Common Nautical Phrases

Common Nautical Phrases

nautical terms Common Phases
As the crow flies...

Do you know the origins behind common phrases like ‘cup of Joe’?

What about ‘as the crow flies’? ‘Shake a leg’?

It may come as surprise that these common phrases have nautical roots. While we cannot verify the historical context of these terms, they sure are a lot of fun!

As the crow flies

Crows like to be on dry land and will fly straight, bypassing rivers, water and other obstacles to be ashore. Crows used to be carried aboard ships, and in cases of poor visibility, scouts let one free and chart the bird’s flight to shore.

Additionally, the term ‘crow’s nest’ stems from an old Norse practice of attaching a cage full of crows to the mast. The crows were eventually phased out for more modern forms of navigation, but the term remained.

Knows the ropes know the ropes

In the early days of sailing, this term was written on a seaman’s discharge to indicate that he was still a novice and only knew the names and uses of the principal ropes or lines. Today, this is mostly used conversely—to indicate that someone has an understanding of processes or procedures.

cup of joeCup of Joe

When Josephus Daniels was appointed Secretary of the Navy in 1913, he banned wine and spirits aboard ships. From then on, the strongest drink aboard Navy ships was coffee, and over the years, a cup of coffee became known as “a cup of Joe”.

Shake a legsailing-ship-vessel-boat-sea-37859

This phrase is hotly debated in the throes of the Internet. However, one source claims that this phrase originates from the British Royal Navy—officers would order sleeping sailors to throw a leg out from their hammocks to wake up.

Son of a Gun

These days, this phrase is often used in polite conversation instead of a more vulgar term.

This phrase can be traced back to the British Royal Navy as well. Although the Navy had rules against it, they would occasionally turn a blind eye to women joining sailors on long voyages—so, in the rare case where a child was born on board with uncertain paternity, they would be listed in the ship’s log as ‘son of a gun’.

Thanks to and for these fun facts and trivia!

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