By in Writing

Phrase Origins: A Shot Across the Bows

ABSTRACT: Do imagine Peter Pan and Captain Hook in a cannon ball fight when you hear the phrase "a shot across the bows." You're closer to the correct meaning than you know.


I had not heard of the phrase "a shot across the bows" until researching phrases. I had heard of "a shot in the dark," which is a wild or impromptu guess. A shot across the bows doesn't seem like it would have the same meaning as it is known that it goes across the bows. Perhaps the phrase could mean something like a far distance. After all, bow does mean the forward part of a ship and is sometimes pluralized as bows. Perhaps the shot comes from the back of the ship and goes all the way to the front, crossing over the bows.

However, that doesn't have the same meaning as "across the bows." It would seem that the phrase "a shot across the bows" would mean that the shot went from one side of the bows to the other side of the bows. It makes me think of an enemy ship firing a cannon ball at one side of the front of a ship and the cannon ball going all the way across to the other side and landing in the water. I would think that this would be "a shot across the bows."

This time my imagination did come up with the correct origin of the phrase. However, it did not come up with the meaning. The phrase "a shot across the bows" means "a warning shot." This can be real or metaphorical.

The part where I talked about a cannonball being shot is correct. I was surprised to read that I was correct after writing that. It is a naval practice for a ship to shoot a cannonball across the bows of another ship to show that the ship is ready to battle. The first known mention of the practice and the phrase is from a December 1839 article written in the Wisconsin Democrat .

The article is about a ship that was ready to do battle and signaled to another ship. The other ship immediately hoisted a white flag meaning that it surrendered.

It was in the 20 th century that the phrase started being used figuratively to mean "a warning."

If it confuses you to know the difference of a boat and ship (something that should be known for anybody considering a literal "shot across the bows"), you are not alone. A general rule is that a boat can fit on a ship, but a ship can't fit on a boat. However, there are many size boats and ships today and regional definitions are different.

Anyway, if you cannot remember that the bow is the front of a ship, you may want to think of it is as the shoulders of a ship. However, "a cannonball across the shoulders" doesn't seem to be a catchy phrase.


Martin, G. (n.d.). A shot across the bows. The meanings and origins of sayings and phrases . Retrieved February 7, 2011, from

What is the Difference Between a Ship and a Boat?. (n.d.). wiseGEEK: clear answers for common questions . Retrieved February 7, 2011, from

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