Sail Away With These 10 Idioms And Words With Nautical Origins

Published on February 8, 2024

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English is a true seafaring language, forged in the journeys of merchants and navies across the world’s seas. Contact with different cultures and languages has left an indelible mark on the language, and also, unsurprisingly, many nautical terms have seamlessly woven themselves into our vocabulary.

Let's dive deep into the origins of many common idioms and words with maritime roots, and discover the captivating stories behind these linguistic tides.


Long shot

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From sea battles to gambling tables, the term "long shot" has sailed through time with its core meaning unaltered. Dating back to the age of naval warfare, it referred to an improbable cannon shot from a considerable distance. Taking into account the inherent inaccuracy of early cannons, and the difficulties of aiming at sea, hitting your target in such conditions was considered more a result of luck than skill. Today, we still use it when the odds seem distant and success is a gamble.


Flotsam and jetsam

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Now mainly used together to refer to useless and discarded objects, these two terms describe slightly different things. Flotsam refers to floating objects that were accidentally lost at sea, or debris from a shipwreck that floats, while jetsam is deliberately thrown overboard. Interestingly, these words are still part of the legal lingo of maritime law.


Feeling blue

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Ever felt slightly blue on a cloudy day? Well, you can thank sailors for that, too! While experiencing melancholy or feeling homesick during prolonged journeys was a common occurrence among seafarers, it turns out that the word initially referred to the blue flags that a crew would fly after the death of a captain or officer at sea. Eventually, the color became strongly associated with feelings of sadness and grief.


Taken aback

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When the wind unexpectedly shifts and blows the sails flat or against their masts, it is said that the ship is "taken aback." The term originated around the year 1200, derived from the Old English phrase " on bæc, " meaning "at or on the back." In everyday language, it refers to being surprised or caught off guard.


Showing one’s true colors

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Sailors once proudly displayed their ship's flags to indicate their allegiance. However, some would deceptively fly a false flag (another phrase that became part of our modern vocabulary) until they were close enough to attack. It was generally accepted, even among pirates, that a ship should not fire without showing her true colors. Today, " showing one's true colors " means revealing one's real intentions. The phrase " to pass with flying colors " has a similar origin, as ships would hoist their regimental flags after winning a battle.



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When a ship keeps a safe distance from the shore to avoid underwater dangers, it's said to be "loof" or windward. It’s opposite would be _" alee ."_The sailing technique of keeping aloof by steering away from the shoreeventually influenced other uses of the word, regarding someone keeping physical or emotional distance from others.


By and large

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This expression combines " by the wind " and " large ," two nautical terms that refer to different sailing directions. To sail "by the wind" means sailing into the wind, or as close to the wind as possible, while sailing "large" means to sail in the opposite direction of the wind, or as far from it as possible. Eventually, the combined terms evolved to mean "on the whole", or "considering all factors."


In the doldrums

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Sailing through the equatorial regions of the globe, where sometimes there is little to no wind, became known as being " in the doldrums ." Sail-powered ships would often become stuck in this region for weeks at a time until a sufficiently strong current of air could take them out of the dangerously quiet waters. Now, the phrase symbolizes a period of depressed inactivity or general stagnation.


Knowing the ropes

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Sailing novices of yore had to learn the numerous ropes and rigging of ships to become able crew members. Learning to identify the many different types of ropes, knots, and sails aboard a ship was a complex task that required time and practice, but it was a crucial learning process. Thus, knowing the ropes became synonymous with being knowledgeable and experienced.


Turn a blind eye

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This phrase has quite a humorous origin story. Reportedly, Admiral Horatio Nelson gave birth to this expression during the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, where he literally turned a blind eye to orders by putting his telescope to his blind eye, ignoring a flagship’s signals to withdraw from the battlefield. Today, the phrase signifies willful ignorance, or pretending to not see something.


11 Mischievous Words For Spelling Bees

Published on February 8, 2024

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The English language boasts an expansive vocabulary that can be both a source of delight and astonishment. While some words roll off the tongue easily, others pose a formidable challenge. Some terms are as short as a single letter while others are so long that don't even seem real.

We have assembled a humble list for your perusal, ranging from the modest to the ridiculously complex. Take a peep and find out if you know any of these terms!



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Perhaps harder to pronounce than to spell, "mischievous" is a word often associated with playful pranks and harmless trouble-making. It derives from the Old French meschever , meaning "to go wrong" or "to come to an end."

While the earliest usage of the word denoted misfortune or disaster, its meaning gradually evolved to describe the playful malice we now recognize. Over time, the word's usage expanded to encompass not just actions but also the personalities of those who engaged in such pranks. Today, the word retains its playful connotations, evoking images of mischievous sprites and mischievous children.



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A very seldomly used word, "synecdoche" is often relegated to literary analysis and linguistic discussions. It comes from the Greek term synnekdokhe , which means "taking together."

We can say that synecdoche is a figure of speech that employs a part to represent the whole. Its earliest recorded usage dates back to Aristotle's Rhetoric , where he identified synecdoche as one of several rhetorical devices that enhance language's expressiveness.



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Maybe you remember this one from your younger years. "Kaleidoscopic" is a word that evokes images of ever-changing patterns and vibrant colors. Its roots go back to the Greek words kalos (beautiful), eidos (form), and skopein (to see).

This blend of words captures the essence of kaleidoscopic, a term that describes something constantly changing and ever-new, like the amazing patterns in a kaleidoscope. The first known usage appeared in the early 19th century, coinciding with the invention of the kaleidoscope, a toy that captivated audiences with its ever-shifting displays of colorful reflections.



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As we make progress into more complex waters, we come across the term "stultiloquence" , a word often relegated to the realm of formal discourse and literary criticism. It comes from the Latin terms stultus (foolish) and loqui (to speak). This fusion captures the essence of stultiloquence, a term used to describe foolish or meaningless speech.

The word was employed to criticize pretentious or empty rhetoric, devoid of substance or logical coherence. It should come as no surprise that this term is often associated with political speeches, academic jargon, and self-important pronouncements, where the speaker's primary goal seems to be to impress or intimidate rather than to inform or enlighten.



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You might know this one because of the sauce, used for foods and cocktails like the Bloody Mary. "Worcestershire" traces its roots to the Old English term wigraceaster , meaning "fortress of the Wiccii," a tribe that inhabited the region in the early Middle Ages.

Today, Worcestershire is renowned for its picturesque countryside, its literary heritage, and its culinary specialties, including the world-famous sauce. The word "Worcestershire" is often used to describe something dark, savory, and complex in flavor.



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The word "sesquipedalian" comes from the Latin term sesquipedalis , which means "a foot and a half long." Understandably so, the term is used to describe something that is excessively long or polysyllabic, often to the point of being cumbersome or pretentious.

Sesquipedalianism is the habit of using overly long or complex words and is seen as a sign of pedantry or a misguided attempt to appear intelligent. Ironically, the same thing could be said about anyone who used this word.



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One of those adjectives that are almost completely confined to the realm of scientific or academic discourse, "autochthonous" traces its roots to the Greek term autokhthon which means "sprung from the earth itself."

This term describes something that is native or indigenous to a particular place and it dates back to ancient Greece, where it was employed to describe the original inhabitants of a region, often as a way of asserting their rightful claim to the land. These days autochthonous is most commonly used in science fields to describe organisms or populations that have originated in a specific location and have not been introduced from elsewhere.



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The ancient Greeks had a knack for long and complicated terms, as testified by their presence in this list. "Triskaidekaphobia" traces its roots to the Greek words treiskaideka (meaning "thirteen") and phobos (meaning "fear"). This fusion creates a term that represents an intense and irrational fear of the number 13.

While triskaidekaphobia is not a life-threatening condition, it can impact a person's quality of life. Treatment typically involves therapy, which helps individuals identify and change their negative thoughts and beliefs about the number 13.



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The medical world is also a generous purveyor of complicated terms. A "sphygmomanometer" is a device used to measure blood pressure. The first sphygmomanometers were developed by German physician Adolf Kuessmaul and Italian physician Scipione Riva-Rocci.

Sphygmomanometers are essential tools in medical practice, allowing healthcare professionals to assess cardiovascular health and detect potential hypertension, a condition characterized by persistently high blood pressure. The device consists of an inflatable cuff wrapped around the upper arm, an inflatable bulb that pumps air into the cuff, and a gauge that displays the blood pressure measurement.



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The Ancient Greeks and medicine come together for the next overly complicated word: "otorhinolaryngological." It traces its roots to three distinct Greek terms: otos (meaning "ear"), rhinos (meaning "nose"), and larynx (meaning "throat"), with the suffix -logos meaning "study." This nicely captures the essence of otorhinolaryngological, which refers to the medical specialty encompassing the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disorders of the ear, nose, and throat.



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Often regarded as one of the longest words in the English language, "floccinaucinihilipilification" comes from the Latin words floccus (meaning "a flock of wool"), naucum (meaning "a trifle"), nihil (meaning "nothing"), pilum (meaning "a hair"), and facere (meaning "to make"). All in all, a fancy and extremely long word used to describe the act of treating something as worthless or insignificant. Although, one might argue that no one worthy of such a complex adjective can be described as insignificant.

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