Sailor Speak

Over the centuries, naval terms have become a part and parcel of life at sea. Although some of these words may be as old as days of sails, sailors today still use them in honour of the rich seafaring tradition. In fact, some of these terms have even permeated our everyday speech. Want to be part of this colourful naval tradition? Take a look at our simple sailor's glossary.

Bravo Zulu

This is the term every sailor loves to hear. Why? Because it stands for a job well done.


In naval terminology, a room is called a cabin.


The coxswain is the most experienced sailor on the ship.

Dog Watch

Dog watch, in naval terminology, is a period of work duty between 1600hrs and 2000hrs. The period is usually split into two to allow the crew to have meals and exercise.

There are various stories about the origins of the term. It is said to be a direct translation from either German or Dutch, originally referring to the night watch on ships — a time when only dogs would be found awake. The name is also said to have been derived from Sirius, the "Dog Star", as it was claimed that Sirius was the first star that can be seen at night.

Free Gangway

An order given to lower the gangplank of a ship, allowing the ship’s crew to board or disembark.


This is a centre of morale for every sailor on board — it’s the ship’s kitchen.


To move backwards (the stern refers to the back of the ship). This term gave rise to the colloquial Singlish word “go-stan” of the same meaning.


When we say “handsomely” in the Navy, we are not praising a sailor’s good looks. Rather, it is an instruction to do something slowly and carefully.


In the past, toilets were traditionally placed in the head (or bow) of the ship. Which is why a ship’s toilet is known as the head even today.

Jacob's Ladder

A portable rope or metal ladder that can be lowered down the side of a ship.

Learn the Ropes

In sailing, ropework such as knots, bends and hitches are vital basic skills every sailor must master. The phrase “learn the ropes” can also be used in everyday speech to mean learning the basics.


To call or signal using a pipe (a type of whistle). Piping is used in ceremonies such as Colours and Sunset.

Port and Starboard

Port and starboard are shipboard terms for left and right respectively. Want an easy hack to remember which is which? “Port” has four letters — the same as in the word “left”. 

Seven Seas

The Seven Seas refer to the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, Indian, Arctic and Antarctic Oceans.


This term means in good order, clean and tidy.


The wardroom refers to the Naval Officers’ Mess.