NAVAL TERM ORIGINS

Admiral

An admiral is a senior ranking officer in the U.S. Navy, but his title comes from the name given the senior ranking officer in the Moorish army of many years ago. A Moorish chief was an "emir," and the chief of all chiefs was "emiral."

Ahoy!

This old traditional greeting for hailing other vessels was originally a Viking battle cry.

Bamboozle

In today's Navy, when you intentionally deceive someone, usually as a joke, you are said to have bamboozled them. The word also was used in the days of sail, but the intent wasn't hilarity. Bamboozle meant to deceive a passing vessel as to your ship's origin or nationality by flying an ensign other than your own - a common practice by pirates.

Before the mast

Literally, the position of the crew whose living quarters on board were in the forecastle (the section of a ship forward of the foremast). The term is also used more generally to describe seamen as compared with officers, in phrases such as "he sailed before the mast."

Between the Devil and the Deep

In wooden ships, the "devil" was the longest seam of the ship. It ran from the bow to the stern. When at sea and the "devil" had to be caulked, the sailor sat in a bo'sun's chair to do so. He was suspended between the "devil" and the sea, the "deep", a very precarious position, especially when the ship was underway.

Binnacle List

Many novice Sailors, confusing words "binnacle" and "barnacle" have wondered what their illness had to do with crusty growths found on the hull of a ship. Their confusion is understandable. Binnacle is defined as the stand or housing for the ship's compass located on the bridge. The term binnacle list, in lieu of sick list, originated years ago when ship's corpsmen used to place list of the sick on the binnacle each morning to inform the captain about the crew's health.

Bitter End

As any able-bodied seaman can tell you, a turn of a line around a bitt, those wooden or iron posts sticking through a ship's deck, is called a bitter end. The landlubbing phrase "stick it to the bitter end" and "faithful to the bitter end" are derivations of the nautical term and refer to anyone who insists in adhering to a course of action without regard to consequences.

Boot camp

During the Spanish-American War, Sailors wore leggings called boots, which came to mean a Navy (or Marine) recruit. These recruits trained in "boot" camps.

Brightwork

Brightwork originally referred to polished metal objects, and bright woodwork to wood which was kept scraped and scrubbed, especially topside. Bright it should be and work it is.

Carry On

In the days of sail, the officer of the deck kept a weather eye constantly on the slightest change in the wind so sail could be reefed or added as necessary to ensure the fastest headway. Whenever a good breeze came along, the order to "carry on" would be given. It meant to hoist every bit of canvas the yards could carry. Pity the poor Sailor whose weather eye failed him and the ship was caught partially reefed when a good breeze arrived. Through the centuries the term's connotation has changed somewhat. Today, the Bluejackets Manual defines "carry on" as an order to resume work; work presumably not so grueling as two centuries ago.

Charlie Noble

Charlie Noble is an "it," not a "he." A British merchant service captain, Charles Noble, is said to be responsible for the origin, about 1850, of this nickname for the galley smokestack. It seems that Captain Noble, discovering that the stack of his ship's galley was made of copper, ordered that it be kept bright. The ship's crew then started referring to the stack as the "Charley Noble."

Chewing the Fat

"God made the vittles but the devil made the cook," was a popular saying used by seafaring men in the 19th century when salted beef was staple diet aboard ship. This tough cured beef, suitable only for long voyages when nothing else was cheap or would keep as well (remember, there was no refrigeration), required prolonged chewing to make it edible. Men often chewed one chunk for hours, just as it were chewing gum and referred to this practice as "chewing the fat."

Clean Bill of Health

This widely used term has its origins in the document issued to a ship showing that the port it sailed from suffered from no epidemic or infection at the time of departure.

Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey

Every sailing ship had to have cannon for protection. Cannon of the times required round iron cannonballs. The master wanted to store the cannonballs such that they could be of instant use when needed, yet not roll around the gun deck. The solution was to stack them up in a square-based pyramid next to the cannon. The top level of the stack had one ball, the next level down had four, the next had nine, the next had sixteen, and so on. Four levels would provide a stack of 30 cannonballs. The only real problem was how to keep the bottom level from sliding out from under the weight of the higher levels. To do this, they devised a small brass plate ("brass monkey") with one rounded indentation for each cannonball in the bottom layer. Brass was used because the cannonballs wouldn't rust to the "brass monkey," but would rust to an iron one. When the temperature falls, brass contracts in size faster than iron. As it got cold on the gun decks, the indentations in the brass monkey would get smaller than the iron cannonballs they were holding. If the temperature got cold enough, the bottom layer would pop out of the indentations spilling the entire pyramid over the deck. Thus it was, quite literally, "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey." Shame on you! You thought it was a nasty expression.

Coxswain

A coxswain or cockswain was at first the swain (boy servant) in charge of the small cock or cockboat that was kept aboard for the ship's captain and which was used to row him to and from the ship. The term has been in use in England dating back to at least 1463. With the passing of time the coxswain became the helmsman of any boat, regardless of size.

Crow's Nest

The raven, or crow, was an essential part of the Vikings' navigation equipment. These land-lubbing birds were carried on aboard to help the ship's navigator determine where the closest land lay when weather prevented sighting the shore. In cases of poor visibility, a crow was released and the navigator plotted a course corresponding to the bird's flight path because the crow invariably headed towards land. The Norsemen carried the birds in a cage secured to the top of the mast. Later on, as ships grew and the lookout stood his watch in a tub located high on the main mast, the name "crow's nest" was given to this tub. While today's Navy still uses lookouts in addition to radars, etc., the crow's nest is a thing of the past.

Cup of Joe

Josephus Daniels (18 May 1862-15 January 1948) was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Among his reforms of the Navy were inaugurating the practice of making 100 Sailors from the Fleet eligible for entrance into the Naval Academy, the introduction of women into the service, and the abolishment of the officers' wine mess. From that time on, the strongest drink aboard Navy ships could only be coffee and over the years, a cup of coffee became known as "a cup of Joe".

Devil to Pay

Today the expression "devil to pay" is used primarily to describe having an unpleasant result from some action that has been taken, as in someone has done something they shouldn't have and, as a result, "there will be the devil to pay." Originally, this expression described one of the unpleasant tasks aboard a wooden ship. The "devil" was the wooden ship's longest seam in the hull. Caulking was done with "pay" or pitch (a kind of tar). The task of "paying the devil" (caulking the longest seam) by squatting in the bilges was despised by every seaman.

Dog Watch

Dog Watch is the name given to the 1600-1800 and 1800-2000 watches aboard ship. The 1600-2000, four-hour watch was originally split to prevent men from always having to stand the same watches daily. As a result, Sailors dodge the same daily routine, hence they are dodging the watch or standing the dodge watch. In its corrupted form, dodge became dog, and the procedure is referred to as "dogging the watch," or standing the dog watch.

Down the hatch

Here's a drinking expression that seems to have its origins in sea freight, where cargoes are lowered into the hatch. First used by seamen, it has only been traced back to the turn of the century.

Duffle

A name given to a Sailor's personal effects. Also spelled duffel, it referred to his principal clothing as well as to the seabag in which he carried and stowed it. The term comes from the Flemish town of Duffel near Antwerp, and denotes a rough woolen cloth made there.

Dungarees

Websters Dictionary defines dungaree as a course kind of fabric worn by the proper class of people and also used for tents and sails. We find it hard to picture our favorite part of dungarees flying from the mast of a sailing ship, but in the old days Sailors often made both their working clothes and hammocks out of discarded sail cloth. The cloth used then wasn't as well woven nor was it dyed blue. However, it served the purpose. Dungarees worn by Sailors of the Continental Navy were cut directly from old sails and remained tan in color, just as they had been when filled with wind. After battles, it was the practice in both the American and British navies for captains to report more sail lost in battle than actually was the case so the crew would have cloth to mend their hammocks and make new clothes.

Eight Bells

Aboard Navy ships, bells are struck to designate the hours of being on watch. Each watch is four hours in length. One bell is struck after the first half-hour has passed, two bells after one hour has passed, three bells after an hour and a half, four bells after two hours, and so forth up to eight bells are struck at the completion of the four hours. Completing a watch with no incidents to report was "Eight bells and all is well." The practice of using bells stems from the days of the sailing ships. Sailors couldn't afford to have their own time pieces and relied on the ship's bells to tell time. The ship's boy kept time by using a half-hour glass. Each time the sand ran out, he would turn the glass over and ring the appropriate number of bells.

Ensign

The name given the Navy's junior-most officers dates back to medieval times. Lords honored their squires by allowing them to carry the ensign (banner) into battle. Later, these squires became known by the name of the banner itself. In the U.S. Army, the lowest ranking officer was originally called "ensign" because he, like the squire of old, would one day lead the troops into battle and was trained to that end. It is still the lowest commissioned rank in the British Army today. When the U.S. navy was established, the Americans carried on the tradition and adopted the rank of ensign as the title for its junior commissioned officer.

Fathom

Fathom was originally a land measuring term derived from the Ango-Saxon word "faetm" meaning to embrace. In those days, most measurements were based on average size of parts of the body, such as the hand (horses are still measured this way) or the foot (that's why 12 inches are so named). A fathom is the average distance from fingertip to fingertip of the outstretched arms of a man &emdash; about six feet. Since a man stretches out his arms to embrace his sweetheart, Britain's Parliament declared that distance be called a "fathom" and it be a unit of measure. A fathom remains six feet. The word was also used to describe taking the measure or "to fathom" something. Today, of course, when one is trying to figure something out, they are trying to "fathom" it. Even today, in our nuclear Navy, Sailors can be seen "guess-timating" the length of line by using the Anglo-Saxon fingertip method.

Flying Dutchman

One superstition has it that any mariner who sees the ghost ship called the Flying Dutchman will die within the day. The tale of the Flying Dutchman trying to round the Cape of Good Hope against strong winds and never succeeding, then trying to make Cape Horn and failing there too, has been the most famous of maritime ghost stories for more 300 years. The cursed spectral ship sailing back and forth on its endless voyage, its ancient white-hair crew crying for help while hauling at her sail, inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge to write his classic "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," to name but one famous literary work.The real Flying Dutchman is supposed to have set sail in 1660.

Forecastle

The appropriate pronunciation for this word is fo'ksul. The forecastle is the forward part of the main deck. It derives its name from the days of Viking galleys when wooden castles were built on the forward and after parts the main deck from which archers and other fighting men could shoot arrows and throw spears, rocks, etc.

Fouled anchor

The fouled (rope- or chain-entwined) anchor so prevalent in our Navy's designs and insignia is a symbol at least 500 years old that has it origins in the British traditions adopted by our naval service.The fouled anchor was adopted as the official seal of Lord High Admiral Charles Lord Howard of Effingham during the late 1500s. A variation of the seal had been in use by the Lord High Admiral of Scotland about a century earlier. The anchor (both with and without the entwined rope) is a traditional heraldic device used in ancient British coats of arms. As a heraldic device, it is a stylized representation used merely for its decorative effect.

Galley

The galley is the kitchen of the ship. The best explanation as to its origin is that it is a corruption of "gallery". Ancient sailors cooked their meals on a brick or stone gallery laid amidships.

Geedunk

To most Sailors, the word geedunk means ice cream, candy, potato chips and other assorted snacks, or even the place where they can be purchased. "Geedunk" is the sound made by a vending machine when it disposes a soft drink in the cup.

Gundecking

In the modern Navy, falsifying documents reports, records and the like is often referred to as gundecking. The origin of the term is somewhat obscure, but at the risk of gundecking, here are two plausible explanations for its modern usage. The deck below the upper deck on British sailing ships-of-war was called the gundeck, although it carried no guns. This false deck may have been constructed to deceive enemies as to the amount of armament carried. Thus the gundeck was a falsification. A more plausible explanation may stem from shortcuts taken by early midshipmen when doing their navigational lessons. Each man was supposed to take sun lines at noon and star sights at night, and then go below to the gundeck, work out their calculations and show them to the navigator. Some of these young men, however, had a special formula for getting the correct answers. They would note the noon or last position on the quarterdeck traverse board and determine the approximate current position by dead reckoning plotting. Armed with the information, they proceeded to the gundeck to "gundeck" their navigation homework by simply working backwards from the dead reckoning station.

Gun Salutes

Gun salutes were first fired as an act of good faith. In the days when it took so long to reload a gun, it was a proof of friendly intention when the ship's cannon were discharged upon entering port.

Head

The "head" aboard a Navy ship is the bathroom. The term comes from the days of sailing ships when the place for the crew to relieve themselves was all the way forward on either side of the bowsprit, the integral part of the hull to which the figurehead was fastened.

He Knows the Ropes

In the very early days, this phrase was written on a seaman's discharge to indicate that he was still a novice. All he knew about being a sailor was just the names and uses of the principal ropes (lines). Today, this same phrase means the opposite &emdash; that the person fully knows and understands the operation (usually of the organization).

Holystone

The last Navy ships with teak decks were the battleships, now since decommissioned. Teak, and other wooden decks, were scrubbed with a piece of sandstone, nicknamed at one time by an anonymous witty sailor as the "holystone." It was so named because since its use always brought a man to his knees, it must be holy!

Keel hauling

A naval punishment on board ships said to have originated with the Dutch but adopted by other navies during the 15th and 16th centuries. A rope was rigged from yardarm to yardarm, passing under the bottom of the ship, and the unfortunate delinquent secured to it, sometimes with lead or iron weights attached to his legs. He was hoisted up to one yardarm and then dropped suddenly into the sea, hauled underneath the ship, and hoisted up to the opposite yardarm, the punishment being repeated after he had had time to recover his breath. While he was under water, a "great gun" was fired, "which is done as well to astonish him so much the more with the thunder of the shot, as to give warning until all others of the fleet to look out and be wary by his harms" (from Nathaniel Boteler, A Dialogicall Discourse, 1634). The U.S. Navy never practiced keel hauling.

Knot

The term knot or nautical mile, is used world-wide to denote one's speed through the water. Today, we measure knots with electronic devices, but 200 years ago, such devices were unknown. Ingenious mariners devised a speed-measuring device both easy to use and reliable, the "log line." From this method, we get the term "knot." The log line was a length of twine marked at 47.33 foot intervals by colored knots. At one end a log chip was fastened; it was shaped like the sector of a circle and weighted at the rounded end with lead. When thrown over the stern, it would float pointing upward and would remain relatively stationary. The log line was allowed to run free over the side for 28 seconds and then hauled on board. Knots which had passed over the side were counted. In this way, the ship's speed was measured.

Log Book

Today, any bound record kept on a daily basis aboard ship is called a "log." Originally, records were kept on the sailing ships by inscribing information into shingles cut from logs and hinged so they opened like books.When paper became more readily available, log books were manufactured from paper and bound. Shingles were relegated to naval museums, but the slang word stuck.

Master at Arms

The Master at Arms (MA) rating is by no means a modern innovation. Naval records show that these sheriffs of the sea were keeping order as early as the reign of Charles I of England. At that time, they were charged with keeping the swords, pistols, carbines and muskets in good working order, as well as ensuring that the bandoliers were filled with fresh powder before combat. Besides being chiefs of police at sea, the sea corporals, as they were called in the British navy had to be qualified in close order fighting under arms and able to train seamen in hand-to-hand combat. In the days of the sail, the MAAs were truly "masters at arms," serving another naval tradition.

Mayday

"Mayday" is the internationally recognized voice radio signal for ships and people in serious trouble at sea. Made official in 1948, it is an anglicizing of the French m'aidez, "help me".

Pea Coat

Sailors who have to endure pea-soup weather often don their pea coats but the coat's name isn't derived from the weather. The heavy topcoat worn in cold, miserable weather by seafaring men was once tailored from pilot cloth, a heavy, course, stout kind of twilled blue cloth with the nap on one side. The cloth was sometimes called P-cloth for the initial letter of "pilot" and the garment made from it was called a p-jacket and later, a pea coat. The term has been used since 1723 to denote coats made from that cloth.

Port holes

The word "port hole" originated during the reign of Henry VI of England (1485). King Henry insisted on mounting guns too large for his ship and the traditional methods of securing these weapons on the forecastle and aftcastle could not be used. A French shipbuilder named James Baker was commissioned to solve the problem. He put small doors in the side of the ship and mounted the cannon inside the ship. These doors protected the cannon from weather and were opened when the cannon were to be used. The French word for "door" is "porte" which was later Anglicized to "port" and later went on to mean any opening in the ship's side, whether for cannon or not.

Radar

An acronym standing for "radio detecting and ranging."

Rocks & Shoals

A set of Naval governing rules that were very severe for skipper brought up on charges of violating Naval regulations. Captains felt that they were being thrown on the "rocks and shoals".

Scuba

An acronym standing for "Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus."

Scuttlebutt

The origin of the word "scuttlebutt," which is nautical parlance for a rumor, comes from a combination of "scuttle", to make a hole in the ship's hull and thereby causing her to sink and "butt", a cask or hogshead used in the days of wooden ships to hold drinking water. The cask from which the ship's crew took their drinking water ,like a water fountain, was the "scuttlebutt". Even in today's Navy a drinking fountain is referred to as such. But, since the crew used to congregate around the "scuttlebutt", that is where the rumors about the ship or voyage would begin. Thus, then and now, rumors are talk from the "scuttlebutt" or just "scuttlebutt".

Shows his true colors

Early warships often carried flags from many nations on board in order to elude or deceive the enemy. The rules of civilized warfare called for all ships to hoist their true national ensigns before firing a shot. Someone who finally "shows his true colors" is acting like a man-of-war which hailed another ship flying one flag, but then hoisted their own when they got in firing range.

Side Boys

Tending the side with side boys, as we know it in modern practice, originated long time ago. It was customary in the days of sail to hold conferences on the flagships both when at sea and in open roadstead; also, officers were invited to dinner on other ships while at sea, weather permitting. Sometimes the sea was such that visitors were hoisted aboard in boatswain's chairs. Members of the crew did the hoisting, and it is from the aid they rendered in tending the side that the custom originated of having a certain number of men always in attendance. Some have reported the higher the rank, the heavier the individual; therefore, more side boys.

Smoking lamp

The exact date and origin of the smoking lamp has been lost. However, it probably came into use during the 16th Century when seamen began smoking on board vessels. The smoking lamp was a safety measure. It was devised mainly to keep the fire hazard away from highly combustible woodwork and gunpowder. Most navies established regulations restricting smoking to certain areas. Usually, the lamp was located in the forecastle or the area directly surrounding the galley indicting that smoking was permitted in this area. Even after the invention of matches in the 1830s, the lamp was an item of convenience to the smoker. When particularly hazardous operations or work required that smoking be curtailed, the unlighted lamp relayed the message. "The smoking lamp is lighted" or "the smoking lamp is out' were the expressions indicating that smoking was permitted or forbiddenThe smoking lamp has survived only as a figure of speech. When the officer of the deck says "the smoking lamp is out" before drills, refueling or taking ammunition, that is the Navy's way of saying "cease smoking."

Sonar

Sound Navigation Ranging. An acronym for underwater echo-ranging equipment, originally for detecting submarines by small warships.

S.O.S.

Contrary to popular notion, the letters S.O.S. do not stand for "Save Our Ship" or "Save Our Souls". They were selected to indicate a distress because, in Morse code, these letters and their combination create an unmistakable sound pattern.

Splice the Main Brace

A sailing ship's rigging was a favorite target during sea battles since by destroying the opponent's ability to maneuver or get away would put you at obvious advantage. Therefore, the first thing tended to after a battle was to repair broken gear, and repair sheets (sails) and braces (lines &endash; improperly, ropes &endash; passing through blocks and holding up sails). It was the custom, after the main braces were properly spliced, to serve grog to the entire crew. Thus, today, after a hard day (or, not so hard day), the phrase has become an invitation to have a drink.

Starboard

The Vikings called the side of their ship its board, and they placed the steering oar, the "star" on the right side of the ship, thus that side became known as the "star board." It's been that way ever since. And, because the oar was in the right side, the ship was tied to the dock at the left side. This was known as the loading side or "larboard". Later, it was decided that "larboard" and "starboard" were too similar,especially when trying to be heard over the roar of a heavy sea.The word port means the opening in the "left" side of the ship from which cargo was unloaded. Sailors eventually started using the term to refer to that side of the ship. Use of the term "port" was officially adopted by the U.S. Navy by General Order, 18 February 1846.

Suit

Nautical term, dating from at least the early 1600s, meaning the outfit of sails used by a ship. The term was revived after World War II, when a Navy ship's complement of electronics could be referred to as its electronics suit, and its total armament might be called its weapons suit. The word is sometimes incorrectly spelled "suite."

Tar, Jack Tar

Tar, a slang term for a Sailor, has been in use since at least 1676. The term "Jack tar" was used by the 1780s. Early Sailors wore overalls and broad-brimmed hats made of tar-impregnated fabric called tarpaulin cloth. The hats, and the Sailors who wore them, were called tarpaulins, which may have been shortened to tars.

Taken Aback

One of the hazards faced in days of sailing ships has been incorporated into English to describe someone who has been jolted by unpleasant news. We say that person has been "taken aback." The person is at a momentary loss; unable to act or even to speak. A danger faced by sailing ships was for a sudden shift in wind to come up (from a sudden squall), blowing the sails back against the masts, putting the ship in grave danger of having the masts break off and rendering the ship totally helpless. The ship was taken aback.

Three Mile Limit

The original three-mile limit was the recognized distance from a nation's shore over which that nation had jurisdiction. This border of international waters or the "high seas" was established because, at the time this international law was established, three miles was the longest range of any nation's most powerful guns, and therefore, the limit from shore batteries at which they could enforce their laws. (International law and the 1988 Territorial Sea Proclamation established the "high seas" border at the 12-mile limit.)

Toe the line

The space between each pair of deck planks in a wooden ship was filled with a packing material called "oakum" and then sealed with a mixture of pitch and tar. The result, from afar, was a series of parallel lines a half-foot or so apart, running the length of the deck.Once a week, as a rule, usually on Sunday, a warship's crew was ordered to fall in at quarters -- that is, each group of men into which the crew was divided would line up in formation in a given area of the deck. To insure a neat alignment of each row, the Sailors were directed to stand with their toes just touching a particular seam.Another use for these seams was punitive. The youngsters in a ship, be they ship's boys or student officers, might be required to stand with their toes just touching a designated seam for a length of time as punishment for some minor infraction of discipline, such as talking or fidgeting at the wrong time. A tough captain might require the miscreant to stand there, not talking to anyone, in fair weather or foul, for hours at a time. Hopefully, he would learn it was easier and more pleasant to conduct himself in the required manner rather than suffer the punishment.From these two uses of deck seams comes our cautionary word to obstreperous youngsters to "toe the line."

Took the wind out of his sails

Often we use "took the wind out of his sails" to describe getting the best of an opponent in an argument. Originally it described a battle maneuver of sailing ships. One ship would pass close to its adversary and on its windward side. The ship and sails would block the wind from the second vessel, causing it to lose headway. Losing motion meant losing maneuverability and the ability to carry on a fight.

Watches

Traditionally, a 24-hour day is divided into seven watches. These are: midnight to 4 a.m. [0000-0400], the mid-watch; 4 to 8 a.m. [0400-0800], morning watch; 8 a.m. to noon [0800-1200], forenoon watch; noon to 4 p.m. [1200-1600], afternoon watch; 4 to 6 p.m. [1600-1800] first dog watch; 6 to 8 p.m. [1800-2000], second dog watch; and, 8 p.m. to midnight [2000-2400], evening watch. The half hours of the watch are marked by the striking the bell an appropriate number of times.

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