A copper-bottomed couple of shakes

I’ve written before about the amount of words and phrases commonly used in English, every day English, which originated from nautical terms or slang. I think it really says something about our island heritage and our relationship with the sea-going back to when English first emerged as a language. I wonder if other seafaring nations have a similar volume of such words and phrases in their language, the Dutch for instance, or the Portuguese? The French and Spanish had great navies, great explorers, great sailors, but they also have a huge land mass given over to agriculture, with many of the population going back over many years having no connection with the sea at all.

here is just a selection I’ve come across:

  • A shot across the bows
  • All at sea
  • All hands on deck
  • All sewn up
  • Aloft
  • Aloof
  • Anchors aweigh
  • Any port in a storm
  • Armed to the teeth
  • As the crow flies
  • At a loose end
  • At a rate of knots
  • Athwart
  • Bale out
  • Batten down the hatches
  • Between the devil and the deep blue sea
  • Binge
  • Bitter end
  • Broad in the beam
  • By and large
  • Calm before the storm
  • Chock-a-block
  • Clean bill of health
  • Clear the deck
  • Close quarters
  • Cock up
  • Copper-bottomed
  • Couple of shakes
  • Cut and run
  • Dead in the water
  • Deliver a broadside

I shall have to ask my Dutch friends if it is similar in their language!


  1. Editor

    Hi Lois

    I enjoyed this post about nautical terms.

    As with all specialities in trades and professions sailing was full of jargon – almost a second language and some terms go way back e.g. Focsle is short for Foredastle which was designed into warships in Henry VIII’s time cf Mary Rose. There was also an after castle but that seems to have dropped out of usage. The deckhands were billeted in the Focal while the officers were aft as it was far more comfortable near the centre of the metacentre during rough seas.

    I still think in nautical language but don’t speak it because of the looks of incomprehension. If you would like to read about the modern version – I suggest ‘Jackspeak’ an excellent book

    I consciously tried to use the language of sailing and of the time in my story Lascar Jim – attached.

    You could ask your Dutch friends about Admiral Trump and broomsticks ( Yes, a real name ) you might get a rude answer

    Best wishes



    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lois

      Thank you ‘editor’ 😉 It is really fascinating isn’t it, and since I’ve become interested in it I’ve noticed loads of references in everyday speech where the speaker/writer has no idea that there is a nautical or maritime connection


  2. buyingseafood

    “The devil to pay” or “The devil to pay and no pitch hot” is a sister expression to “Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.” They are expressions associated with caulking wooden ships.


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