Nautical idioms and their meanings | DailyStep English

Nautical idioms and their meanings

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+

This is Jane Lawson's Audio Blog #141 at DailyStep English


Jane Lawson,  English Teacher at DailyStep EnglishHello, I'm Jane at DailyStep English and welcome to my Audio Blog!

English has many idioms with their origins in sailing and ships. These are called "nautical idioms". How many of the nautical idioms below do you know? 

If you are new to DailyStep English, please register for a free trial of 5 UK/USA audio lessons to help your English speaking, listening, vocabulary and pronunciation. You can listen to some free audio summaries of all next week's lessons on this page. Remember to speak along with the audio files to help your pronunciation.



Here is Audio Word Study #047 from Jane Lawson at


Nautical idioms


Britain is an island and the sea is never far away. Fishing, trading and fighting wars all used to be done in ships and boats, so of course this has had an influence on our language. Let’s take a look at some commonly used expressions that have nautical origins.

Nautical idioms in English


1. Know the ropes 

Original meaning:  When all ships had sails, it was vital for sailors to know how to hoist the sails and secure them, using ropes and knots that they tied in the ropes to fasten them together. An inexperienced sailor was someone who did not know the ropes.

Modern example: When he started his new job, it was a few weeks before he really knew the ropes.


2. Show someone the ropes

Original meaning:  If an inexperienced sailor did not know the ropes, someone had to show him the ropes, in other words, show him how everything worked.

Modern example: She spent her day showing a new colleague the ropes. (note: this means that she spent the day showing her new colleagues how to do the things that were necessary for the job.)


3. Take the wind out of someone’s sails

Original meaning: If the wind did not fill the sails, then the ship lost all power and could not progress forward. If someone takes the wind out of your sails, they say or dosomething that makes you feel less confident, motivated or determined, and therefore less able to move forward.

Modern example: I was so confident before my performance, but Tom really took the wind out of my sails when he told me I needed a lot more practice.


4. A loose cannon

Original meaning: Cannons are the big, metal guns with wheels that were used on battle ships. They are extremely heavy, and if a cannon was not securely fixed, it would roll around the deck and cause a lot of damage. These days, if someone is unpredictable and likely to say or do something that will cause problems, we say they are a loose cannon.

Modern example: I don’t think we should include Richard in the project team – he’s a bit of a loose cannon and we need things to go as smoothly as possible!


5. A shot across the bows

Original meaning: The bow of a ship is at the very front. If the captain of ship wanted to send a warning to another ship, without actually causing any damage, he would order the sailors to shoot a cannon at the ship so that the cannon ball just missed the bows.

Modern example: The workers gave a shot across the bows to their boss by threatening to go on strike if their demands were not met.


6. High and dry

Original meaning: If a ship was high and dry, this meant that it was stranded and unable to move anywhere because the water was too shallow, or it had become beached.

Modern example: When my bag was stolen on holiday, I was left high and dry because I had no money, no phone, no passport and no way of getting home.


Now, try to write your own sentences using all these nautical idioms. Make sure these sentences are true to your own life, or about someone you know, because this will help you to remember them better. That is all for Audio Word Study#047 on 

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+

Download this lesson

If you are a subscriber to my DailyStep Audio Lessons, you can download this audio file below. 

Now listen to these free audio summaries of next week's DailyStep Audio Lessons. Remember to speak along with the audio to help your pronunciation. 

Level 5: Advanced Level

The haunted house! 

Telling a scary story and building suspense - Advanced English lessons online
Eddy becomes more and more nervous in the house where he is working as a builder, as he sees ghostly shadows and hears strange noises. Then he has a terrible fright!  Could it be a ghost? These 5 lessons are packed with idioms and phrasal verbs and will teach you how to build tension into a narrative, how to react to shocking news, how to make jokes and how to be sarcastic. Great advanced English practice! 

Level 4: High Intermediate Level

Confronting a landlord.  

Dealing with a landlord - English audio lessons
After a sudden rise in the service charges at the apartment building where they live, David and his neighbours hold a meeting with the landlord to find out why the costs have increased so much. Will they succeed in preventing the increase? In these 5 lessons, you will learn important skills for tenancy meetings and for interacting with your neighbours too! You will also learn idioms and phrasal verbs.

Level 3: Intermediate Level

Talking about nature.  

Talking about nature in English - DailyStep Audio Lessons at Intermediate LevelWhat is a volcano and why do they erupt? What is an iceberg and how is it formed? These are just some of the questions that will be discussed in this week’s 5 lessons. You will learn how to explain things, plenty of new vocabulary and perhaps some science too!

Level 2: Elementary Level

English at an internet café. 

How to use an internet cafe in English - Elementary Audio Lesson 5 short lessons to help you use an internet café, or if you work in one and need to speak to customers. You’ll learn how to ask questions and give instructions, and some useful computer vocabulary.

Level 1: Beginner Level

Changing money at a bank. 

How to change money at a bank in English - Beginner Level English Lessons In these 5 lessons you will learn how to ask questions about money changing, including exchange rates and commission, and how to answer these questions too. Great lessons for travellers and bank workers.

 More English Courses

I also produce IELTS and other exam courses, and other courses where you can learn English through literature, drama, comedy, history, natural conversation and more! 

more | plus | más | altro | 続き | 자세히


How does a DailyStep subscription work?

DailyStep Audio lessons make you speak English like a native speaker for a short time each day, and help you to understand native speakers perfectly. 
If you subscribe to my regular DailyStep audio lessons, I will send you 5 expertly- designed audio lessons per week, so every month you get approximately 22 lessons per level. You choose the level yourself that you think will be challenging for you - not too easy, not too hard - and you can change your level, or add more levels, at any time after joining.

  • Each weekday (Monday to Friday), you receive an email containing a link that takes you straight to your audio lesson.

  • Each audio lesson contains a short conversation, with an audio file and script, as well as vocabulary and style notes to help you understand it.

  • Key phrases in the conversation are hidden at first so you can test your listening skills. You can then uncover the hidden text.

  • There are 2 audio files per lesson – one at fast, natural speed and a second audio file that is slowed down using special software to 65% of natural speed. This allows you to hear exactly how the language works.

  • You copy the native speakers by speaking along with the audio files to improve your pronunciation, rhythm, speed and intonation.

  • All your lessons are stored for you in an online Personal Lesson Bank so you can log in to take them again any time, or take lessons you have missed – even after your subscription has expired!

  • You can download the MP3 audio files to your computer, mobile phone or i-pod.

  • The lessons take only 5 - 10 minutes each day to complete, and you can log in and take your lessons from any computer.

  • There are no advertisements to distract your attention.


As a subscriber, you will also get full access and download rights to the audio in my Teacher’s Blogs, with cultural articles and downloadable audio grammar lessons.


DailyStep Audio Lessons are exceptionally good value – I believe in keeping prices down so that better English is affordable for everyone! There is a 30-day money back guarantee, so there is no risk at all! So what are you waiting for? A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step!