Language From the Sea, Still Fresh After Centuries

AA: I'm Avi Arditti, with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- the catch of the day, terms from the sea.

Lots of nautical expressions have washed ashore into everyday English. Alan Hartley researches them for the Oxford English Dictionary -- that is, when he's not supervising the loading of grain onto foreign ships in the Great Lakes. We called him at his office in Minnesota, and immediately made headway.

ALAN HARTLEY: "When you make 'headway,' you're making progress forward. 'Way' is usually the forward motion of a ship. It could also be rearward motion, and that was called 'sternway.' But there are a lot of analogous terms in English that never made it into the general vocabulary. 'Headway' and 'sternway' are a good example of a pair, one of which made it and the other didn't.'"

AA: Maritime metaphors lend themselves to all kinds of situations on land. Let's say you're making headway on that big project at work, going "full steam ahead." It's all "smooth sailing" toward that big promotion. Or so it seems.

All of a sudden you're "weathering a storm." You reach the "end of your rope" (anchor rope, that is). You look for "safe harbor." You "go overboard" to make things better. The last thing you want is to "scuttle" your career and wind up "on the rocks," all because you've "run afoul" of the boss.

AA: Alan Hartley is a ship-loading superintendent in Minnesota and a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary. He's put together a list of nautical language for our website. That address is And our e-mail address is

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