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The Nautical Roots of 11 Common Phrases

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1. To be taken aback


Aback” is what sailors say when the wind changes suddenly and flattens the sails against the mast. Strong gusts of wind can even blow the ship backward—thus, “taken aback.”




2. Cut and run 


It’s believed that this phrase originates from sailors who were in such a hurry that they cut the anchor rather than hauling it up, then “ran” with the wind.




3. Pass with flying colors


When the English Navy would sail back London with their colorful flags flying, citizens knew the latest battle had been successful.




4. Hand over fist


Although we typically use this phrase to refer to making money, it really just means to make fast and steady progress, like when you quickly haul something up with a rope, hand over fist.




5. Left high and dry


No support? No resources? Then you just might be high and dry, like a ship that’s been grounded because the tide went back out.




6. Three sheets to the wind


The ropes that control the tension in the sails are called “sheets.” There are four of them, but if one of the ropes isn’t under control, it will send the other three—and both sails—“to the wind,” making the boat lurch around like Captain Jack Sparrow after a rum binge.




7. Under the weather


Ailing sailors were sent to recover below deck away from the wind and rain—or “under the weather.”




8. By and large


Both “by” and “large” are nautical terms. To sail “by” means to sail a ship very close to the line of the wind, and to sail “large” means the wind is on the quarter. Sailing “by and large” made it easier for the crew to keep the ship on course, even in difficult conditions.




9. Slush fund


When ship cooks finished making meals and had a sludgey mix of grease and fat left over, they would take the slush and store it until they got to port. Once they got there, the cooks sold the fat to candle makers for some extra cash.




10. Hard and fast


A ship that's been beached so firmly that it's stuck probably got jammed in the sand hard and fast. Now it's immovable and unchangeable—just like hard and fast rules.




11. Run a tight ship


An orderly ship is one with tight ropes and secure rigging.


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