Know the ropes – The English language and the sea

Date posted
06 Oct 2017

Britain has a worldwide reputation as a seafaring nation. Being an island, perhaps it is not surprising that its people have always been curious about what lies beyond the waves.

Seafaring has played a central role in shaping the history of this country, from the days of exploration and empire, to the epic naval battles of the Second World War.

Nowhere is the influence of the maritime way of life more apparent than in the everyday phrases found in the English language. Below is a list of some of these phrases and their meaning, all of which have a nautical origin:


Give a wide berth – A reasonable distance

High and dry – Stranded, without help or hope of recovery

Panic stations – A state of high alert

All hands on deck – To have every member of a team/group involved

Plain sailing – Smooth and easy progress

Loose cannon – An unpredictable or reckless person or thing

Know the ropes – To have an understanding of how to do something

All at sea – In a state of confusion or disorder

To run a tight ship – Strict management of an organisation or operation

Batten down the hatches – To prepare for trouble


These phrases still endure, and they demonstrate how shared past experiences of a nation’s people can shape how they communicate today.