Salty Language

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.

Author: Liz Hayes

Liz Hayes is the author of “How To Write Faster”. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and children, where she works as an analyst for a think tank inside the capital beltway. She is fascinated by medieval reenactment and writes fanfiction under the penname Uvatha the Horseman.