Yarr, Matey! (4 Nautical Phrases to Help You Talk Like a Pirate)
  • 3-minute read
  • 19th September 2020

Yarr, Matey! (4 Nautical Phrases to Help You Talk Like a Pirate)

Ahoy, matey! Yarr! Shiver me timbers! Splice the mainbrace, and so on and so on. Yup, it’s International Talk Like a Pirate Day, the time of year when otherwise normal people start talking like salty seadogs. And this gives us a convenient excuse for one of our favorite things: discussing etymology.

To be specific, we’re looking at phrases you might not realize have nautical origins. How many of these have you used in your writing?

1. Batten Down the Hatches

To “batten down the hatches” means “prepare for trouble.” For instance, we might “batten down the hatches” if we know something turbulent or chaotic is about to happen (the original phrase referred to storms).

Although sometimes mispronounced as “batter” or “button” down the hatches, a “batten” is actually a strip of wood or metal used to hold something in place, so “battening down” means to “secure with a batten.” Definitely good advice if you’re at sea and the weather gets rough!

2. Know the Ropes

To “know the ropes” means to understand how to do something to a basic level. For instance, you might be asked to show someone “the ropes” if they’re new at your workplace or school.

But why ropes? Well, there is one obvious place where new recruits quickly need to learn about ropes: on board a ship! As such, experienced sailors who already knew which ropes were attached to which sails would need to teach their new shipmates how it all worked.

And these days, we use this phrase for land-based tasks, too.

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Typical pirate pep talk for new recruits: 'One of these ropes will save you. The others lead to certain death. Good luck, kid.'
Typical pirate pep talk for recruits: “One of these ropes will save you. The others lead to certain death. Good luck.”

3. Hand Over Fist

In everyday speech, the phrase “hand over fist” usually refers to making money quickly. So, how does this have nautical origins? It becomes a bit more obvious is you think about the literal meaning.

When pulling on or climbing a rope, such as on board a sail ship, we place our free hand over the fist gripping the rope (and repeat). It makes even more sense when we realize that it used to mean “making steady progress,” since most of us don’t climb ropes all that quickly!

4. The Cut of Your Jib

Many know that “the cut of your jib” refers to someone’s appearance, but not everyone knows what a “jib” actually is, nor is “jib” a term you hear much elsewhere. To clarify, then, a “jib” is a triangular sail at the front of a ship.

This one, to clarify, since most people aren't so hot on their mast terminology either.
As highlighted here, since sails can be confusing.

Each country’s navy had its own style of jib, so sailors would respond to distant ships depending on the “cut” of its “jib.” As such, saying “I like the cut of your jib” is much like saying, “I’m not going to fire cannons at you, board you and steal your booty.” However, boarding other ships to steal booty is essential to the pirate lifestyle, so you might want to save this phrase for the rest of the year if you’re going “full buccaneer” today.

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While we usually focus on standard English, our editors are brilliantly adaptable. So if you’ve written a tale of derring-do on the high seas, full of nautical slang, we can help you proofread it! Why not submit a sample document today and find out how we could help you enhance your writing?

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