I have joked that whenever I don't know the etymology of a word, I reply "of indeterminate nautical origin" (that's right - it's party 24/7 at my crib).

What is it about the nautical tradition in the 18th century that seems to have spawned a wildly out-sized portion of our vocabulary? It's not as if there weren't other highly specialized professions with their own jargon.

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    This seems to be answerable only speculatively (unless someone has done a massive corpus study comparing nautical, medical, engineering, carpentry, etc. vocabularies).
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 13, 2011 at 15:22
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    "Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves..." Given that English's traditional home - Britain - has long been a great nautical nation (due in large part to its being an island and sailing being needed to explore beyond), is it any wonder that many of our terms are of the sea?
    – Jez
    Commented Sep 13, 2011 at 15:29
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    It's important to know the ropes when answering a question like this so I'm going to give it a wide berth. I did push the boat out and look at this interesting article: phrases.org.uk/meanings/nautical-phrases.html but in terms of providing answers it left me high and dry.
    – Waggers
    Commented Sep 13, 2011 at 15:29
  • I would be curious whether this was equally true in British and American English.
    – Bryan Agee
    Commented Sep 13, 2011 at 15:48
  • One would think that BE would be more so, but with AE as chock-a-block (nautical origin there) with nautical terms, I can't imagine that it's significantly so. I have an untested hypothesis, that it's not merely British naval culture, but specifically the naval culture of the 18th century that spawned these phrases, given the technological nature of most of the terms...I'm not sure what that explains. Commented Sep 13, 2011 at 15:55

2 Answers 2


Just speculating widely here.

Sailing was big in the 18C, you think the dot-com boom was big? That's nothing to the spice trade, Dutch east India company, Canada (and some other non-descript place just to the south). Since it boomed fairly quickly and under some sort of central control there was a standardization of terms. Carpentry or blacksmithing might need a lot of technical terms, but every village probably had it's own word for each tool while the navy training meant that sailing terms were standardized, at least in English.

There are a LOT of technical terms on a sailing boat, they look simple but they are insanely complex to operate and since the command protocol consists of shouting at people the terms have to be precise, definite and standard.

It was also the time of a great boost in literature and since sailing and maritime trade was the exciting big thing of the day it was a natural setting for your literary hero. There are probably lots of technical terms required to build a medieval cathedral, but there wasn't a big market for 13C romantic fiction about the workers.

ps. And of course sailors had contact with other countries, so a lot of foreign (especially Indian and Chinese) words would have been first encountered by sailors and then incorporated into their language and jargon.

  • Maybe this is speculation, but it's great stuff...especially the point about the plethora of terms used to run a ship. Many of them would have to have been freshly coined and/or adopted to that usage. That "freshness" would be especially strong and appealing a non-nautical ear, too.
    – JeffSahol
    Commented Sep 13, 2011 at 16:25
  • @JeffSahol - same with the dot-com era. A lot of new terms came from the sudden outbreak of a bunch of networking/web vocabulary into the 'real' world
    – mgb
    Commented Sep 13, 2011 at 16:29
  • Carpentry or blacksmithing might need a lot of technical terms, but every village probably had it's own word for each tool while the navy training meant that sailing terms were standardized, at least in English. — I'm not so sure about this bit. Commented Sep 13, 2011 at 16:45
  • @Cerberus - other trades didn't have the vast array of technical terms that sailing needs and training for village jobs were passed on father-son so terms were more varied. In farming they have had centuries to evolve and differ over a few miles from dale-dale. A press-ganged new seaman has to be unambiguously taught the correct name for the 3rd rope from the left on the second sail on the first mast.
    – mgb
    Commented Sep 13, 2011 at 16:51
  • @MartinBeckett: I'm not really convinced that farmers living in the same region should be unable to understand the names of the countless tools and practices (don't underestimate the latter: no doubt they had a name for a pig's second pregnancy, or whatever) amongst each other. Commented Sep 13, 2011 at 16:56

England, the home of "English," is located on a small island. (Three other English speaking countries, the USA, Canada, and Australia, can be considered to be located on LARGE islands.)

To get from the island (Britain), to the rest of the world, it is necessary to travel by sea. This was particularly true in the 18th and 19th centuries (when much of our modern vocabulary was developed) before the age of air travel in the twentieth century.

Most of what the country was about was getting goods and people to and from the country BY SEA. If President Coolidge said, "The business of America is business," he might have said, "The business of England is shipping." Hence, "naval" and "nautical" issues were pre-eminent in the life of Britain (and to a slightly lesser extent in the other English-speaking countries), and that's why a lot of English vocabulary/expressions is connected to the sea.

Under the circumstances, sailing wasn't a "highly specialized profession." Instead, it was part of the "mainstream" (pun intended).

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