Is Britain all at sea when it comes to nautical knowledge?

Wednesday 30 July 2014

• Over 50s more savvy about nautical terms than younger generations • One in seven (14%) 18-24 year olds think Avast means “That’s a big one” • More than half (57%) of under 50s don’t know starboard means the ‘right’ side of a boat.

Is Britain all at sea when it comes to nautical knowledge?

The English language is awash with nautical terms, hinting at a proud seafaring past and the fact that we’re an island nation. Wherever you go in Britain, you’ll hear it in everyday speech. If we’re not “losing our bearings”, we’re “battening down the hatches” or getting “all hands on deck” when we have to.

Do you know your ‘port’ side from your ‘starboard’? Have you any idea where the ‘heads’ are on a boat. Would you have a clue about what goes on in the ‘galley’? A Saga Boat Insurance poll* shows that many Britons despite being an island race have a poor grasp of many well-known nautical terms – and some people have peculiar ideas about what they mean.

For instance, half of the under 50s in our poll have no idea that avast means ‘stop’ and, slightly more worrying, 14% of 18-24 year olds think the phrase means “that’s a big one”.  

Surely everyone knows ‘starboard’ refers to the right side of a boat, right? Wrong. According to the poll results. More than half (57%) of people under 50 don’t have the foggiest what it means. Just as worrying, especially for boat owners whose younger passengers might need the loo, is that less than one in 10 (9%) of 18-24 year olds know that ‘heads’ refers to the on-board toilet.

Thankfully, not all Britons are in choppy waters when it comes to plotting a course. Two thirds of over 50s know ‘starboard’ means right and ‘port’ side means left. Indeed, the survey of 2,032 people, aged 18 and over, shows that the over 50s have a much better knowledge of seafaring slang and salty speech compared to their younger counterparts – suggesting that the current generation might be losing track of our rich linguistic heritage.

Thankfully, the majority of people asked (of all ages) know ‘bow’ means the front of a ship. But worryingly, one in 50 25-34 year olds think it means a ‘dead rotting fish,the same number also believe the ‘galley’ (a boat’s kitchen) actually refers to a “traditional weekly disco held on pirate ships”.

When it came to well-known phrases, again it was the over 50s who had stronger sea legs, as more could correctly identify terms including “no room to swing a cat” and “swinging the lead” as nautical in origin. Less than half (49%) of under 50s asked correctly picked out four or more phrases, compared to 73% of the over 50s.

Roger Ramsden, chief executive, Saga Services, commented: “Britain has a proud maritime history and a rich language that’s largely evolved from its seafaring heritage. It’s amazing how many phrases and terms originated on the ocean wave.

“The over 50s clearly have a firmer grasp of these terms than younger generations. It’s a shame they haven’t been able to keep abreast as it’s a link to our national identity shaped over centuries. No one’s suggesting they should walk the plank, however.”


Notes to editors:

*Populus interviewed 2,032 GB adults online between 18 and 19th June 2014. 974 of these were aged 50 or over. Results have been weighted to be representative of all GB adults. Populus is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. For more information visit

Downloadable boat graphic (pictured above) is available on this link


The under 50s v the over 50s: Who has stronger sea legs?

Nautical term/question
% of under 50s who knew the correct meaning 
 % of over 50s who knew the correct meaning
 Avast  25 46
 Starboard side
 43  64
 Where are 'heads' located?
 19  49
What does 'Bow' mean?
 77 95
 Where is port side?
 47  67
 What does the 'galley' refer to?


 % of over and under 50s who correctly identify these phrases as being nautical in origin

 Phrase Under 50s
Over 50s
 The bitter end
 Down in the 'doldrums'
 48 75
 No room to swing a cat
 49 75
 Swinging the lead
 42 72
 At close quarters

Nautical terms: Do you know them?

Below is a table of common nautical terms, with suggestions for what they mean. Correct answers are in bold:

 Avast Stop
We are under attack
Man overboard!
Starboard side
Right side of boat
Where are 'heads' located?
The bathroom
 The engine room
The dining room
What does 'bow' mean?
Front of ship
 Captain's quarters
 A dead rotting fish
 Where is 'port' side?
Left side of boat
 Right  Front
What does 'galley' refer to?
Boat's kitchen
Where sailors hang their coats
A traditional weekly disco held on pirate ships

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