Common English phrases born in the nautical world

Last week we wrote about what to do when your boat is ‘in irons’. Surprisingly, quite a few boat lovers didn’t even know what the term meant, which made us want to dig deeper.

We discovered it referred to people being ‘shackled’, since prisoners ‘in irons’ were unable to move – just like a boat caught with its sail up that has lost wind power.

While we were researching the origin of the term ‘in irons’, we stumbled on other phrases used every day that originate from the nautical world.

Here are some of our favourites!


When something is ‘very full’ it’s chock-a-block. But where on earth does the term come from? Well, it’s thought to originate from ‘chock-full’ (choke-full), which means ‘full to choking’. Later, the term was used to identify wood wedges used to stop objects moving around.

‘Chocks’ were often found on ships, and are referenced as far back as 1769 by William Falconer in An universal dictionary of the marine, which defines it as a, ‘sort of wedge used to confine a cask or other weighty body… when the ship is in motion.’

But what about the block? According to Meriam Webster Dictionary, a ‘block and tackle’ is a type of pulley used on ships to hoist up sails. When the sail was pulled all the way up, with no leeway in the rope and the blocks jammed tight, they were considered ‘chock a block’.

That’s why we say something is ‘chock a block’, when it can’t go any further or is really full.


It’s obvious that if you drink too much alcohol (AKA grog) you get groggy. But, where does the word grog come from? Well, grog is meant to be a simple alcoholic drink containing water and spirits.

A somewhat famous seafarer known as Admiral Edward Vernon (who lived from 1684 to 1757) had a penchant for wearing grogram jackets, made from a coarsely woven material called, you guessed it, ‘grogram’ (originally, ‘gros-grain’).

Admiral Vernon also had a penchant for watering down his crew’s rum to stop them from getting too drunk at sea. Hence the term, ‘groggy’. The word itself was first used in print in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1770. The piece, titled, 80 names for having drunk too much said:

Groggy; this is a West-Indian Phrase; rum and water, without sugar, being called grogg.

The cut of your jib

Liking the ‘cut of one’s jib’ refers to liking another person’s manner, style or personality. But, as you can probably tell, the phrase has nautical origins. As you know, the jib is the triangular sail typically used at the front of a sail boat.

In the past, different countries had different styles of sails, so the origin of a ship could be worked out by the kind of jib it had. As a result, sailors could identify and proffer their opinions on the nationality of a sail boat, based on its jib.

The idiom was made popular in the 19th Century by Sir Walter Scott, who used it in the 1824 novel St Ronan’s Well.  Sir Scott wrote:


If she disliked what the sailor calls the cut of their jib.

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