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14 Nautical Terms and Where They Originated

Have you ever wondered why people talk differently once they step foot on a boat?  What landlubbers call a bathroom suddenly changes to a head when you are afloat.  Left and right become port and starboard while front and back become bow and stern.  Here are some commonly used nautical terms and what their origins are as well as some terms we use every day that have their roots in sailing:

Ahoy – This is a traditional nautical greeting and originated with the Vikings.  Back then, however, it was not a friendly greeting but a battle cry that was used when attacking the enemy.  If you use it today as a greeting, you may want to check to see if the other person is of Viking descent.  

Ahoy was originally a Viking battle cry.

Aye, Aye – Aye means “yes” in Old English.  A seaman’s response of “Aye, aye” to an order means, “I understand and will obey.”

Bitter End – The bitter end typically refers to the end of a line that attaches to a boat.  On older ships (and even some newer boats) there is a post on the deck called a bitt and it is used to secure the anchor line to the boat.  If the water that a ship was intending to anchor in was too deep, all of the line would be let out before the anchor hit bottom and you would get to the bitter end.

Channel – Refers to an area of a body of water that has suitable depth for navigation.  It comes from the Latin word canal which refers to the movement of water.

Head – Old sailing vessels had to sail with the direction of the wind.  In other words, the wind would blow the ship forward from behind.  Thus, when on deck, the breeze (if there was any) would go from the stern of the ship towards the bow of the ship.  The bathroom was placed towards the bow (or head) of the ship to allow the breeze to carry the odors away from the crew.

Starboard – Refers to the right side of the boat.  Years ago, sailing vessels had their steering board (basically a rudder) installed on the right side of the vessel.  This was because the helmsman was usually right handed.  The words steering board eventually morphed into starboard and referred to the side of the boat where the rudder was.  

An old ship with a steering board on the right side at the stern.

Port – Refers to the left side of the boat.  This evolved because boats were typically loaded from the left side.  In other words, the left side of the boat was the side on which the shipping port was.

Posh – Today, the term posh means luxurious.  It is not considered to be a nautical term but it has a nautical background.  Years ago, when steamships would depart Europe for transatlantic journeys, the preferred (and most expensive) cabins were on the port side of the ship going out and the starboard side coming home (Port Out Starboard Home).  This was because the North Atlantic was cold and this would allow for travelers to be on the southern side (sunny side) of the ship during the crossing. 
The term Posh originated with steamships in Europe.

Knot – A Knot is 1 nautical mile per hour and is equivalent to approximately 1.15 statute miles per hour.  The term comes from the 17th century when sailors would use a common log to measure speed.  A common log was a rope with knots tied in fixed increments.  When a ship was under way, it would be let out into the water.  Speed was determined by how many knots were pulled out over a period of time.

Mayday – A distress call used on the radio.  It comes from the French word "m'aidez," which means “help me."

Yacht – Comes from the Dutch word Jacht schip meaning pirate ship.

Arrrgh! – This term is commonly known as something that I pirate might yell but actually, there is no historical evidence that pirates actually used it.  It appears that it was actually invented by Hollywood when filming the 1950’s version of Treasure Island.  Still, it’s kind of fun to say it.

Not a real nautical term but still fun to say.

True Colors – Back in the day, ships often carried flags from many nations so they could hoist them and trick nearby ships into thinking they were allies.  Rules of engagement often required ships to show their “true colors” to prevent ships from accidentally attacking a friendly vessel. 

Bilge – The bilge refers to the lowest part of a ship or vessel under the water line.  In many modern boats, it is also where the engine is.  Older sailing boats were often designed with a bulge at the low point of the hull near or at the waterline.  Over time, the word bulge was modified into what we refer to as the bilge now.  

Many older sailing ships were designed wit a bulge at or ear the waterline.

So the next time you are out on your boat with your friends, try yelling something like this:

Ahoy ye filthy scalawags! Bring her to starboard, and let out the anchor but ya better not let the line out to the bitter end lest I throw ya in the bilge!  Arrrgh!!

Let’s see if they respond with, “Aye, aye Cap’n!”

I’m not sure I’d bet on it though.

Have a safe July 4th and Happy Boating!

Captain Frank

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  1. Brought a smile to my Monday face!

  2. Boats docked on the port side because if they docked on the starboard side, there was a risk that they'd break their "steer board" or at least the steer board would get in the way of loading. Interesting that the steer board was on the right because helmsmen were right handed.

    1. Exactly. I guess if you were a lefty back then, you had to pick another job on the boat. LOL

  3. Subscribed to your blog... love it!


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