How well do you know your sailor slang?

How well do you know your sailor slang?

“I couldn’t even fathom the scuttlebutt I heard at work today. Everyone is usually so groggy on Mondays, but their department completed the project with flying colors!”

Did you catch any sailor slang terms in the above sentence? If you’ve been sailing in the Merchant Marines for any amount of time, you should have caught one or two. But some of the terms above are used so much by landlubbers that you might not even know they originated on the seven seas.

In the English language, we have tons of informal words and phrases that came from sailor slang, or nautical slang. This may seem shocking at first. But it’s not so surprising when you consider the close relationship we as humans have had to the sea for much of our existence. It’s been a primary source of food in many parts of the world for thousands of years. It has also been a vehicle for trade and exploration.

Much of the sailor slang terms used by English-speaking people today were first used by British sailors in the 18th and 19th centuries. Usually, these slang terms reflected shipboard conditions.

In this Out2Sea blog post, we wanted to see how well you know your sailor slang. Of course, there are certain terms all sailors should know, but their origins might surprise you!  


Slang words and phrases all sailors should know

For instance, everyone who has sailed in the Merchant Marines knows that “scuttlebutt” means gossip. But did you know that the term refers to the cask of drinking water they kept on ships in the 1800s? Yes, before water cooler talk there was scuttlebutt discussion.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “son of a gun” as well, if you’ve been in the industry long enough. It’s worth noting that the original usage of the term is no longer relevant. Back in the day, when a woman gave birth on a ship, the most likely place for her to have the baby was on the gun deck. Her child, once it was born, would be given the label “son of a gun.” Now, the phrase is often muttered under the breath, almost as a curse.

If you don’t know the term “landlubber,” there’s something wrong. Most seafarers know that it’s supposed to refer to a poor seaman, or just a person who never goes out to sea. But have you ever looked into the origins of the word? As it turns out, the word “lubber” dates back to the 14th-century and was used to refer to a stupid, or clumsy person.

Terms you didn’t know were sailor slang

But what about those words or phrases you hear thrown around in everyday speech – words you didn’t even know were originally sailor slang terms? There are plenty of them. Try these for starters:


When used in normal speech, it means weak, ill or dazed. It was first used as a nickname for a British commander in the 1740s, who wore a cloak made of grogram, a coarse cloth. This same commander also diluted his crew’s ration of rum with water. The mixture became known as grog, which apparently made seafarers feel a little under the weather!


If you can’t fathom something, that means it’s beyond your comprehension or your imagination. You probably know that it’s also a nautical unit used to measure depth. So when sailors originally started using the term “fathom” as a slang word, they probably meant a measurement of some kind.

flying colors

Flying Colors

The phrase, “You passed with flying colors,” is quite a popular one in the English language. But did you know that it was first used to refer to the colors on a ship? When ships would pass each other at sea, they’d often put up flags belonging to their home countries, in order to identify themselves. So they would, quite literally, pass each other with “flying colors.”


It’s one thing to be tired. But when you’re absolutely drained, you might say that you’re “pooped” or “pooped out.” In the sailing world, being “pooped” came to mean washed out, or overtaken by the sea. The highest deck on a ship was always referred to as the poop deck, and if a large wave overtook the ship, sailors would say the deck had been “pooped.” Yes, it was tiring business cleaning a pooped deck!

Unfortunately, there are far more sailor slang terms out there than we could fit into one blog post. But if any of these words or phrases come up during a conversation with a landlubber, you now have some interesting tidbits of knowledge to share!

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