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How to talk like a real sailor: 9 Nautical terms and what they mean

Posted on: 19.02.18

On board a ship there are lots of terms and phrases which sailors have used across the centuries to communicate with each other. Some of these you may be familiar with, as many of them are a part of everyday conversation and others may not be so familiar.

We’ve compiled a list of nautical terms to help you to understand these phrases and start talking like a real sailor, and they might even help you out on a voyage.

Above board

You might have heard this to describe something that is exactly as expected or, more specifically, honest or legitimate. In sailing it refers to when pirates and war ships would often hide some or most of their crew from other ships so as to look like a merchant ship. If a ship had all its crew on deck in plain sight this was known as being “Above board”.

Fly by night

This term is synonymous with the phrase “here today, gone tomorrow” and is often used to describe something that is unreliable, untrustworthy or has a bad reputation. On a ship however it refers to a large extra sail, only used for sailing down wind.


Image courtesy of Sheriyates via Pixabay.

All Hands

This phrase is more commonly know as “All hands on deck” but is often shortened to “All hands” onboard a ship. It can also be used for any task that requires a large amount of people taking part to get the job done. Its original meaning comes from being used to call all crew on deck either in an emergency or for a task that requires the full crew’s involvement.

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Cat o’ nine tails

A short nine tailed whip which was used to maintain discipline in the British navy and kept in a bag when not in use, hence the phrase “letting the cat out of the bag.” Letting the cat out of the bag is now more commonly used to refer to revealing a secret or facts that were previously hidden.


Blue Peter

In the past half a century this has become synonymous with the British children’s TV Show of the same name. However its actual meaning comes from the name for a blue and white flag hoisted to show a ship is ready to leave port. The flag signified that all persons should report on-board as the ship was about to head out to sea.

Davy Jones Locker Cartoon

Davy Jones Locker

Davy Jones Locker

You may have heard of Davy Jones before, as he’s a character in the Pirates of The Caribbean films. This particular phrase though is a figure of speech for the bottom of the ocean. Davy Jones was considered to be the evil spirit of the sea and his “locker” was thought to be the grave of sailors who drowned.


This usually means a message that has become corrupted or an error in transmission. However in sailing garbling was an illegal practice that involved mixing cargo with garbage.


This phrase means someone who is unfamiliar with the sea. It originates from the word “lubber” which means someone who is clumsy or lazy. By the end of a voyage you definitely won’t be a landlubber.


Image courtesy of Free-Photos via Pixabay.

Under the weather

You might have heard this term used when you or someone else was feeling ill, or didn’t look very well. Its origin though comes from sailors serving a watch on the side of the ship that is exposed to the wind and spray.

What’s Next?

There are lots more phrases than the ones we’ve listed but now you’ve read our list you should know how to start talking like a sailor.

If you’ve been inspired by our nautical terms to go on a sailing adventure then take a look at our Find Your Adventure page. You could also take part in one of our events and there are lots of tips on support for funding a voyage too.

If you’d like help finding and booking your adventure – we’re here to help you every step of the way. Even if you haven’t quite decided on what you want to do, and where you want to go, we can guide you through the process. From finding an event and ships that’s right for you, to contacting a vessel, or finding out more about funding options.

Email the Sail On Board support team on, or give us a call on +44 (0)23 9258 6367. We’ll happily answer all your questions, and try to solve any problems you might be experiencing.