Nautical Term/Phrase Wednesday: On your beam ends

A little late and again from the spectacular website of Gary Martin.

Definition: Hard-up – in a bad situation.

Origin: The beams are the horizontal transverse timbers of ships. This nautical phrase came about with the allusion to the danger of imminent capsize if the beam ends were touching the water. This dates back to the 18th century and is cited in a 1773 issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine:

“The gust laid her upon her beam-ends.”

The figurative use came soon afterwards, in 1830 Captain Marryat’s The King’s Own, 1830:

“Our first-lieutenant was..on his beam-ends, with the rheumatiz.”

Dr. M (1729 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, a National Science Foundation supported initiative. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (, a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web. His forthcoming book, Science of the South (, connects cultural icons of South such as pecan pie with the science behind them.

3 comments on “Nautical Term/Phrase Wednesday: On your beam ends
  1. It’s not widely known but RLS’s Treasure Island was much longer as it contained explanations of nautical jargon and other wisdom. It was edited for length before publication.
    Much of the wisdom came in the form of Long John Silver showing Jim Hawkins ‘the ropes’. As an example; the ship visited an island with a bitumen lake and animals trapped in the mire. LJS explained “it’s tar jim lad”.
    On another occasion LJS was teaching JH the theodolyte; “see that star jim lad”.
    Sorry. I’m practising for TLAPday.

  2. From Fitzroy’s journal, 13th January, 1833: ‘Soon after one, the sea had risen to a great height, and I was anxiously watching the successive waves, when three huge rollers approached, whose size and steepness at once told me that our sea-boat, good as she was, would be sorely tried. Having steerage way, the vessel met and rose over the first unharmed, but, of course, her way was checked; the second deadened her way completely, throwing her off the wind; and the third great sea, taking her right a-beam, turned her so far over, that all the lee bulwark, from the cat-head to the stern davit, was two or three feet under water…’ and in a footnote wrote, ‘The roller which hove us almost on our beam ends, was the highest and most hollow that I have seen, excepting one in the Bay of Biscay, and one in the Southern Atlantic; yet so easy was our little vessel that nothing was injured besides the boat, the netting (washed away), and one chronometer.’

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