase, it is said to have happened during the Battle of Copenhagen, part of the Napoleonic Wars. When the signal was given to stop fighting, General Horatio Nelson held his spyglass to his blind eye and insisted he did not see the sign. He then proceeded to win the battle.

19. Under the Weather

Sailing ships needed someone to always keep watch. As you can imagine, this was a tedious job. The worst part of this was the location on the windward side of the boat, which means facing the prevailing winds. The sailor was subject to non-stop pitching and rolling of the ship, getting soaked from the waves. Sadly, some of these men got sick and died. This is how the phrase came to be, as these sailors were literally ‘under the weather’ while keeping watch. 

Man Blowing Nose Under the WeatherMan Blowing Nose Under the Weather

20. Fits the Bill

Ships were the only type of transportation, and many used them to get goods to others. As part of this process, a bill of lading was signed by the ship's master acknowledging receipt of these goods with the promise to deliver them in the same condition. When the ship reached its destination, the goods were checked against the bill to see if they were in good order. If the goods passed, they fit the bill. 

You now know some of the boat sayings and phrases that started on ships centuries ago and are still part of our vocabulary today.

Funny Boat Quotes

In addition to the origin of boat phrases, we want to share some of our boating aficionados’ funny boat sayings. 

“The damage to your wallet is proportional to the speed with which you approach the dock.”

“I’m the captain of this ship, and I have my wife’s permission to say so.” 

“Don’t hold me responsible for what I say while docking.” 

“Boat is an acronym, and it stands for, Break Out Another Thousand.” 

“Whatever is going to happen will happen away from the dock, so be prepared.” 

“Life doesn’t get any better than this.”