Ahoy! Everyday Phrases From the Open Sea

2 min read

Ahoy, matey! Even if you’ve never set sail on the high seas, chances are you still speak (and perhaps swear) like a sailor. Here’s a swell roundup of some of the most common seafaring terms and idioms even landlubbers use.

Mind your P's and Q's

This expression is used to remind someone to be polite or aware of proper decorum for any given situation. Although the origin of the phrase is contested, one theory is that sailors — one of the main patrons of dockside pubs — would have their "pints" and "quarts" tracked via a tally chart and chalk. Every once in a while, a tipsy bartender would add an extra "P" or "Q" — prompting their patrons to cry foul.

By and large

This term describes anything generally successful or on the whole — as in, “By and large, we made out well this quarter.” Yet its origins are more specific. Sailors would call a ship “by and large” when it was able to navigate well by sailing directly into the wind (by) with the wind blowing the widest part of the rear of the ship from behind (large). In other words, the definition still carries through. A ship that could navigate winds “by and large” was generally a good ship.

Cat’s out of the bag

Loose lips sink ships and this classic feline idiom refers to a secret being revealed. One theory suggests that the Royal Navy’s cat o’nine tails, which was a type of whip used for punishment, was stored in a bag to protect it from salty air. If a secret comes out, there would be pain and punishment. On a similar catty note, the expression “not enough room to swing a cat” that refers to close quarters is also linked to naval slang and not having enough space to bring out the whip.


Americans love crafting nicknames for different cultures and "limey" was applied to British sailors. The British navy, in an effort to curb scurvy, ensured the crewmen were getting enough vitamin C by serving regular doses of lime juice.

Three sheets to the wind

If a boat is literally three sheets to the wind, it's in danger of capsizing. "Sheets" in a sailing context refers to ropes that control the trim of the sail. Changing all three sheets to sit sideways to the wind is typically only used in a major storm to help balance the boat. The position of the sheets means things are getting more than a little topsy turvy — just like an inebriated sailor.

Pass with flying colors

If you breezed through a test, you might use this expression to boast. The phrase references ships, victorious in battle, sailing home with their colors or flags flying quite visibly. Great naval victories might have been more impressive than just passing a driving test, but the spirit is the same.


This quirky word refers to a rumor or gossip. Back in the early 1900s, sailors would get their drinking water from a “water butt” on the deck of a ship. Just as in modern times, this old-fashioned water cooler was the spot for gossip swaps.

Loose cannon

A loose cannon is wildly irresponsible and recklessly dangerous — as in a wildly unpredictable cousin, or a cannon freed from its restraints rolling around on a ship deck. Either way, this colloquial phrase spells trouble.

Featured image credit: mbbirdy/ iStock

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