16 Sailing Terms for Landlubbers

Over time, many a piece of maritime jargon has drifted into the vernacular of the landlocked.
This is no time to batten down the hatches.
This is no time to batten down the hatches. / Fine Art Photographic/Stone/Getty Images (ship), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (frame)

In a humorous scene from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007), Jack Sparrow and his mutinous helmsman-turned-ally Hector Barbossa stomp down the deck of the Black Pearl barking orders at the crew. “Trim that sail!” one of them shouts. “Slack windward brace and sheet!” another roars. “Haul the pennant line!” they bellow in unison.

Although the scene ultimately revolves around the unsolved question of which one of them is captain, much of the comedy derives from the fact that the film’s audience—largely comprised of 21st-century landlubbers with a limited understanding of sailing jargon—has absolutely no idea what the characters are talking about.

Out on the open ocean, seafarers developed a language totally distinct from the ones spoken on dry land. While a handful of these centuries-old sailing words remain known only to the saltiest of seamen, many terms have since abandoned ship, swimming shoreward and embedding themselves in the vernacular to such an extent that their original, maritime meaning has become obscured behind contemporary, terrestrial connotations. Here are 16 of them.


Starboard denotes the right-hand side of a vessel. Contrary to popular belief, its etymology has nothing to do with constellations and their use in navigation. In truth, starboard derives from the Old English words stéor, meaning “steer,” and bord, meaning “side of a boat.” Because most people are right-handed, the steering oar was generally placed on the right side of a vessel, or starboard for short.


Port refers to the left-hand side of a vessel. Compared to starboard, which is thought to have originated during the 9th century CE, port is a relatively recent invention. Earlier terms include the Old English bæcbord—living on today as Backbord in German and bâbord in French—and laddebord, which means “loading side.” Port is shorthand for portside, as most vessels would load and unload on the left side when docked at ports.


19th-century illustration of capsized boat and three sailors in the water
No ship’s crew would want to be capsized. / clu/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

Every sailor’s worst nightmare, capsizing is the act of a vessel being overturned in the water. Etymologists speculate that the word, which emerged during the late 18th century, derived from the Spanish verb capuzar, meaning “to sink (a ship).” It might also be related to the Spanish cabo, meaning “head,” and chapuzar, meaning “to dive or duck.”


Flotsam is wreckage or cargo from a ship found floating at sea. The word comes from the Anglo-French floteson, derived from the Old French flotaison, meaning “a floating.”


Plastic bottles and debris washed up on a tropical beach
It’s hard to tell whether this marine debris washed up in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument was flotsam or jetsam. / Claire Fackler, NOAA // Public Domain

In contrast to flotsam, jetsam is unwanted materials that have been deliberately thrown overboard by a vessel’s crew—a trivial difference in the eyes of a landlubber, but crucial in the context of maritime law, since the distinction determines who can lay claim to the goods. Jetsam, for its part, came from the Middle English jettison, which in turn came from the Old French getaison, meaning “throwing.”

Batten Down the Hatches

Today, the phrase batten down the hatches roughly translates to “prepare for hard times ahead,” which isn’t far removed from its original meaning. For crewmates, it was a command to secure the tarpaulin or canvas covers over the vessel’s openings (hatches) with wooden pieces called “battens” to shield the ship’s interior from the elements, especially during storms.

Even Keel

An even-keeled person is balanced and won’t tip over if provoked or pushed. Replace person with boat, and you essentially get at what the term was originally used for. In shipbuilding, a keel is the spine of a ship. Connected to the bottom of the hull, its job is to keep the ship afloat and, crucially, balanced. Otherwise, it will capsize. (According to the Oxford English Dictionary, even-keeled was first used as an adjective in an 1869 issue of a local newspaper called the Christian Advocate.)


An illustration of a chip log
An illustration of a chip log from which the term ‘knot’ emerged. / Charles Ellms, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As every sailing student will tell you, a knot is a unit of measurement for the speed of the air and water when at sea. Used on ships and aircrafts alike, a knot equals one nautical mile (or 1.15 statute miles) per hour. The reason it is called a knot is because, during the early 17th century, sailors calculated wind and water speed with a device known as a chip log, a knotted rope with a piece of wood that would be unspooled in the water behind a moving vessel. However many knots were unfurled within a given time would reveal the speed of the ship.


Nowadays, the word cockpit is mostly used to refer to the compartment of the pilot in an air- or spacecraft. Before the invention of airplanes and rockets, however, cockpit was the name of the location on the ship where one could find the cockswain. Derived from the term cock, meaning “small boat,” and swain, meaning “servant,” the cockswain was in charge of controlling a ship’s movement.


An anchorage is a safe area where ships can drop their anchor. In case you’re wondering, this is also the concept to which Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, owes its name. The waters surrounding the state are treacherous, and the coast off what would later become Anchorage, originally called “Knik Anchorage” (after the abandoned village of Knik, across an inlet from present capital), was one of the few places in the area where boats could safely rest.


Before the term footloose became synonymous with the eponymous 1984 dance flick, footloose was used to describe a sail that had not been properly secured to the base of a mast, which is also called the foot, causing it to blow freely in the wind.

Aye, Aye

Illustration of a 19th-century Royal Navy petty officer at a ship's wheel
An illustration of a petty officer in the Royal Navy—the kind of sailor who would shout “Aye, aye!” a lot. / duncan1890/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

Usually followed by sir or captain, this double affirmation was used by sailors to confirm that they had not only understood a command from their superior, but also that they would carry it out without question. Crewing a ship is a complicated and potentially dangerous task, one that requires military-like discipline from all hands.

Crow’s Nest

A common concept in stories about pirates and buccaneers, the crow’s nest is a small platform at the top of a ship’s mast that functions as a lookout station. Legend has it the term derives from a Viking navigational practice. In poor weather conditions, a sailor would climb up to the nest and release a crow or other small bird that—informed by instinct—would fly away in the direction of the nearest shore.


Barnacles on the hull of a boat.
Barnacles on the hull of a boat. / Simon McGill/Moment/Getty Images

Keelhauling, derived from the Dutch word kielhalen, refers to a maritime method of punishment where prisoners were tied to a rope and dragged underneath the hull of a ship at sea which, being covered in sharp barnacles, could cause a slow and extremely painful death. The Lex Rhodia or Maritime Codex, a legal document outlining punishment for piracy in ancient Greece, suggests keelhauling was practiced as early as 700 BCE [PDF].

Letter of Marque

A letter of marque, mentioned several times in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, was a government license issued by the English High Court of Admiralty authorizing privately owned ships (privateers) to attack and capture enemy merchant ships in times of conflict. The earliest letter of marque was issued in 1293, starting a tradition that lived on until privateering was outlawed in 1856.


Something can be called shipshape if it’s neat and orderly. This definition is not far off from the term’s original meaning, which emerged in Bristol, UK. A portmanteau of ship and shapen, which means “to give shape to something,” it arose during a time when Bristol was one of the country’s important port cities and renowned for its high quality of ship maintenance. Back then, a shipshape ship was also said to be of “Bristol fashion.”

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