Nautical terms

30 posts in this topic

Some of these definitions were written by the CANOE (Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything).


I didn't say this was the exact interpretation of each of these meanings. Just thought it was a fun way to explain som things.

Ditty Box or Ditty Bag

Possibly from the Saxon word dite, meaning tidy or from the English word dittis, a type of canvas material. A small box or bag in which a sailor kept his valuables such as letters, small souvenirs, and sewing supplies.

Doldrums, In the Doldrums

Between the tradewinds of the northern and southern hemisphere lies an area of calm winds, close to the equator, called the doldrums. Since sailing vessels relied upon the wind, a trip through the doldrums was often long, hot and boring.

Down the hatch

A toast that seems to have its origins in sea freight, where cargoes are lowered into the hatch. First used by seamen, it is thought to date from the 1930s and has been attributed to author P.G. Wodehouse.

Dutch Courage

Dates to the 1600s Anglo-Dutch wars and was likely British propaganda claiming that the Dutch troops were so cowardly they wouldn't fight unless fortified with copious amounts of schnapps. The term has come to mean false courage induced by drink, or the drink itself.

Even Keel, Keeled Over

A vessel that floats upright without list is said to be on an even keel and this term has come to mean calm and steady. A keel is like the backbone of the vessel, the lowest and principal centerline structural member running fore and aft. Keeled over (upside down) was a sailor's term for death.

Fall Foul Of, Foul Up

Foul is an often used nautical term generally meaning entangled or impeded. An anchor tangled in line or cable is said to be a foul anchor. A foul berth is caused by another vessel anchoring too close wherein the risk of collision exists. A foul bottom offers poor holding for anchors. A screw up!


A nautical measure equal to six feet, used to measure the depth of water at sea. The word was also used to describe taking the measure or "to fathom" something. Today when one is trying to figure something out, they are trying to fathom it or get to the bottom of it.

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A fathom is, basically, 2 yards (or the width of 2 outstretched arms). As such, it is a convenient "ballpark" measurement (to use a COMPLETELY un-nautical term).

I have wondered of the word's original origins and etymology. Was a sea-term first, then transferred to land or a land term used by sailors (and continued in use long after the land use became "double yard" . . . ?

(Yes, I HAVE heard people speak of measurements in "double yards," as in "That's a good 6 double yards" for 35-40 feet/12-ish yards. That was in the North Carolina mountains.)


After looking it up in an etymology book, the term "fathom" comes from an Anglo-Saxon/Old English/Old Saxon term meaning "embrace." It was spelled: "faetm" or "fæðm"

It was used for mines well into the early 20th C.

Edited by Tartan Jack

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A question on the term "Monkey"...

I have heard that a Brass Monkey was the rack that held cannonballs in place on deck. In freezing temperatures, brass would contract at a different rate than the cannon balls themselves, causing the balls to fall off of the rack and roll around on the deck. Hence, the term "Freezing the balls off a Brass Monkey". Is there any truth to this?

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Aloof comes from the nautical term "to luff," meaning to turn the ship up into the wind. If a ship upwind of you luffs, it is turning away from you and becoming hard to approach, like an aloof person.

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