Before radios became popular on ships, captains would be in the crow’s nest with a telescope and sextant to look for any potential dangers. Their assistants accompanied them, called “mates,” and their main job was to relay messages. If a lookout announced something, like “land ahoy!” the captain would then say “aye-aye” which meant that he had heard it and they’d head down into the cabin to use a chart table, compass, etc. That way they were able to do their jobs even if they couldn’t see what the crew saw from where they were stationed in the crow’s nest.
Eventually horns replaced buoys as navigational aids for larger vessels coming near land. The original phrase survives today as a cute way to say “yes” or “okay.”
It is believed that the phrase was first uttered in the 1770s by English officers serving in North America. “Aye aye, sir” or “aye, aye, captain” is said to have been uttered when giving an affirmative reply to an order from General Edward Braddock—such as answering “Yes”, or shaking one’s head. A Captain of Marines assumes the rank of lieutenant colonel for this purpose only and wears no insignia for the duration of his time as a ceremonial formality.
“Aye aye” comes from the French phrase “oui, oui” which means yes and it originated from the Navy during World War I. The British navy and merchant marines were at war with Germany during WWI, but their enemies weren’t just on water. They also needed to battle against boredom which lead to hostile behavior among sailors. Sailors occasionally got into fist fights in the ship’s bars for no visible reason or played practical jokes like putting soap in someone’s pocket so they could work up a big lather while doing nothing else than making an innocent trip to retrieve clothes.
The phrase is of nautical origin, so it was likely first used by someone who sailed the seas. “Aye” means yes. Sailors would use their fingers to signal a response to a command, and would need 4 fingers extended (both hands) to indicate they agreed with the captain’s orders. Hence, ‘aye-aye’.
It’s origins are obscure. According to one theory, it comes from the era of sailing ships and maritime tradition which dictates that if a higher ranking crew member gives you an order, you should reply “Aye Aye,” because the captain is always right.
Aye Aye has been used for centuries, but the phrase “aye aye captain” is more recent and was thought to have originated from sailors in the 18th century. It was most likely a replacement for “yes captain”, which could represent that sailors had listened and understood their instructions.
The Royal Navy and other navy branches continue to use Aye-aye as an affirmative response because of its long history of usage. The term “Aye” (or sometimes just “y”) is still used by some vessels as the signal that they have heard orders, yet it does not necessarily mean that they are ready or able to carry them out. When spoken in reply to an order, it puts stress on the idea that orders are received, understood and will be followed.
The phrase ay ‘aye captain originated as a form of respect for the authority of the ship’s captain, and it often carried imperialistic implications.
The “aye aye” expression has its roots in naval tradition from the 18th century, when captains believed themselves masters of not only their own vessel but also every land on earth. A crewmember giving their reply “Aye aye” to the question whether they would agree to do something was simply showing approbation with an order from their superior officer, without questioning it or waiting for more information.
The origins of “Aye Aye Captain” are not very clear, however one possible origin lies in the Portuguese colony of Sao Tome and Principe). Sailors would say “hã hã capitão” to show they hadn’t forgotten what their superior said.
Another possibility is that it comes from the French phrase for yes is “oui”. It would be “ai ie capitaine”.
The phrase originates from the days of sailing ships. It is a call for agreement – sort of like saying “Aye!” or “I agree” to something said in order to show assent. It also originates from the naval term AYE, which means affirmative, and thus could have been adapted into everyday usage by sailors in response to having their commands confirmed.