What Does All Hands On Deck Mean?

Ever seen or heard the expression all hands on deck and wondered what it meant? Whether it was strangely telling you or someone else to put both of your or their hands on a deck of cards? Or place them on a patio?! Keep reading to discover the definition—and origin—of this popular phrase.

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What Does All Hands On Deck Mean?

The saying all hands on deck can mean two things. One, it can be an order given to the crew of a ship, instructing all members to gather on the ship’s deck at once. (Read much more about this definition below.) Or two, it can be a call or request for everyone who is available to participate and lend a hand in something. The latter is an idiomatic use of the expression, said or written outside of a nautical setting. When you use the phrase idiomatically, it’s another way of saying you need all the help you can get with a particular endeavor. With either definition, the expression is often used in an emergency situation, although it can be used in any occasion.

Here are some example sentences using the idiom all hands on deck:

  • The hurricane is going to reach land faster than any of us expected. I need all hands on deck to help bring things inside from the yard and board up the windows!
  • As an event planner, I’m used to the hustle and bustle. But the last event I oversaw was such an elaborate affair that I knew the only way to pull it off would be with all hands on deck. I had to hire a special team just for the night. 
  • While my wife was out of town for the week, I decided to redo our master bathroom. On the day before she was set to get back, there was still so much to do. But I called for all hands on deck, and we got it done. She loved it!
  • It’s been all hands on deck with wildfire relief efforts in California. It’s going to take a while for the state to recover, but with help and in time, it will rebuild and rebound.

The Origin of All Hands On Deck

As shared above, the expression all hands on deck can be a call to all of a ship’s crew members to gather on the ship’s deck immediately. And indeed, the idiomatic take on the phrase widely used today originated from this use and meaning; it’s possible it dates back to the 1700s. Sailors are also called hands, and a ship’s upper deck is the vessel’s primary working surface, or the “roof” of the ship’s hull. Though, a ship does have other decks as well, each with its own purpose. 

A captain calls for all hands on deck—and sometimes simply all hands—when faced with a difficult situation requiring the assistance of all seamen on board, say a storm.  Other variations of the phrase also nautical in origin include all hands to the pumps (used when immediate help is needed to bail out incoming seawater to keep a ship from sinking) and all hands and the cook on deck (used in a serious emergency when everyone on the ship is needed, perhaps even the cook whose expected duties don’t typically include any mariner activities). Over time, all hands on deck and its variants came to be used broadly as a call for help in any situation. 

Understanding Idioms

All hands on deck is an idiom. An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that can’t typically be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. These words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

As mentioned at the start of this post, if you were to take the saying all hands on deck literally, you might think it meant you needed to physically place your hands on a deck of cards or on a balcony or patio, which makes little sense at all! But you now know that in this instance hands means people, and that the expression is a call for as many people as possible to come help out in a given situation. Of course, when used on a naval ship, it does have a literal meaning, calling all hands, or sailors, onto the ship’s deck immediately. Indeed, synonyms of all hands on its own include everyone and everybody.

All hands on deck isn’t the only idiom with a naval history that’s commonly used off ship today. By and large comes from sailing terminology. One theory holds that under the weather has nautical origins; it stems from the fact that sailors and ship passengers who were feeling seasick would go below deck (and “under” the weather) to feel better. There’s also, perhaps surprisingly, a theory that the saying sleep tight originally involved sailors and ships.

Summary

The idiomatic expression all hands on deck means that as much help as possible is needed in order to accomplish a particular task or reach a specific goal. If you need all hands on deck, you need all the assistance you can get, from as many people as are willing to chip in. It can be used for aid in any situation, although it is often used in the case of an emergency scenario. This idiomatic usage of the saying originated from its use as a call by ship captains for help from their crew members, or hands.

PS: Ever wondered the difference between port and starboard? Find out here!