World Maritime Day: 5 Phrases with Nautical Origins
  • 3-minute read
  • 30th September 2021

World Maritime Day: 5 Phrases with Nautical Origins

All at sea about nautical idioms? To celebrate World Maritime Day, in this post we explain five phrases with nautical origins that you could use in your writing.

1. All at Sea

If you are “all at sea” about or with something, you are in a state of confusion:

I don’t understand this puzzle at all. I’m all at sea!

This phrase comes from the early days of sailing before modern navigational techniques were in use. When a ship was out of sight of land, it was deemed to be “at sea” and therefore in danger of becoming lost. The phrase has been used to mean “muddled” more generally since the eighteenth century. It is thought that “all” was added at the end of the nineteenth century to form the idiom “all at sea.”

2. As the Crow Flies

This idiom refers to the straightest path between two points:

The hospital is 20 miles away by road, but only 15 as the crow flies.

Before the days of radar, British ships used to carry a cage of crows to identify where land was. Crows detest expanses of open water and would head for the closest dry land as soon as they were released. Hence, “as the crow flies” has come to mean “the most direct path between two locations.”

Crows: an early navigational aid (Pxfuel)

3. Toe the Line

In everyday speech, “toe the line” means “conform to a policy or standard”:

I’d had enough of my parents’ rules, so I decided not to toe the line.

Nobody knows where this idiom originally came from, but one theory ties it to a British Royal Navy tradition of the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. Barefooted sailors were required to stand at attention for inspection with their toes touching the seams of the planks of the deck, thus “toeing the line.” 

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Other theories are a little less nautical, though! For example, the modern idiom may have originated from runners standing with their toes against a starting line.

4. Feeling Blue

If you are “feeling blue,” you are experiencing feelings of sadness:

She’s been feeling blue ever since her hamster died.

This phrase comes from the tradition of flying blue flags and painting a blue band around the ship’s hull if a captain or senior officer had died while at sea. Consequently, the color blue became associated with feeling sad. 

5. Push the Boat Out

If you are feeling blue, one solution might be to “push the boat out” for a big celebration. This refers to spending generously or behaving extravagantly:

I’ve pushed the boat out for the party this year!

This phrase has roots in the idea of helping someone to push their beached boat off the shore and into the water. And this association with generosity was soon extended in nautical circles to include buying a round of drinks.

From there, it was a natural leap for the phrase “push the boat out” to become associated with acts of generosity or extravagance in general.

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Happy World Maritime Day! If you would like more, we have another post on nautical phrases here. And if you need any help with proofreading, our expert editors can assist you. Why not upload a trial document today?

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