Naval-inspired idioms

Cutty Sark - Greenwich, London
Cutty Sark is a clipper ship, used to transport tea from China to Britain. She is on display in Greenwich, London.

During a recent trip with Linda to Greenwich in London (famous for Greenwich Mean Time, the Naval Academy and Royal Observatory), Joy discovered some interesting idioms connected to ships and the sea.

Exercise 1

First , can you match the idiom with its origin?

1) First-rate

2) All at sea

3) No room to swing a cat

4) To push the boat out

5) Show your true colours


a) Helping a seaman push a boat into the water was an act of generosity or kindness.

b) Naval ships sometimes used foreign flags to disguise their identity at sea. Just before a battle, ships would show their own flag (also known as colours).

c) A ship which carried at least 100 guns and was the largest and most powerful type of ship of the Navy.

d) Relates to the practice of whipping with a cat-o’-nine-tails (a kind of whip with several ‘tails’).

e) Early navigators could easily become lost when out of sight of land as it was hard to work out their exact position.



1 c  2 e  3 d  4 a  5 b


Royal Naval College - Greenwich, London
Royal Naval College in Greenwich, London

Exercise 2

Today, these idioms are no longer associated with ships and the sea.

Read these sentences and choose the correct modern meaning for the idiom.

1) Congratulations! You’ve done a first rate job setting up the new order system.

a) useful
b) high quality
c) quick

2) When I first started here, I felt all at sea, but everyone was so friendly I soon settled in.

a) confused
b) excited
c) unhappy

3) She’s just bought a flat in London, but considering it cost £250,000 there’s no room to swing a cat!

a) it’s luxurious
b) it’s very small
c) it’s expensive

4) Don’t worry about the cost – you only get married once – let’s push the boat out!

a) have a party on a boat
b) invite a lot of people
c) spend a lot of money

5) Although I’d met him before, it was only when we started working together that he showed his true colours.

a) saw his real personality
b) saw he was a nice person
c) saw he didn’t like me



1 b  2 a  3 b  4 c  5 a


Ship in a bottle in Greenwich, London
Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle. On display outside the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London.

If you’ve never been to Greenwich, it’s definitely worth a visit – we met up with one of our ‘old’ students from Switzerland there. The National Maritime Museum has many fascinating exhibits, including Nelson’s uniform from the Battle of Trafalgar, with the hole made by the bullet that killed him!

If you have visited Greenwich, we would love to hear about your experience. Leave a reply below.

Do you want to learn English idioms? Send us a message.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.