For hundreds of years, the sea and sailing has been a great part of our British culture. Be it through our mighty Royal Navy, or our desire to explore and trade, the language of the sea has become embroiled in our everyday life. But do you know how much of our day-to-day lingo stems from our nautical past?



royal navy, sayings, footloose

This refers to the bottom edge of the mainsail, known as the foot. If this was not securely tied to the boom and became detached, it was said to be footloose.

Pipe down

In naval terms, this means stop talking and be quiet. This was the last signal from the bosun’s pipe, which meant lights out and shut up.

Touch and go

In shallow water, the keel of the ship might touch the bottom but not get stuck and sail on.

Not enough room to swing a cat

language of the sea: man swinging a cat


As punishment, sailors were flogged by the bosun’s mate, using his cat-o’-nine tails. Everyone on the ship was forced to watch and might crowd around, so the bosun wouldn’t have enough room to swing the cat.

The bitter end

The end of an anchor rope was attached to a bitt post fixed to the deck. When a rope was all used up and there was no more left, it comes to the bitter end.

Square meal

The Navy would serve the sailors their food on square, wooden platters sawn from planks.


language of the sea: people getting onto a bus


Sails on a ship were raised and lowered using a block and tackle. If two blocks became jammed together and the rope couldn’t move, it was said they became chock-a-block.

Mind your Ps and Qs

When sailors waited to be hired, they’d often spend their time in taverns where the landlord would give them credit until they got a job on a ship. The landlord would chalk up their drinks on a board – pints were Ps and quarts were Qs. But not all landlords were trustworthy and would often stick an extra chalk mark on a sailor’s tab, hence the phrase mind your Ps and Qs.

Toe the line

When sailors were called to attention, they would line up with their toes touching the lines between the boards on the deck. Hence towing the line.

Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey

language of the sea: monkey sitting next to a pile of brass balls


This has nothing to do with sailors’ pets… On a ship, cannonballs were stacked in a pyramid on a dimpled tray called a monkey, made of brass. On very cold days, the different expansion rate of the two metals, the brass tray and the iron cannonballs, could cause the pyramid to topple and the balls to fall.


How much of this language of the sea do you use?