Why We Say ‘Batten Down the Hatches’


When a big storm like a hurricane or even a big challenge that’s more abstract is coming, you might hear the phrase, ‘Batten down the hatches.’

Have you ever heard someone say that it’s time to “batten down the hatches?” For those of us who find ourselves in the path of a hurricane, it becomes an all-too-common saying.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard it from people over the past 48 hours.

Here’s what it actually means.

First, it’s batten, not baton.

The words are similar but pronounced and spelled differently. But baton may be the more familiar of the two. That means someone who writes the phrase could easily use the wrong word.

A baton, most commonly, refers to either the stick a conductor uses when directing an orchestra or a long stick twirled by a drum major of a marching band. It can also refer to the tube runners pass from one to the other during a relay race. Some police officers carry batons as a weapon.

In this case, the word to use is batten.

Batten entered the English language in the 1500s, with the meaning “to improve.” But it’s not directly related to the alternate meaning of the word used in the phrase.

For this phrase, batten refers to a strip, usually made of iron or wood used to seal an entrance to a lower level of a ship.

Think about it for a second.

Imagine you’re on a tall sailing ship and foul weather is coming. You’ll want to go down below to make sure you’re safe. But if the hatches are open, water from heavy rains could get to the lower levels. Enough water could flood the ship.

You close any hatches — entrance ways or access points — from the deck to the lower levels. But if the storm packs a strong wind, it may blow the hatches open.

You want to make sure the hatches are securely sealed.

So you lock them down using battens to make sure they won’t fly open by accident.

But it’s not just about ships and bad weather.

An idiom is a phrase we use for a specific meaning that may not be obvious by looking at the words themselves.

If you’ve never heard of the nautical origin of this idiom, it may seem a bit confusing when used in everyday life.

But anyone facing a challenge of significant nature may well decide it’s time to prepare. They may batten down their emotional or financial hatches. It means they’re taking actions to prepare for trouble.

Whether you’re on a big ship sailing into rough seas or facing a crisis at home or work — or waiting for a hurricane to pass by — I hope you’re able to batten down your hatches and ride out the storm safely.

Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.