Expressions we use today that came from sailing

Above Board

Pirates would often hide much of their crew below the deck. Ships that displayed crew openly on the deck were thought to be honest merchant ships known as “above board.”

As the Crow Flies

The most direct route from one place to another without detours. Before modern navigational systems existed, British vessels customarily carried a cage of crows. These birds fly straight to the nearest land when released at sea, thus indicating where the nearest land was.

Fits the Bill

A Bill of Lading was used to acknowledge receipt of goods and the promise to deliver them to their destination in good or like condition. Upon delivery, the goods were checked against the Bill of Lading to see if all was in order. If so, they “fit the bill.”

In the Doldrums

Doldrums is the name of an area of the ocean on either side of the equator. This area is known to have unstable and light wind conditions. A sailing ship caught in the Doldrums can be stranded due to lack of wind. Today the term is used to describe someone as being in low spirits, stagnated or depressed.

No Room to Swing a Cat

During the whipping punishment using the “cat o’ nine tails,” all hands were called on deck to witness. With a full crew, the deck could be so crowded that the cat o’ nine tails was difficult to use without hitting other crew members. In other words, there was “no room to swing a cat.” Today the expression is used to indicate crowded or packed surroundings.


Today this word means superior or fashionable and expensive. The word originated in colonial Boston where the trunks of wealthy passengers would carry the label “POSH,” which stood for “Portside Out Starboard Home.” This instructed the luggage handlers where to place the luggage to avoid intense sun exposure.


This word is most commonly used to describe a tall building. It originates from the term for a small, triangular-shaped sail that was set above the other sails on the old square-rigged vessels. They were so tall they seemed to scrape the sky.