Nautical Terms and Pirate Glossary
Abaft – Toward the stern.
Abeam – Toward the side.
Adrift – Said of an absent sailor when the
ship is due to sail.
Aloft – High in the rigging.
Batten – To nail a thin slat of wood over
tarpaulin edges before a storm.
Belay – To fasten a rope; to stop any action
(“Belay it” = shut up!).
Belaying pins – Club-shaped pins located
on the main deck to secure running rigging. If used as weapons, treat as batons.
Bilge – Lowest part of a hold, often containing vile-smelling water.
Boatswain – (pronounced “bosun”) Roughly
comparable to an army sergeant.
Bow – The front of the ship.
Bowsprit – The small, angled pole at the
bow that carries a small sail.
Braces – Ropes used to rotate yards and sail.
Draft – Distance between the bottom of the
keel and the waterline.
Draft lines – Marks on the bow and stern
that show the draft and aid in trimming
Fore – Toward the bow.
Forecastle – The raised foremost deck.
Foremast – The mast closest to the bow.
Freeboard – Distance between the waterline and the main deck.
Gunnels – Gunwales. These wales (q.v.)
run just under the gun ports.
Gunnels under – The ship is in a rough sea.
It can also mean overloaded with work
Halyard – (halliard) Rope or tackle used to
raise a sail or yard.
Hold – The area between the bottom of the
ship and the lowest deck.
Jury – Temporary structure, as in jurymast, jury-rig, jury-rudder, etc.
Keel – The very bottom of the boat, a piece
of timber running fore to aft.
Keelhaul – To punish a sailor by dragging
him under the ship, from one side to the
other, by ropes tied to yardarms on either
side of the ship. Sometimes fatal.
Land Shark – A lawyer, considered very
unlucky to have on board.
Larboard (Port) – The left side of the ship,
if facing the bow.
Lee – The side sheltered from the wind.
Lifts – Ropes used to change the vertical
angle of the yards.
Lubber – Incompetent oaf. A Landlubber is
doubly so! (Adjective: Lubberly).
Mainmast – The mast in the center of a
Mainsail – The largest, lowest sail on the
Mizzenmast – The mast closest to the stern.
Oakum – Substance made from old ropes,
used for caulking.
Old Salt – Experienced sailor, regardless of
Orlop – The lowest deck, just above the
Poop – The high stern deck of a ship (experienced sailors do not say “Poop Deck”).
Port – (1) A seaport. (2) The left side of the
ship when you are facing toward her
Prow – The “nose” of the ship.
Quarterdeck – The deck just fore of the
poop, where the quarters are.
Ratlines – The “rungs” on the shrouds that
Reef – To reduce the area of a sail when the
wind picks up.
Running Rigging – The ropes used to
manipulate the sails and spars – halyards, stays, lifts, tacklines, clewlines,
sheetlines, buntlines, bowlines, etc.
Scuttle butt – Cask of fresh water for the
day’s use. Also, the gossip heard around
the scuttle butt.
Shrouds – The rigging that stabilizes a mast
port to starboard, crossed by ratlines.
Shrouds are spread out aft of the masts.
Son of a Gun – A compliment. A sailor
who was born on the gun deck.
Standing Rigging – The immobile ropes
used to stabilize the masts: shrouds and
Starboard – The right side of the ship, if
facing the bow.
Stays – The standing rigging that stabilize a
mast fore to aft.
Swallow the anchor – To quit seafaring.
Tack – To sail close to the direction the
wind is blowing from.
Three Sheets in the Wind – Very drunk.
Topsail – The second largest sail on the
Topgallant Sail – The third largest sail on
Trim – To adjust the sails when the wind
Weather side – The side of a ship that wind
is coming from.
Wales – Protruding rails built into the ship,
running along the side.
Watch – At sea or a hostile anchorage, the
current half or third of the crew on duty
at a given time. In a friendly port, the
two to eight men on duty guarding the
ship. All watches are four-hour shifts.
Whistle up a Wind – To attempt the
impossible, especially to try to raise
money for shore leave.
Yard – A pole that crosses the mast, from
which a sail is suspended.
Yardarm – Either end of the yard.
aft – Short for “after.” Toward the rear of
Ahoy! – “Hello!”
Avast! – “Hey!” Could be used as “Stop
that!” or “Who goes there?”
Bilge! – Nonsense, or foolish talk.
Black Spot: To “place the Black Spot” on
another pirate is to sentence him to
death, to warn him he is marked for
death, or sometimes just to accuse him
of a serious crime before other pirates.
Blimey! – An exclamation of surprise.
bosun – Boatswain; a petty officer.
buccaneer – A general term for the
bucko – Familiar term. “Me bucko” = “my
cat o’nine tails, or just cat – a whip with
many lashes, used for flogging. “A taste
of the cat” might refer to a full flogging,
or just a single blow to “smarten up” a
chandler, or ship-chandler – see Sutler.
chantey – A sailor’s song. Also spelled
“shantey” or “shanty.”
chase – The ship being pursued. “The chase
is making full sail, sir” = “The ship
we’re after is going as fast as she can.”
crow’s nest – A small platform, sometimes
enclosed, near the top of a mast, where a
lookout could have a better view when
watching for sails or for land.
Davy Jones’ locker – The bottom of the
deadlights – Eyes. “Use yer deadlights,
dead men tell no tales – Standard pirate
excuse for leaving no survivors.
flogging – Punishment by caning, or by
whipping with the cat.
forrard – Toward the front end (fore) of the
Gangway! – “Get out of my way!”
grog – Generically, any alcoholic drink.
Specifically, rum diluted with water to
make it go farther.
gun – A cannon.
hands – The crew of a ship; sailors.
handsomely – Quickly. “Handsomely now,
men!” = “Hurry up!”
Jack Ketch – The hangman. To dance with
Jack Ketch is to hang.
Jack Tar, or tar – A sailor.
Jolly Roger – The pirates’ skull-and-crossbones flag. It was an invitation to surrender, with the implication that those who
surrendered would be treated well. A red
flag indicated “no quarter.”
Lad, lass – A way to address someone
younger than you.
Line – A rope in use as part of the ship’s
rigging, or as a towing line. When a rope
is just coiled up on deck, not yet being
used for anything, it’s all right to call it a
Lookout – Someone posted to keep watch
on the horizon for other ships or signs of
Me – A piratical way to say “my.”
Me hearties – Typical way for a pirate
leader to address his crew.
Matey – A piratical way to address someone in a cheerful, if not necessarily
On the account – The piratical life. A man
who went “on the account” was turning
Rope’s end – another term for flogging.
“Ye’ll meet the rope’s end for that, me
Sail ho! – “I see a ship!” The sail,
of course, is the first part of a
ship visible over the horizon.
Scuppers – Openings along the
edges of a ship’s deck that
allow water on deck to drain
back to the sea rather than collecting in the bilges. “Scupper
that!” is an expression of
anger or derision: “Throw
Scuppered: thwarted, defeated,
Scurvy – A derogatory adjective suitable for use in a loud
voice, as in “Ye scurvy
Shiver me timbers! – An
expression of surprise or
Sink me! – An expression of
Smartly – Quickly. “Smartly
there, men!” = “Hurry up!”
Splice the mainbrace – To have
a drink. Or, perhaps, several
Spyglass – A telescope.
Sutler – A merchant in port, selling the
various things that a ship needed for
supplies and repairs. Also “chandler.”
Swab – A disrespectful term for a seaman. “Man that gun, ye cowardly
Weigh anchor – To haul the anchor up;
more generally, to leave port.
Yo-ho-ho – A very piratical thing to say,
whether it actually means anything or