11 popular everyday sayings you may not realise have Royal Navy and nautical origins

PORTSMOUTH has long had strong ties to the Royal Navy.

By Matthew Mohan-Hickson
Monday, 2nd May 2022, 3:13 pm

But did you know that naval slang and phrases have greatly influenced the way we speak every single day?

Many of the phrases we utter day after day can trace their origins back to the navy.

Here are 11 everyday sayings that have navy origins:

Sign up to our daily newsletter

Captain Hardy welcomes visitors aboard HMS Victory at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

Show your true colours

In the 21st century this idiom means that someone shows their true character or personality, especially when it is unpleasant.

This idiom also has a naval origin, it dates back to the 18th century. Ships had to fly their ‘colours’ in battle - meaning the flag of the country they were from.

Some ships would fly a different flag to trick their opponent into thinking they were an ally, then when they got close would show their true colours and attack.

Read More

Read More
Traders hit out at possible £10 a day charge in Portsmouth clean air zone


If you say that someone is aloof in the modern age it means that they are cool and distant, not friendly or forthcoming.

However it comes from the Middle Dutch word loef meaning the weather side of a ship. It was used as an order to keep the ship's head to the wind and stay clear of a lee-shore. It may be why it has taken on the meaning ‘at a distance or apart’.

Clear the decks

Now it shouldn’t be any surprise that this saying has navy origins.

It now means: ‘prepare for an event or course of action by dealing with anything that might hinder progress’.

However it originally was used when ships were preparing for battle and sailors would remove objects on the deck of the ship.

Over a barrel

This idiom means that you are in a helpless position or at someone’s mercy.

In the navy sailors were either tied to grating, mast or over the barrel of a deck cannon before they were flogged.

Long shot

This is a phrase I’m sure all of us will have used or heard at one point or another.

It means doing something with little chance of having success.

It comes from the navy, when attempting to fire a cannon beyond its range - with a low chance of hitting the target.

Take the wind out of someone’s sails

This idiom means to frustrate someone by unexpectedly anticipating an action or remark, in the modern age.

It comes from a naval manoeuvre where a ship would intercept the wind of another, causing it to slow or stop.

Learn the ropes

In the modern age this saying means that someone needs to learn or understand the basic details of how to do or perform a job, task, or activity.

It has origins in the nautical world, in the past, the phrase ‘he knows the ropes’ written on a seaman’s discharge meant that he was inexperienced and only familiar with a ship’s principal ropes.

Pipe down

In 2020 if you tell someone to pipe down you are telling them to stop talking or be less noisy.

This is yet another everyday saying with a navy origin.

On a ship, the pipe down was the last signal from the bo'sun’s pipe each day and meant lights out and told sailors to stop chatting.

Feeling groggy

If you are feeling groggy it means you are weak and unable to think clearly or walk correctly, usually because of tiredness or illness.

This phrase also comes from the navy.

Admiral Edward Vernon who served in the West Indies in the 18th century. He was known for wearing grogram jackets to keep warm which led to him being known by the nickname ‘Old Grog’.

He also was known for watering down his crew’s rum - and this drink came to be known as ‘Old Grog’ and then later simply grog.

And if you were feeling groggy it was because you had had too much grog the night before.

Not enough room to swing a cat

This saying means that there isn’t much space in a room.

In the Royal Navy the cat o’ nine tails was a type of whip used to physically punish sailors, which was shortened to cat.

With the saying meaning that there wasn’t enough room to whip someone.

Let the cat out of the bag

To let the cat out of the bag is to reveal a secret either deliberately or inadvertently.

As previously mentioned the cat o’ nine tails was a whip used to punish sailors in the Royal Navy and was kept in a cloth bag.

So if a sailor said anything that got himself or another sailor in trouble the cat would be taken out of the bag to be used for a flogging.

A message from the Editor

Thank you for reading this story on portsmouth.co.uk. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.

Subscribe to portsmouth.co.uk and enjoy unlimited access to local news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit our Subscription page now to sign up.

Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.