A few of the expressions we use in our everyday conversations are recognizably derived from nautical terms — such as “shipshape” or “smooth sailing.” But when it comes to many others, the memory of where these idioms originated seems to have been lost, somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea!
When sails have been blown flat against the mast, they are said to be “aback.” Aback sails pose a challenge because, if the ship turns to face the wind with aback sails, it can stop quickly or be forced backwards. This is known nautically as being “taken aback.”
So if you’ve ever described yourself as being “taken aback” to express surprised dismay, you’re harkening back to the days when sailors were jolted by shifting winds and uncooperative sails.
“Until the bitter end.”
The “bitt” was once a common word for the posts that sailors used for fastening their ropes to the dock. The bitter end of a rope came to mean the one not fastened to a cleat or post. Once you reach the bitter end after handing out more rope to someone at the dock, you’re out of rope.
Therefore, “until the bitter end” literally means until there is no more rope left to give. Metaphorically, it expresses the idea of supporting someone or something — in other words, not letting go — until it is no longer possible to do so.
“Give a wide berth.”
Everybody understands this warning, which means to stay far away from a dangerous or undesirable situation. In nautical terms, the use of “berth” is shorthand for the amount of space between boats and anything around them. “Giving a wide berth” means leaving a generous amount of room for a ship to maneuver easily for turning or mooring.
Staying away from ships during this tricky procedure — especially if you were in another ship — was obviously to be desired, in order to avoid disaster. Hence, one “gives a wide berth” to any touchy situation or person, as a way of keeping out of trouble.
“To turn a blind eye.”
This expression comes from a notorious incident involving Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was blind in one eye. During the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen, Nelson disagreed with an order to cease attack, given from a higher-ranker commander on a distant ship. Nelson switched his scope to his blinded eye and remarked that he could not see any signal flags conveying orders — then proceeded to attack the Dutch ships.
The nautical anecdote became so famous that it soon entered public use. Someone who “turns a blind eye” is willfully refusing to see what he or she does not want to know about.
“I can’t fathom it.”
A fathom is a term of measurement going back to the 1500s or earlier, and equals about six feet, or the length between an adult’s fingertips when standing with arms outstretched. Ship ropes were marked off by the fathom, and a weight was tied on one end of these fathom ropes. To determine how deep the sea in which they were moored was, they’d “fathom out” the depth by lowering the rope until it hit bottom, then note the number of fathoms on the rope.
Over time, people began to use the idiom “to fathom” or “fathom out” metaphorically, as a way to express coming to understand something complicated. These days, it often is used in exasperation about an annoying or upsetting occurrence, as in “I can’t fathom how you could be so thoughtless.”
“A loose cannon.”
The ultra-heavy weapons known as cannons were standard defense mechanisms on warships, or on ships carrying expensive goods which might be pirated. In order to maneuver from one part of the deck to another, the cannons were set on rollers, and secured when not in use to protect sailors from being crushed by the rolling mechanisms.
Of course, having a “loose cannon” on deck was an unpredictable and dangerous event. Unsurprisingly, the phrase has captured the public’s imagination, as an idiom for a person or situation which is hard to control — and which might prove perilous to those in its path.
Here’s a bonus nautical term for linguists!
Once you start noticing that a certain common expressions sounds similar to a nautical term, it’s easy to mistakenly assume the idiom as derives from sailing language. In addition, sailors past and present delight in making up stories.
In fact, playful scholars have come up with a term for this: “CANOE (Committee to Ascribe a Naval Origin to Everything).” So the next time you’re tempted to lecture a landlubber that “posh” originates from “port out, starboard home” (a common misconception), remember that sometimes things that sound similar to nautical terms are purely coincidental!