One of my characters is a mariner and sea captain. I wanted to give him a voice such that, when he spoke, readers would think of the sea. To distinguish his voice from that of other characters, I filled his speech with nautical expressions. I felt that I couldn’t have him say, “You salty dog” or “Shiver me timbers”, because it would sound stupid. I had to be subtle.
I started to collect nautical expressions. I began by looking online. Then I carried around an index card and jotted them down whenever they came up in ordinary speech. It turns out that English is filled with nautical expressions. They’re so common, most of the time we don’t even notice them.
Examples of nautical expressions:
|Above board – on deck, not hidden|
|Any port in a storm – when you’re desperate, any haven is a good one|
|Bail out – get the water out of a boat prevented from sinking|
|Don’t make heavy weather of it – slang for “Don’t fuss”|
|Get on board (with) – share space with, agree with|
|Get under way (weigh) – to weigh anchor, to raise the anchor|
|Give a wide birth to – stay away from other ships|
|In tow – something being led by another|
|Keep a weather eye – watch carefully (for storms)|
|Lower the boom – to risk being hit by a swinging boom, to be scolded severely|
|Off course – going in the wrong direction, not following the compass|
|On an even keel – calm|
|Plumbing the depths – use a lead weight on a rope to measure water depth|
|Run aground – get stuck on a sandbar by accident|
|Rudderless – without a leader|
|Shore up – to support with a beam of timber, to prevent from failing|
|Show him the ropes – show someone which ropes operate which sails|
|Take the wind out of his sails – dishearten|
|Steer clear of – stay away from other ships|
|To the bitter end – the end of the rope that’s braided so it won’t fray|
These are nautical expressions used into ordinary conversation, and may be slipped into dialog unnoticed, yet each of them originated with ships and the sea.