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Your English: Idioms: sailing and the sea

Type: Article

There's no need to be in the doldrums as Tim Bowen's back with another set of idioms, this time derived from maritime.

It is no surprise that the language of an island nation with a rich maritime history should have a number of idioms related to the sea and sailing.

An example of a widely used expression which originated on the sea is to know the ropes or show someone the ropes (to know how to do something or to teach someone to do something, particularly a job), as in ‘It’s a bit difficult at first but you’ll soon get to know the ropes’.

If you do something at a rate of knots, you do it very quickly, as in ‘He set off at a rate of knots but he soon became tired and slowed down'. If you clear the decks, you do work that you need to do before you can do other things.

By sailing close to the wind, you are taking unnecessary risks and could easily get into trouble, and if you are in the doldrums, you are in a situation in which there is a lack of success, activity or improvement, as in ‘After years in the doldrums, the market is finally picking up’. 

If something is described as plain sailing, it is easy to do or achieve, as in ‘The French won the match, but it wasn’t all plain sailing’.

To give someone or something a wide berth means to avoid them at all costs, as in ‘Dog walkers have been advised to give cattle a wide berth after a woman was seriously injured last week’.

The word sea itself provides us with the idiom all at sea, meaning confused and unsure what to do, as in ‘United were all at sea as they struggled to come to terms with the bumpy pitch’.

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