Anchors Away! Or, Wait — Is it Anchors Aweigh?

When a sailor lifts the anchor of a ship, he should call “anchor’s away,” because the anchor is away, right? Or is it “anchors aweigh” (which doesn’t even make sense)? The answer may surprise you — unless you’ve ever spent time around an actual anchor.

Old black anchor on a boat Old black anchor on a boat

It’s ‘Anchors Aweigh’

The correct term for raising anchors is “anchors aweigh.” It’s a Dutch expression that uses weigh as a verb, meaning “to bring an anchor aboard in order to depart a location.” “To weigh anchor” has the opposite meaning — “to drop anchor,” which is a bit more explanatory (you drop the anchor in the water to keep the ship in place).

And It’s Understandably Confusing

There’s a reason people often mix these terms up: The wrong way makes more sense. After all, you are going away when the anchors are aweigh, so it’s understandable that people would use “anchors away” almost as often as the correct “anchors aweigh.” But like many historical phrases that have made their way into modern English, it doesn’t have to make the most sense to be right. 

No Apostrophe Needed

So you’re on board for the away vs. aweigh debate, but shouldn’t there be an apostrophe in there? If the expression were actually “anchor’s away,” it would make sense — you’re saying that the anchor is away. But adding an apostrophe doesn’t work with “anchors aweigh,” since aweigh describes multiple anchors on a ship. Use “anchors aweigh,” no apostrophe, unless you want to irritate a sailor (or an English teacher).

Where You’ve Heard It Before

Naval veterans and marching band enthusiasts have no problem identifying the correct way to say “anchors aweigh.” It’s the name of the United States Naval Academy fight song, as well as the unofficial march song of the U.S. Navy itself. In fact, “Anchors Aweigh” is such a part of American pop culture that you’ve likely heard the song whether you know it or not.

More Nautical Terms and Phrases You May Already Know

Even if you’ve never been on a ship in your life, you’ve likely said — or heard — “anchors aweigh” as an everyday expression meaning “ready to go.” But that’s only one idiom we’ve gotten from sailor slang. Other phrases you may say at home or at work include:

  • above board - keeping things on the deck, or out in the open
  • batten down the hatches - to prepare for rough times ahead
  • changing course - shifting the direction of a ship (or project)
  • change tack - to change direction or position
  • feeling adrift - not secure or moving in a particular direction
  • finding your bearings - to situate oneself to a new situation
  • jury-rigged - something fixed or made with the materials you have on hand
  • making headway - making forward progress
  • rudderless - having no clear leadership or direction
  • scuttlebutt - conversation between sailors (or others)
  • to helm something - to steer or direct a project

Full Speed Ahead for Correct Usage

Anchors aweigh — time to head for calmer language skies! Untangle those confusing English knots with these additional vocabulary guides: