Nautical Terminology



Seafarers have a language all their own, one with roots going far back into the past. Included here are some of those roots, along with definitions.

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Aboard: On or in a vessel. The word comes from two sources, Latin bordure and Anglo-Saxon bord,both meaning “side,” suggesting a very early mingling of the nautical terminology’s of Northern and Mediterranean sailors.

Aft: An adverb, meaning “toward the stern,” as in “lay aft to the boiler room,” from the Anglo-Saxon aeft, meaning “rear,”

After: An adjective, meaning toward the stern, as in “we’re taking water in the after boiler room.” Sometimes shortened to “aft,” as in “the aft boiler room,” but nautical purists draw the line at such corruption of the language.

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Beakhead: Originally the ram on the prow of a fighting galley. Later, it referred to a small, far-forward, pointed platform. Probably from an old Celtic or Gaulish word bec of beq.

Beam: The width of a vessel; also a structural component. Both Uses come from the Anglo-Saxon word beam, meaning, “tree,”

Below: below decks, as in “going below to f deck,” never “down.”

Binnacle: The stand on which the ship’s compass is mounted. Before the 18th century, the word was bittacle, which came from the French habitacle and the Latin habitaculum, meaning a place of habitation. Before compasses came into use, it referred to a lantern stand.

Black Gang: The engineering crew aboard ship. The term arose in the 19th century and referred then to the boiler-room crew in early coal-burning steamships. The derivation is obvious.

Boat: Any small craft, as opposed to a ship, which carries boats. Also, perhaps in a general spirit of perversity, submariners and naval aviators refer to their respective vessels, submarines and aircraft carriers, as “boats.” The word comes from the Old Norse bato-or Possibly beit-both meaning “boat.”

Bow: Also bows. The forward end of any vessel. The word may come from the Old Icelandic bogr, meaning “shoulder”

Brass Pounder: An early 20th-century term for the ship’s radio operator, from the brass key of his transmitter,

Bridge: The control or command center of any power vessel, The term arose in the mid-19th century, when the “bridge” was a thwartships structure very much like a footbridge stretched across the vessel between or immediately in front of the paddle wheels.

Bulkhead: A wall or partition aboard ship. It comes from the Old Norse balker, meaning “partition”.

Bulwark: A solid rail or wall extending the ships sides above the deck. From Old English and Norse, but of unknown meaning.

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Crow’s Nest: A lookout station positioned at the highest practical point on a ships mast. The origin of “nest” seems obvious, but why crows? One possibility is that Norse ships carried ravens in cages, which were hoisted aloft and released in order to find the direction to the nearest land.

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Davits: A pair of cranes used for hoisting and lowering a ship’s boats. The word came into use in the early 17th century and at that time was spelled “davids,” possibly a reference to their unknown Inventor.

Deck: What you walk on aboard ship. (Never the flood) Originally from the Middle Dutch dec, meaning “roof.”

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Fall: The line on any tackle that is hauled. The tackles on boat davits are known as boat falls, from the Middle English fallen, meaning a fall.

Forecastle: Pronounced “fo’c’s’l”, and Usually now spelled that way. Now the foredeck of a vessel, the term originally referred to a raised and fortified platform at the ship’s bow, Used by archers in combat at sea as early as the 13th century.

Frames: The “ribs” of a vessel. The word comes from the Old Italian fram, meaning “frame.”

Freeboard: That part of a ships sides above water, from the Anglo-Saxon framebord, meaning ‘the frame’s side.”

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Galley: The ship’s kitchen, where food is prepared. The origin is uncertain but may have arisen with the ships cook and helpers thinking of themselves as “galley slaves.” (A galley was originally a fighting ship propelled by oars, from the Latin galea.)

Gangway: One of several words for a shipboard passageway. Also, an opening for gaining access to or from a ship, or a shouted command meaning that someone is coming through. Gang is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “path,” while way is from weg, “Way.”

Grog: Admiral Vernon (1684-1757) wore his cloak of grogram (silk and wool mix) so habitually that his men nicknamed him �Old Grog�. When the Admiral suggested to the British government that they could save money by diluting the Navy rum ration with 50% water, and the law passed to that effect, sailors took to calling the rum ration �Grog�.

Gunwale: Also gunnel. The upper edge of the side of a vessel; a low bulwark. A wale was any of the strakes on the side of a vessel, from walen, an Old English word meaning “ridge.” A “gunwale” was that part of the bulwark structure along the main deck where the guns were carried.

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Head: (1) The uppermost or forward-most part of a ship (or Of some specific part of a ship, such as the masthead, beakhead, stemhead, or whatever. (2) The bathroom. In the age of sail, the crew was quartered forward in the forecastle, and their latrine was located on the beakhead, overhanging the water.

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Ladder: On shipboard, all stairs are called “ladders,” except for literal staircases aboard passenger liners. Most “stairs” on a ship are narrow and nearly vertical, hence the name. From the Anglo-Saxon hiaeder, meaning ladder.

List: Both a noun and a verb referring to a ships Upping to one side or the other due to poor trim, shifting cargo, or sinking. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon lystan, meaning “to lean”.

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Mess: Part of the ship’s company that eats together, (such as the officers’ mess) and, by extension, the place where they eat. On passenger liners, the passengers may still eat in dining rooms, but the crew eats in the mess. from late Latin missum, that which is put on a table.

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Officer: A definition is scarcely necessary, and it’s derivation from the Old French official is obvious. They’ve been with us a long time, though. The word originally comes from the Late Latin officarius.

Overhead: The ceiling aboard ship, (Never “ceiling,” which on a vessel refers to the interior planking or plates affixed to the ship’s frames,)

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Poop Deck: The aft-most, raised weather deck on a ship. The name came from the Middle English poupe, from the Latin puppim, meaning the rear section of a ship The word derived from the Latin Puppis, meaning a doll or small image, The Romans and other ancient seafaring peoples had a small sacred idol or image affixed to the stern, where the deity it represented could watch over the vessel. To be pooped incidentally, meant to have a wave break over the ship’s stern.

Port: (1) The left side of the ship when facing forward, The original term was “larboard” . . . but the possibility of confusing shouted or indistinct orders to steer to larboard with steering to starboard at a crucial moment was both obvious and serious, The term was legally changed to ‘port’ in the British Navy in 1844, and in the American Navy in 1846, The word ‘port’ was taken from the fact that ships traditionally took on cargo over their left sides, i.e., the side of the vessel facing the port. This was probably a holdover from much earlier times when ships had Steering-boards over the right side aft; obviously, you couldn’t maneuver such a vessel starboard side to the pier without crushing your steering oar. (See: Starboard,)
(2) A porthole.

Purser: The clerical officer aboard a passenger or merchant ship. He is in charge of the vessel’s accounts, documents, and payroll, and on Most ships provides a safe for the passengers’ valuables. In the early navy, he was a low-ranking officer in charge of all of the ship’s stores. The word comes from the Latin bursariar, the “burser,” or person in charge of the burse … uh … purse…

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Ship: A general term for any large, ocean-going vessel (as Opposed to a “boat”). Originally, it referred specifically to a vessel with three or more masts, all square-rigged. The origins of the word are long lost, though it is recognizable in all languages descended from the various old Nordic tongues.

Side Boys: Some officers of the admiralty, particularly those of higher rank, would attain considerable body weight in their later years. This made coming aboard a ship a particularly strenuous activity. So, the side boys had the job of hauling the short-o-breath officer inboard if he had difficulties.

SOS: Radio distress signal just coming into Use at the time of the Titanic disaster (and replacing the older CQD). Popularly, it stands for “save our ship,” but the signal was probably originally chosen because the Morse code for “SOS,” three dots, three dashes, three dots, was easy to transmit, easy to remember, and easy to distinguish when received.

Stack: The ship’s funnel on an engine-powered vessel. The origin is probably naval slang,

Starboard: The right side of the ship when facing forward. The name is a very old one, derived from the Anglo-Saxon term Steorbord, or Steering-board, Ancient vessels were steered not by a rudder amidships, but by a long oar or Steering-board extended over the vessel’s right side aft. This became known, in time, as the Steering-board side or starboard.

Stateroom: An officer’s or passenger’s cabin aboard a merchant ship, or the cabin of an officer other than the captain aboard a naval ship, The term may be derived from the fact that in the 16th and 17th centuries, ships often had a cabin reserved for royal or noble passengers.

Steerage: Originally the junior officers’ quarters in a naval vessel, referring to the fact that the ship’s tiller often projected into the compartment, located far aft. In the 19th century, the term came to mean the cheapest passenger quarters aboard a liner, again, often near the ship’s stern where the noise of the ship’s screws and engines was unrelenting,

Stern: The rear of any vessel. The word came from the Norse Stjorn (pronounced “Styorn”), meaning “steering”

Steward: A general term for any member of a ship’s crew involved with Commissary duties or personal services to passengers and/or crew. The term comes from an old Anglo-Saxon term: Styweard or Sty-warden, the keeper-of-the-pigs. Whether the pigs referred to here are the live animals once kept aboard as provisions on long voyages, or a commentary on the habits and personalities of the passengers is a matter of conjecture,

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Tackle: Traditionally pronounced “tay-kle,” it refers to gear on deck in general or, specifically, to blocks and their associated lines-as in “block-and-tackle.” The word comes from the Middle Dutch taekel, meaning tackle, and from which the pronunciation was derived.

Thwart: A seat or crossbeam in a small boat, from the Middle English thwarte, meaning “across,” “Thwartships” means across the ship.

Topside: The part of the ship above water. Generally Used as a way Of saying “on deck” or “up,” as in “lay up topside to see the captain,”

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Weather Deck: Any deck on a ship open and exposed to the… well, weather.

Wings: Extensions to either side of the ship. Specifically, the port and starboard wings of the bridge are open areas to either side of the bridge, Used by lookouts and for Signaling.

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