For readers and writers of all things nautical, here is a brief listing of some sea-going terms, slang and phrases, followed by a short inventory of basic ship's rigging and parts. This is by no means a comprehensive glossary, but rather is intended as just a simple overview of some of the most common or interesting terms one might encounter in their literary travels.
Abaft - towards the rear or stern of the ship, behind.
Abaft the beam - towards the rear somewhere between beside and behind the ship; between a 6 o'clock 9 o'clock position.
Abeam - to the side of the ship at right angles, either left or right.
A bone in her teeth - description indicating a ship traveling at considerable speed, fast enough to raise a white wake at her bow. "Aye, she was sailin' with a bone in her teeth."
Adrift - floating without direction, especially a ship that is crippled or abandoned. Also used to indicate anything or anyone who seems without direction or purpose.
Aft - to the rear of the ship. "The captain went aft to speak to the helmsman."
Ahoy - a greeting to hail another ship or sometimes a person.
Aloft - to be or go up into the rigging or on the mast, above the deck.
Anchors aweigh - phrase indicating the anchor has been lifted off the sea bottom as it is being heavedin. (See A-trip and Weigh anchor.)
Astern - somewhere behind the ship.
At anchor - ship is at rest, anchored to the sea floor.Athwart - same as Abeam, to the side of the ship at right angles, either left or right.
A-trip - said when the anchor breaks loose of the bottom as it is being heaved in.
Avast - stop immediately, an imperative order.
Batten down - to fasten hatch covers and all other loose objects against storm or rough seas. Also means get ready for any tough going.
Belay that - Stop that, cease. "Belay that nonsense." Belaying pins are short iron or wooden rods fitted into racks, to which lines can be belayed or secured on ship.
Bilge or Bilge water - something that is utter nonsense. "That's a lot of bilge water." The bilges are the lowest part of the ship and collect nasty stinky water.
Blackbirder - one who traffics in slavery.
Bosun - boatswain, the officer in charge of maintaining all the ship's rigging, sails, cables, anchors etc. in good repair, and in charge of all work on deck. Assisted by bosun's mates. The shrill bosun's whistle piped commands on a busy naval deck.
Bucko - a friendly form of address, like "chum" or "mate."
Burgee - an identifying flag.
Careen - to heel a ship onto one side or the other, usually on a sandy beach, in order to make repairs to the hull or scrape barnacles and sea growth from the hull.
Chain shot - cannon ordinance comprised of two iron balls connected by a length of chain. Used to cut up enemy rigging or wreak havoc amongst men on deck.
Commodore - rank between captain and rear admiral. (Naval ranking goes in ascending order: Lieutenant aka Leftenant, Captain, Commodore, Rear Admiral, Vice Admiral, Admiral.)
Corsair - a fancy term for pirate.Cut of his jib - the look or impression of a person. "I don't like the cut of his jib."
Dance the hempen jig - to be hanged by the neck until dead. "If he's caught, they'll make him dance the hempen jig." Reference is to ropes made of hemp.
Davy Jones' Locker - the bottom of the sea, where dead sailors and sunken ships go.
Draft - how deep a boat settles in the water, the depth from the waterline to the bottom of her hull. "She's shallow on the draft" = a ship that can safely sail shallow water. A ship's draft will change if she takes on or lets off heavy cargo.Draw - said to indicate how much water a ship needs to float without striking bottom. "She draws 15 feet."
Dutch courage - false courage usually inspired by strong drink. "Oh, he was full of Dutch courage, he was."
Ease off - to let out a line slowly, carefully. Can be said to defuse a tense situation.
Even keel - when a ship floats properly without any list. Also said to mean a situation is well in hand, everything in order. "He's got everything on an even keel."
Furl sail - to roll and secure a sail completely up when not in use, as when at anchor. (See also Reef sail.)
French leave - to leave the ship without permission, such as to go get drunk ashore. Also any sneaky exit.
Grog - a weak mix of rum and water, a common ration on Navy ships from mid-1700's. The rum could help disguise the nasty taste of water stored too long in barrels.
Gun - cannon. (A pistol is a pistol, a musket is a musket, but neither is called a gun.)
Handsomely - to do something very swiftly but neatly. "Handsomely, lads!"
Heave-to - to stop a ship and maintain position, using rudder and sails to prevent much movement or drift. Also phrased as Lie-to. A ship thus stopped is Hove-to.
Helmsman - one who steers the ship.
Holystone - bars of sandstone used to scrub a ship's decking. To scrub so was "holystoning."
Hornpipe - a simple wind instrument resembling an Irish tin whistle, but made of wood and horn. Also the lively sailor's dance or jig that went with tunes played on it.
Hull down - said of a vessel far off on the horizon, which is visible only by its sails. "We spied a ship hull-down this morning, but she came no closer."
Jack Tar - a common sailor. Also simply "Tar."
Jolly Roger - the infamous black pirate flag. There was no single design and many notorious pirates created their own flags, but almost all included some form of skull and bones. A Red Flag meant "no quarter" to whomever they were attacking.
Keelhaul - to drag someone by rope under the ship from one side to the other, across the keel. The victim could easily drown, and certainly be cut to ribbons by barnacles and sea growth on the ship's hull.
Kissing the gunner's daughter - to be tied over one of the ship's cannons and flogged. "They caught him stealing, and now he's going to kiss the gunner's daugher."
Kiss the wooden lady - minor punishment where an offender is made to face a mast, his arms wrapped around it, and his wrists are tied on the other side. Shipmates might be encouraged to kick him in the arse as they go by. "He fell asleep on watch and the captain made him kiss the wooden lady."
Land lubber - any non-seaman. Also simply "Lubber."
Larboard - the antiquated term for Port, the left-hand side of the ship when facing forward.
Lee / Leeward - the side away from the wind, the direction towards which the wind is blowing. (See Windward.)
Letters of Marque - Permits issued by a government during wartime, which permitted private ship owners to attack enemy commerce and seize enemy ships. Those who held a letter of mark were called Privateers, legal pirates. Unfortunately, not every privateer wanted to give up his job, once peace was declared and pirating the ex-enemy became illegal.
Lie-to - see Heave to.
Pong - a powerful smell.
Port - 1) an inhabited harbor with facilities for visiting ships. 2) the left-hand side of the ship when facing forward. (See also Larboard.)
Privateer - one bearing Letters of Marque, also refers to the ship he sails.
Reef - a coral formation jutting from the sea floor to the surface, which can tear a ship's bottom out.
Reef sail - to shorten sails by tying them partly up, presenting less resistance to the wind. Used when less speed is wanted or when storm winds threaten to rip the sails.
Sea dog - an experienced sailor. "He were a tough old sea dog."
Scupper that - a term of derision meaning "that's BS." Scuppers are properly small openings at the edges of the deck which allow water to wash back over the side.
Scurvy - 1) a derogatory term: "Ye scurvy dog!" 2) a disease caused by lack of vitamin C on long voyages without fresh fruits or vegetables.
Scuttle - to deliberately sink a ship, especially to avoid capture by an enemy or if it is too damaged to repair.
Shoal - a sandbar or other earth formation that rises from a shallow sea bottom and just barely breaks the surface, or lurks just below. Hazardous to navigation if a shoal is not mapped and lookouts fail to see it in time. Differs from a Reef in that it is not coral and usually occurs near shore in shallow water.
Shiver me timbers! - equivalent to "well, I'll be damned." Has no historical basis, but it sounds good!
Smartly - quickly, hurry up. "Do it smartly, men!"
Spliced - to get married. "He came back from shore leave spliced to that little gal." From splicing or joining two ropes together.
Splice the main brace - a British navy term for doling out an extra ration of rum to the crew for reward or special occasions. Generally means to have a drink. "Let's go to the tavern and splice the main brace."
Starboard - the right hand side of a ship when facing forward.
Swab - an uncomplimentary term for a sailor.
Three sheets to the wind - well and thoroughly drunk.
Walk the plank - a form of execution whereby the victim is made to walk a plank laid over the ship's rails and fall into the sea to drown. Interestingly enough, there is no historical record that this ever occurred before Hollywood thought it up.
Weigh anchor - to raise the anchor, leave port. "We'll weigh anchor at sunrise."
Where away? - a query demanding a precise direction, asked of a lookout who has just reported spotting something out at sea.
Whistling psalms to the taffrail - To give good advice to someone that will ignore it. "I tried to tell him, but I was whistling psalms to the taffrail."
Windward - towards or into the wind. The direction from which the wind is blowing. (See Leeward.)
Amidships - the center of the ship. Also Midships.
Ballast - heavy weighted material put in the lower parts of the ship to improve stability, could be shifted to one side or another to compensate for changes in cargo, etc. Usually of stone or junk iron.
Beam - the widest part of the ship from side-to-side, usually amidships.
Bow - the front of the ship.
Bulkhead - the walls separating compartments within a ship. Ships do not have walls, they have bulkheads.
Capstan - a large, spool-shaped, upright revolving drum which winches up anchor chains, tow ropes, and other heavy things, and is turned by crewmen pushing spoke-like bars and walking in a circle around the capstan to wind up (or down) whatever they are hauling.
Coaming - raised wooden rims or curbs around the hatch covers on deck, which keep water from sloshing down the decks into the holds.
Companionway - opening leading from the main deck down into the cabin(s), accessed by stairs or ladder.
Crow's nest - a protective platform set high up a mast, where a lookout does his duty while at sea.
Fo'c's'le - short for forecastle, the forward-most below-decks compartment of the ship, usually where the crew was quartered.
Footropes - ropes on square-rigged ships which hang below the yards, on which sailors stand while reefing or furling sails.
Fore - the front part of the ship. "She had sustained damage in the fore."
Foredeck - the forward part of the upper deck.
Forward - towards the front of the ship. One goes forward when he goes towards the bow.
Gunwale / Gunnel - the upper edge or rim of a boat's side.
Hatch - doors or openings aboard ship. Ships do not have doors, they have hatches.
Helm - the wheel or tiller that controls the ship's rudder.
Hold - the cargo compartments of a ship.
Keel - the centerline bottom of the ship, running from bow to stern.
Line - a rope used as part of a ship's rigging. A rope is only a rope when it's just laying there coiled up not doing anything or attached to anything. (See also Sheet, Shroud and Stay.)
Midships - see "Amidships."
Poopdeck - on those ships that had them, this was the highest and aft-most deck.
Quarterdeck - rear deck where the helm and wheel are located.
Running rigging - all movable, adjustable lines that control sails, yards, etc.
Sheet - a line connected to the sails that controls and adjusts their angle to the wind.
Shroud - a fixed, immovable line that secures the masts to the sides of the ship. (See also Stay.)
Standing rigging - all fixed, immovable lines that secure masts etc.
Stay - a fixed, immovable line that secures the masts to the stern or bow of the ship. (See also Shroud.)
Stem - the foremost part of the ship's bow, as in "from stem to stern."
Stern - the very rear of the ship or boat.
Yard - spars from which sails are hung on square-rigged ships.