nautical glossary


Seafaring, like all professions and trades, has over the years developed a rich vocabulary which is often incomprehensible to the outsider. It hoped that this glossary will offer to the non-seagoing reader something of an explanation of the more commonly used terminology, and at the same time provide a touch of nostalgia for former seafarers.

ABOARD - piece of wood

ADRIFT - hazard following heavy snowfall

AFLOAT - petty cash holding by the Purser

AFT - frequently (Scottish)

AGENT - fine fellow (eg our Captain’s a gent)

AHEAD - lavatory on a Royal Navy ship

ALOFT - top part of a house

AMIDSHIPS - when you find yourself surrounded by lots and lots of other ships

ANCHOR - 1960s teen idol

ANCHORAGE - city in Alaska

ARTICLES - features in a magazine or newspaper

ASTERN - opposite to Agent (eg he’s a stern Captain)

A’THWART - doubt (eg a’thwart you ordered the Pilot for 1600 hours)

AVAST - huge

AWASH - basic service provided by local laundrette

BACK SPRING - reverse long jump

BAIL - temporary release of accused person awaiting trial, usually supported by a sum of money

BANK - financial services business

BAR - establishment serving alcoholic beverages

BARQUE - canine sound

BATTEN - stick used by conductor to direct an orchestra

BEACH - deciduous tree, common in temperate Europe

BEAM - normal reaction on notification of homeward passage

BOARD OF TRADE SPORTS - government sponsored fitness programme

BOAT STATIONS - rail terminals serving ferry ports eg Dover Marine, Harwich International (Parkestone Quay)

BOLLARDS - expletive

BOND - secret agent in popular cinema (007)

BOOT TOPPING - type of polish for footwear

BOUND - walk or run with leaping strides

BOW - formal greeting from a ship’s Master

BOW WAVE - greeting from the sharp end of a ship

BRIDGE - card game involving four players in two partnerships

BROACH - ornament fastened to clothing with a hinged pin and clasp

BULWARK - ambling steer

BULKHEAD - hangover

BUNK - seafarer’s yarn

BUNKER - obstacle on golf course

BUOY - junior ordinary seaman

BUREAU - writing desk with drawers

CABLE LENGTH - number of words in a telegram

CAPE - a sleeveless cloak

CAPTAIN’S TIGER - ship’s cat

CAST OFF - removal of plaster support applied to injury after a Fall (which see)

CHANNEL MARKER - tells you to which station your TV is tuned

CHINE - steep-sided coastal gorge where a river flows to the sea

CHIPPING GANG - part of the galley team

C.I.F. - a household cleaner

CLEW - essential element of a crossword puzzle

CLINKER - the ash and other residue that remain after coal has been burned

COAMING - important part of hair care

COAST - taking things easy

COMPASS - directional information (eg we got to compass the Crosby Light Ship before we enter the Mersey proper)

CONTAINER SHIP - estimate of dimensions (eg this lock should container ship of 20,000 tons)

COUNTER - flat topped fitment in a Bar (which see)

COURSE - similar to Astern (which see) only rougher

CROSS ALLEYWAY - the opposite of a Happy Alleyway

CRUISE - American film actor

CUNARD FEET - unit of linear measure once found on passenger ships of Cunard Line

CUSTOMS - commonly accepted manners of behaving in a particular society

D.B.S. - high performance sports car produced by Aston Martin

DECCA - record label which signed The Rolling Stones

DECK - pack of playing cards

DECK-HEAD SURVEY - important inspection of ship construction

DEGREES - lubricant (eg Chief Engineer to Junior Engineer: make sure you put degrees on de bearings)

DEE ESTUARY - de mouth of the river

DEEP TANKS - profound gratitude

DHOBI - police captain in television detective series Starsky and Hutch

DINGHY - sound made by the ship’s bell (eg dinghy-dinghy)

DISPLACEMENT - accidental loss (eg if you can’t find your ship you’ve displaced it)

D.M.A. - doesn’t mean anything

DOCK - ship’s surgeon

DODGER - workshy member of the crew

DONKEYMAN - owner of traditional beach attraction at the seaside

DOUBLE DR - two ship’s surgeons

DOUBLE HEADER - heraldic eagle, most commonly associated with the Byzantine Empire


DOWN TO HER MARKS - gone shopping at M&S

DRAUGHT - beer served from a cask

DRAUGHT MARKS - frothy deposits on the inside of a beer glass

DRY DOCK - ship’s surgeon (US Navy)

ECHO SOUNDER - street vendor of a local newspaper

E.R. TELEGRAPH - uncertainty when buying a newspaper (eg Er, Telegraph please)

FALL - result of poorly executed Back Spring (which see)

FASHION PLATE - image published in Vogue magazine

FENDER - famous make of guitar

FERRY - popular vocalist with Roxy Music

FGN - Fractional Gaussian Noise

FIDDLE - musical instrument

FLYING BRIDGE - card game favoured by Royal Navy aircrew

F.O.B. - type of Watch (which see)

FO’C’SLE - reference to family (eg better write home soon or the fo’c’sle wonder where you are)

FOREPEAK - feature of uniform cap

FORETOP - one of the Motown vocal group

FREEBOARD - gratuitous hotel accommodation

GAFF - residential accommodation ashore between voyages

GALLEY - initial proof type setting in printing

GRIPE - to complain

GROYNE - part of one’s anatomy

GYRO REPEATER - very active disco dancer

HAND - end part of the arm below the wrist

HATCH - composer of theme tunes for Crossroads and Neighbours etc

HAUL - area just inside entrance door of one’s Gaff (which see)

HAWSE PIPE - sore throat

HAWSER - brother of Hengist in Anglo-Saxon legend

HEAVE HO - hughie, mal de mer etc

HEEL - part of a shoe

HELM - tree common to the East End of London

HOLD - to grip or grasp

HOME TRADE - selling goods on eBay

HOOK - maritime character in Peter Pan

HOVE TO - route from Brighton’s near neighbour

HT - Hyper Text

HULL - important North Sea port

HULL DOWN - unfavourable local half time score

INDENTURE - procedure offered by a Dentist

JERQUE NOTE - sound of a sharp, sudden movement

JUMPER STAY - canine command (eg Jumper - stay. Good dog)

JURY RIGGED - illegal method of obtaining a favourable verdict in court

KEEL - a University in the West Midlands

KETCH - to seize or take hold of

LAUNCH - midday meal aboard ship

LEE - town in Lancashire

LIFEBOAT TICKET - a recommended advance purchase

LINER - fine paintbrush

LIST - composer of classical music

LIVER BIRD - one of the 1960s female beat group The Liverbirds

LOCK - mechanism for securing a door

LOCKER - person who secures a door

LOG EXTRACT - useful sap (eg resin, latex)

LOOM - machine on which Shoals (which see) are weaved

MANIFEST - clear or obvious

MASTER (THE) - arch villain in Doctor Who

MATE - non-vegetarian sandwich filling

MONKEY ISLAND - attraction at Knowsley Safari Park

MOOR - persons required to make up a docking party (eg the moor the merrier)

MOORED - subject of Victorian parlour song

NAVIGATE - labourers entrance

NEAPS - turnips (Scottish)

NUMBER 10s - aspirations of senior politicians

OAR - material from which a metal can be extracted

OUTTURN - action occuring at closing time

PAINTER - ship’s artist

PEGGY - abbreviation of Margaret

PH - scale used to specify the acidity or basicity of an aqueous solution

PIER - member of the upper House of Parliament

PIER HEAD - scan the horizon over the sharp end

PITCH - venue for cricket match, football match etc

PLIMSOLE MARK - footprint left by a pair of pumps (trainers)

PLOT - sequence of events in a play or novel

PORT - a multi-purpose word (eg wine, arms drill, computer feature)

PROP - portable object used on the set of a play

PUMP ROOM - shoe locker on a tanker

QUAY - instrument for opening or closing a Lock (which see)

RADAR - character in the television series M*A*S*H

RAKE - garden implement

REVIE - former manager of Leeds United FC

ROLL - bread item from the galley

R.P.M. - abbreviated reference to the First Lord of the Treasury (eg RPM is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson) *

RUNNING LIGHT - jogging down to your ship in a pair of shorts

SAIL - store event where items are at reduced prices

SAILING - 1970s international hit for Rod Stewart

SAMSON POST - a Biblical command (eg Delilah: Samson post this letter on your way to the barbers please)

SEAS - to grab hold of

SHALLOW DRAUGHT - short measure at the Bar (which see)

SHEER - garden implement

SHIPPING THEM GREEN - carriage arrangements for unripe bananas

SHIPWRIGHT - maritime article published in a magazine or journal

SHOAL - garment worn by female seafarers on chilly nights

SHORE - confident or certain

SHORT STAY - quick turnround in port

SIGNING ON WEATHER - subscribing to the Met Office mobile phone app

SINGLED UP - one’s situation after receiving a Dear John letter

SKEG - seaside town on the east coast of England

SLING - bandage-like support for injury to arm following a Fall (which see)

SPARKS - loyalty card introduced by M&S

SPRING OFF - not a good long range weather forecast for next year

STABILIZER - substance which prevents the breakdown of emulsions

STEAMING TIME - period during which the ship’s bar is open

STEER - bovine quadruped

STEERING GEAR - approved clothing worn by the helmsman

STOKER - author of Dracula

STOW - public school in Buckinghamshire

STROP - ill temper (eg don’t go near him, he’s got a right strop on)

TACK - equipment for horse riding

TIDE - domestic laundry detergent

TOPPING LIFT - expression of appreciation for high class elevator (eg what a topping lift)

TOW - a digit of the foot

TRIM - light haircut

TRIP - stumble over an object on the deck

TRUCK - medium to large road haulage vehicle

UNDER WAY - incorrect measurement by local trader

UNION PURCHASE - financial transaction with staff group

WAKE - recover to consciousness, especially after conducting a Deck-Head Survey (which see)

WARP - hyperspace propulsion system pioneered by Dr Zefram Cochrane

WARPING WINCH - faster than light travel device

WATCH - a small timepiece, worn on the wrist or on a chain in the pocket

WHARF - the Klingon officer in Star Trek

WHEELHOUSE - original name given to a caravan

WINDLASS - very calm day

WRECK (CONSPIC) - how you look after a night out with the boys

YARD - enclosed exterior area of Gaff (which see)

ZULU TIME - application of GMT in parts of southern Africa



this page is based on a glossary produced many years ago in Liverpool
which has been extended and expanded by additional material
with help from the Oxford English Dictionary
it is unclear whose or what original © and any breach of copyright is unintentional
* ad officium primus inter pares, pro tempore
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this page last updated 18 April 2022

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