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7 Nautical Phrases And Where They Came From

Thanks to our friends at for these enlightening definitions.


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Chock-a-block'?

Crammed so tightly together as to prevent movement.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Chock-a-block'?


The derivation of chock isn't entirely clear but the word is thought to have come from chock-full (or choke-full), meaning 'full to choking'. This dates back to the 15th century and is cited in Morte Arthur, circa 1400:

"Charottez chokkefulle charegyde with golde."

This meaning was later used to give a name to the wedges of wood which are used to secure moving objects - chocks. These chocks were used on ships and are referred to in William Falconer's, An universal dictionary of the marine, 1769:

"Chock, a sort of wedge used to confine a cask or other weighty body .when the ship is in motion."


This is where seafaring enters into the story. A block and tackle is a pulley system used on sailing ships to hoist the sails. It might be expected that 'chock-a-block' is the result of wedging a block fixed with a chock. That doesn't appear to be the case. The phrase describes what occurs the system is raised to its fullest extent - when there is no more rope free and the blocks jam tightly together. Frederick Chamier's novel The Life of a Sailor, 1832 includes this figurative use of the term:

"Here my lads is another messmate..." - What, another!" roared a ruddy-faced midshipman of about eighteen. "He must stow himself away, for we are chock-a-block here."

We might expect to find a reference to it in relation to ship's equipment before any figurative use, but the earliest I've found is in Richard H. Dana Jr's Two years before the mast, 1840:

"Hauling the reef-tackles chock-a-block."

Chock-a-block also spawned an abbreviated version in the 20th century - chocka (or chocker). This is WWII UK military slang meaning 'fed-up or disgruntled' - as defined in Hunt and Pringles' Service Slang, 1943:

"Chocker, this is the sailor's way of saying he is fed up or browned off."

A Wide Berth

What's the meaning of the phrase 'A wide berth'?

A goodly distance.

What's the origin of the phrase 'A wide berth'?

'Wide berth' is most commonly found in the phrases 'keep a wide berth of', 'give a wide berth to' etc. It was originally a nautical term. We now think of a ship's berth as the place where the ship is moored. Before that though it meant 'a place where there is sea room to moor a ship'. This derives in turn from the probable derivation of the word berth, that is, 'bearing off'. When sailors were warned to keep a wide bearing off something they were being told to make sure to maintain enough sea room from it.

Like many seafaring terms it dates back to the heyday of sail, the 17th century. An early use comes from the redoubtable Captain John Smith in Accidental Young Seamen, 1626:

"Watch bee vigilant to keepe your berth to windward."

Berth came to be adopted more widely into the language, just meaning 'distance from'. There are several such figurative uses of the it in the 17th and 18th centuries - 'a good/clear/strong berth' etc. We have to wait until 1829 for Sir Walter Scott's Letters on demonology and witchcraft for 'a wide berth' though:

"Giving the apparent phantom what seamen call a wide berth."

Three Sheets To The Wind

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Three sheets to the wind'?

Very drunk.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Three sheets to the wind'?

Three sheets to the wind' is indeed a seafaring expression.

To understand this phrase we need to enter the arcane world of nautical terminology. Sailors' language is, unsurprisingly, all at sea and many supposed derivations have to go by the board. Don't be taken aback to hear that sheets aren't sails, as landlubbers might expect, but ropes (or occasionally, chains). These are fixed to the lower corners of sails, to hold them in place. If three sheets are loose and blowing about in the wind then the sails will flap and the boat will lurch about like a drunken sailor.

The phrase is these days more often given as 'three sheets to the wind', rather than the original 'three sheets in the wind'. The earliest printed citation that I can find is in Pierce Egan's Real Life in London, 1821:

"Old Wax and Bristles is about three sheets in the wind."

Sailors at that time had a sliding scale of drunkenness; three sheets was the falling over stage; tipsy was just 'one sheet in the wind', or 'a sheet in the wind's eye'. An example appears in the novel The Fisher's Daughter, by Catherine Ward, 1824:

"Wolf replenished his glass at the request of Mr. Blust, who, instead of being one sheet in the wind, was likely to get to three before he took his departure."

The earliest manifestation of the phrase in print that I know of is the 'two sheets' version. That is found in The Journal of Rev. Francis Asbury, 1815, which recounts Asbury's travels through Kentucky. His entry for September 26th 1813 includes this:

The tavernkeepers were kind and polite, as Southern folks should be and as Southern folks ought not to be; they were sometimes two sheets in the wind. O, that liquid fire!

That leads us to think that the phrase may be of American origin. However, Asbury was English, born in West Bromwich (a short walk from where I was born, as it happens) and travelled to America when he was in his mid twenties. Whether he took the phrase with him from the English Black County or heard it (or indeed coined it) in the US, we can't be certain.

Robert Louis Stevenson was as instrumental in inventing the imagery of 'yo ho ho and a bottle of rum' piracy as his countryman Sir Walter Scottwas in inventing the tartan and shortbread 'Bonnie Scotland'. Stevenson used the 'tipsy' version of the phrase in Treasure Island, 1883 - the book that gave us 'X marks the spot', 'shiver me timbers' and the archetypal one-legged, parrot-carrying pirate, Long John Silver. He gave Silver the line:

"Maybe you think we were all a sheet in the wind's eye. But I'll tell you I was sober; "

The Bitter End

What's the meaning of the phrase 'The bitter end'?

To the limit of one's efforts - to the last extremity.

What's the origin of the phrase 'The bitter end'?

Bitter has been an adjective meaning acrid or sour tasting since the year 725 AD at least. The word was in common use in the Middle Ages and Shakespeare uses it numerous times in his plays and poems, as do many other dramatists. The phrase 'the bitter end' would seem, fairly obviously, to come directly from that meaning.

But not so fast. Enter, stage left, Captain Smith. Here's what he has to say, in his publication Seaman's Grammar, 1627, which is the earliest citation of the phrase in print:

"A Bitter is but the turne of a Cable about the Bits, and veare it out by little and little. And the Bitters end is that part of the Cable doth stay within boord."

As you might have deduced, a bitt is a post fastened in the deck of a ship, for fastening cables and ropes. When a rope is played out to the bitter end, it means there is no more rope to be used.

But again, not so fast. Folk etymologists are those who say something is true with no more justification than that they would like it to be true. They are thickest on the ground in the area of military and especially naval attributions. People seem to love a sailor's yarn, and anything with a whiff of the sea is seized on with enthusiasm. So much so that more thoughtful etymologists have dreamed up the inventive acronym CANOE - the Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything.

So, is this one from CANOE or not? We like to be definitive and, although the naval origin does seem to have a good case, it isn't conclusive. This time we'll sit on the fence and let you decide.

Taken Aback

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Taken aback'?

Surprised or startled by a sudden turn of events.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Taken aback'?

'Aback' means in a backward direction - toward the rear. It is a word that has fallen almost into disuse, apart from in the phrase 'taken aback'. Originally 'aback' was two words: 'a' and 'back', but these became merged into a single word in the 15th century. The word 'around' and the now archaic 'adown' were formed in the same way.

'Taken aback' is an allusion to something that is startling enough to make us jump back in surprise. The first to be 'taken aback' were not people though but ships. The sails of a ship are said to be 'aback' when the wind blows them flat against the masts and spars that support them. A use of this was recorded in the London Gazette in 1697:

"I braced my main topsails aback."

If the wind were to turn suddenly so that a sailing ship was facing unexpectedly into the wind, the ship was said to be 'taken aback'. An early example of that in print comes from an author called Eeles in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1754:

"If they luff up, they will be taken aback, and run the hazard of being dismasted."

Note: 'to luff' is to bring the head of a ship nearer to the wind.

The figurative use of the phrase, meaning surprised rather than physically pushed back, came in the 19th century. It appeared in The Times in March 1831:

"Whigs, Tories, and Radicals, were all taken aback with astonishment, that the Ministers had not come forward with some moderate plan of reform."

Charles Dickens also used it in his American Notes in 1842:

"I don't think I was ever so taken aback in all my life."

Loose Cannon

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Loose cannon'?

An unpredictable person or thing, liable to cause damage if not kept in check by others.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Loose cannon'?

From the 17th century to the 19th century, wooden warships carried cannon as their primary offensive weapons. In order to avoid damage from their enormous recoil when fired they were mounted on rollers and secured with rope. A loose cannon was just what it sounds like, that is, a cannon that had become free of its restraints and was rolling dangerously about the deck.

As with many nautical phrases, the use of 'loose cannon' owes something to the imagination as no evidence has come to light to indicate that the phrase was used by sailors in the days that ships actually carried cannon. The imagination in question belonged to Victor Hugo who set the scene in the novel Ninety Three, 1874. A translation of the French original describes cannon being tossed about following a violent incident onboard ship:

"The carronade, hurled forward by the pitching, dashed into this knot of men, and crushed four at the first blow; then, flung back and shot out anew by the rolling, it cut in two a fifth poor fellow... The enormous cannon was left alone. She was given up to herself. She was her own mistress, and mistress of the vessel. She could do what she willed with both."

Henry Kingsley picked up this reference in his novel Number Seventeen, 1875, in which he made the first use of the term 'loose cannon' in English:

"At once, of course, the ship was in the trough of the sea, a more fearfully dangerous engine of destruction than Mr. Victor Hugo’s celebrated loose cannon."

The earliest figurative use of 'loose cannon' in print that I can find is from The Galveston Daily News, December 1889:

The negro vote in the south is a unit now mainly because it is opposed by the combined white vote. It would in no event become, as Mr. Grady once said, "a loose cannon in a storm-tossed ship."

The phrase might have dwindled into obscurity in the 20th century but for the intervention of the US president Theodore Roosevelt. William White was a noted US journalist and politician around the turn of the 20th century and was a close friend of Roosevelt. White's Autobiography, published soon after his death in 1944 contained the following reminiscence:

He [Roosevelt] said: "I don't want to be the old cannon loose on the deck in the storm".

Know The Ropes

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Know the ropes'?

To understand how to do something. To be acquainted with all the methods required.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Know the ropes'?

There is some doubt about the origin of this phrase. It may well have a nautical origin. Sailors had to learn which rope raised which sail and also had to learn a myriad of knots. There is also a suggestion that it comes from the world of the theatre, where ropes are used to raise scenery etc.

The first citation comes in Richard H. Dana Jr's Two years before the mast, 1840:

"The captain, who had been on the coast before and 'knew the ropes,' took the steering oar"

That clearly has a seafaring connection, although it appears to be using the figurative meaning of the phrase, that is, 'the captain was knowledgeable', but without any specific allusion to ropes.

There are also early citations that come from the theatre. J. Timon, in Opera Goer, 1850 includes this:

"The belle of two weeks standing, who has 'learned the ropes'."

The nautical derivation seems more attractive and convincing, but the jury has to remain out on this one.

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