We use phrases like chock-a-block and the calm before the storm without giving them a second thought – but most of us have no idea they have nautical origins.

In fact, our recent poll of 2,000 UK adults found that although 95% of us have used a phrase with seafaring roots, a whopping three-quarters of respondents had no idea so much of our language is influenced by sailors of yesteryear.

We found that more than a quarter of people use phrases such as high and dry and under the weather "very often" in conversation, despite not knowing their history.

Brits’ use of nautical phrases is hardly surprising given our love of sailing - and the fact that we're an island nation. A quarter of survey respondents said they would love to own a boat.

So, how well do you know your snug from your slush fund? We’ve rounded up some of the most popular nautical sayings and delved into their history.

Slush fund

While the modern definition of slush fund is a reserve of money kept aside for corrupt or illegal purposes, its original meaning is a lot more salubrious. Slush referred to the fat (or tallow – similar to suet or lard) that was skimmed off the top of a pot of boiling meat. It would be collected and sold on to merchants such as candlestick makers for money. The proceeds of this would be used as petty cash to make purchases for the crew.

At a loose end

These days, at a loose end refers to a state of exasperated boredom or finding yourself without much, if anything, to do. And the historical meaning isn’t too far off – although it's a little more literal. Indeed, when sailors on board a ship found themselves with nothing to do, the captain would give them tasks to keep them busy. One of these was to check the ends of all the ropes that supported the ship’s mast to check they hadn’t come loose, hence the description.


Depending on its usage, snug in its modern-day form can indicate various things. As a noun, it’s a small, cosy room in a home or pub. Used as an adjective, it describes the feeling of being warm and comfortable, or something fitting very closely or tightly, such as an item of clothing. However, if you go back 100 years, the word had another meaning altogether, relating to a ship’s seaworthiness. If a vessel was said to be snug, it was in good condition to sail.


In a modern-day context, Chock-a-block means that something is stuffed full. For example, a room crammed with people, or a car park with no space for your vehicle. Meanwhile, in the seafaring days of old, the “block” referred to blocks used as part of a pulley system to haul items on board a ship. When the ropes of the pulley could go no further, the blocks were right up next to each other and therefore said to be chockablock.

Sling your hook

Most of us associate this phrase with telling someone to politely (or maybe not so politely!) go away. And this is not too dissimilar to the original meaning of the word. The hook in this case refers to the anchor on a ship, while the sling kept the anchor in place when the ship was stationary. If the captain wished to move on, a crew member would “sling” the “hook”, lift anchor and set sail.

By and large

You’re almost certainly familiar with the phrase by and large! But are you aware of its nautical origins? Perhaps not. The word “by” once meant “in the direction of”, while the word “large” referred to when the wind was blowing behind the ship. By and large therefore denoted when the ship sailed directly into the wind.

Batten down the hatches

These days, this saying is most often used metaphorically to suggest preparation ahead of an incoming crisis. However, in the early 19th century, when “hatch” referred to the doors on the ship’s deck and “batten” was the word for a long rod or pole, it was more physical in meaning. If the ship’s crew could sense a storm coming, they’d pull all the doors closed to avoid flooding – hence to batten down the hatches. Today, you might associate this saying with using a pole to open up a trapdoor in your ceiling to access loft or attic space.

Learning the ropes

This means to get your head around the basics of a job or career in a modern sense. And the origins of the phrase are not much different. Newcomers to the ship – usually younger sailors who had not yet been on many voyages – were tasked with getting to grips with the fundamentals of tying knots in ropes on the ship. Hence, learning the ropes.

Square meal

If a meal is “square” in a contemporary sense, it will be hearty, honest, and satisfying – something to soothe the soul after a long day’s work. It’s said that the Royal Navy once served meals to its sailors on square plates – which gives the term a very neat meaning!

Test Your Nautical Knowledge With Our Quiz 

Have we whetted your appetite to learn more about nautical terminology? If so, why not try our quiz and test your knowledge? Beware, it might leave you high and dry!