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How The Language Of The Sea Became Ingrained In Our Everyday Speech

Whether you are a cruising veteran or you have never set foot on a ship in your life, the chances are that you use seafaring language quite often. Whether you are aware of it or not, a lot of the turns of phrase that we use to describe everyday situations have their roots in the dialects of those working at sea.

From ‘feeling blue’ to being at the ‘bitter end’, there are so many examples of how these nautical phrases have found their way into our universal speech. Here’s a closer look at a few of the most common ones.

At The Bitter End


This saying that is most likely to be used when someone has had enough of something has origins to do with a ships anchor. Sailing ships of the past would have their anchors secure to an oak post which was known as the ‘bitt’. The anchor would then be lowered down into the sea by slowly unwinding it from around the bitt until it reached the bottom of the ocean.

The last part of the anchor’s cable that was attached to the bitt was called the bitter end, and so if this was reached when the anchor hit the seabed it had been released to the bitter end and there was nothing left to give.

It is thought that another commonly used phrase, ‘in deep water’, also stems from the practise of lowering the anchor. If you reach ‘the bitter end’ and the anchor has not yet found the seabed then you were said to be ‘in deep water’ with no way around this difficult situation.

Feeling Blue

Blue Flag

Feeling blue is used when someone if under the weather or just a little down on things, but in sailing terms this had much more serious connotations. Whilst a ship was at sea, if it lost its captain or any officers then it would mark this mournful situation by flying a blue flag. There would also be a blue stripe painted along the side of the ship which would be seen by those waiting as the ship came into port.

Show Your True Colours

Flags On A Mast

In language today, showing ones true colours is to do something that allows other to see you for who you truly are. However, in the nautical days gone by this had a lot more to do with flags than people. In order to try and fool any potential enemies, a vessel would carry a wide range of different countries flags and then fly them to confuse oncoming ships. Therefore, showing your true colours became a phrase that was used to describe the time where you were flying the correct flag.

Granny’s Knot

Reef Knot

The chances are that many of you will have tied a Granny knot in the past without really knowing why it has this name. It is said that in the times before equality between sexes, sailors would refer to a failed reef knot as a Granny knot. This was because it was often tied by women and men who didn’t work at sea and was very difficult to undo if it became stuck.

Hunky Dory

Many of us use the phrase ‘it’s all hunky dory’, to imply that everything is well, without really casting much thought to the fact that it is quite a strange thing to say. There is a common belief that it is actually derived from the name of a Japanese street called ‘Honcho-Dori’. It is said that this place in Yokohama used to offer everything that a sailor needed to have a good time and so they started to describe themselves as being hunky-dory when everything was good.

Sailing Close To The Wind


If someone is said to be sailing close to the wind then they are getting away with something that could be potentially dangerous or illegal. This commonly used term is taken from the decision to sail a vessel almost directly in the direction from which the wind is blowing. Although this allows a ship to travel slower, it does make it vulnerable to being turned onto an unwanted track by a very small change in the wind.

If you would like the chance to maybe use a few of these phrases for yourself, the team at Fred.\ can help you find your perfect ocean cruise. However, whilst we do offer various Caribbean cruises, trips to the Mediterranean, and Far Eastern itineraries; a visit to ‘Honcho-Dori’ is unlikely. Simply call us today to plan your cruise holiday.