Navy Terms and Phrases
Origin of Navy Terminology
Origin of Navy Terminology
The When and Why of Navy Terms
Text on cover:
There aren't many "old salts" in today's Navy who haven't
been required sometime in their career to heave around on a length of hawser in order to tie up a ship. Hawser used in this
backbreaking task is called mooring line and gets its name from a combination of two terms used in the early days of sail.
The Middle Dutch word "maren" meant "to tie," and the Middle English words "moren rap" meant "ship's rope." Through the years
the terms merged and were Americanized, hence any line used to tie a ship to the pier is called "mooring line."
Text on inside cover of brochure:
"Origin of Navy Terminology" reprinted by Naval Education and Training Program
Development Center (Code ETM2) for use in the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps "Introduction to Naval Science" curriculum.
Original brochure developed in commemoration of the US Navy's 200th
Birthday by the Navy Internal Relations Activity, Office of the Chief of Information, LT John W. Alexander, Director, Print
Recognition and thanks extended to JO2 Dan Wheeler for compilation.
LTJG Bill Ray and Ensign Douglas Gray for artwork. Note:
The only editorial change to the text has been the alphabetization of definitions for the convenience of readers.
An admiral is the senior ranking flag officer in the US 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 an "emir-al." Our English word is derived directly from the Moorish.
In today's Navy when you intentionally deceive someone, usually as a joke, you
are said to have bamboozled them. The word was used in the days of sail, also, but the intent was not 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 of pirates.
||Many novice sailors, confusing the words "binnacle" and barnacle, have wondered
what their illnesses had to do with crusty growths found on the hull of a ship. Their confusion is understandable.|
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 ships' corpsmen used to place a list of the sick on the binnacle each morning to inform the captain
about the crew's health. After long practice, it came to be called binnacle list.
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. Thus, the last of the line secured to the bitts is
known as the bitter end. Nautical usage has somewhat expanded the original definition in that today the end of any line, secured
to bitts or not, is called a bitter end.
The landlubbing phrases "stick to the bitter end" and "faithful to the bitter
end" are derivations of the nautical term and refer to anyone who insists on adhering to a course of action without regard
|BOATSWAIN, COCKSWAIN (OR COXSWAIN), SKIFFSWAIN
As required by 17th century law, British ships-of-war carried three smaller boats
-- the boat, the cock boat, and the skiff. The boat -- or gig -- was usually used by the captain to go ashore and was the
larger of the three. The cock boat was a very small rowboat used as a ship's tender. The skiff was a lightweight all-purpose
vessel. The suffix "swain" means keeper, thus the keepers of the boat, cock and skiff were called boatswain, cockswain and
skiffswain respectively. Until 1949, a boatswain's mate 3rd class in the Navy was called a cockswain.
No self-respecting boatswain's mate would dare admit he couldn't blow his pipe
in a manner above reproach. This pipe, which is the emblem of the boatswain and his mates, has an ancient and interesting
On the ancient row-galleys, the boatswain used his pipe to "call the stroke." Later because its shrill tune
could be heard above most of the activity on board, it was used to signal various happenings such as knock-off and the boarding
of officials. So essential was this signaling device to the well-being of the ship, that it became a badge of office and honor
in the British and American Navy of the sailing ships.
Often an old salt will boast that he has had bokoo this or has done something
bokoo times during his seafaring years. The picturesque sound of the word "bokoo" may cause one to wonder how it came to mean
"many" or "a lot."
Actually, bokoo is a legitimate French word, "beaucoup," meaning "very many." Americanization changed
the spelling and pronunciation but the meaning remains unchanged. Like many foreign terms that have crept into our nautical
lingo, "bokoo" is the inevitable product of generations of American seamen meeting peoples of other nations and adopting bokoo
phrases from their languages for everyday shipboard use.
Bully boys, a term prominent in Navy chanties and poems, means in its strictest
sense, "beef eating sailors." Sailors of the Colonial Navy had a daily menu of an amazingly elastic substance called bully
beef, actually beef jerky. The item appeared so frequently on the messdeck that it naturally lent its name to the sailors
who had to eat it.
As an indication of the beef's texture and chewability, it was also called "salt junk" alluding
to the rope yarn used for caulking the ship's seams.
Bumboats, in spite of their name, were not waterborne geedunks piloted by bums
or hobos. They are small boats used by native hucksters and gizmo salesmen to transport their wares to ships anchored in the
storm. The name is a hand-me-down from "boomboats" as the craft were once permitted to tie up to the boat boom of a ship.
An early Low German spelling was "bumboat" and in that form it was taken up by American sailors.
The term "mast" refers to the ceremony that takes place when the captain awards
non-judicial punishment for regulation infractions or official recognition for "jobs well done." In the days of sail, ceremonies
were held under the mainmast on a regular basis and usually on a Sunday morning just before divine services. Consequently,
the ceremony came to be known as "mast" in recognition of the locality of the presentation.
||In the days of sail, the officer of the deck kept a weather eye constantly on
the slightest change in 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.|
the centuries the term's connotation has changed somewhat. Today, the Bluejacket Manual defines "carry on" as an order
to resume work: work not so grueling as two centuries ago.
Chaplains, the military men of the cloth, are rightly named according to French
It seems that Saint Martin of Tours shared his cloak -- by splitting it in half -- with a beggar on a wintry
day at the gates of Amiens, France. The cloak was preserved since it was believed to have been shared with Christ, and became
the sacred banner of French kings. The officer tasked with the care of the cloak and carrying into battle was called the chaplain
or cloak bearer. Chaplain comes from the French word "chapele" meaning a short cloke. Later, priests or chaplains, rather
than field officers, were charged with the care of the sacred cloak.
Chaplains served aboard warships of many nations
and in the British and American navies they collected four pence per month from each member of the crew. In return, they rewarded
every seaman who learned a psalm by giving him six pence.
Besides holding divine services, chaplains were charged with
the instruction of midshipmen and the moral guidance of officers and men alike.
It wasn't until the 18th century that
chaplains were permitted to dine in the wardroom. Previously, they messed in their own cabins although they were frequently
invited to dine with the captain.
Charley Noble is the enlisted man's name for the galley smoke stack or funnel.
The funnel is said to have been named after a stern old merchant captain who discovered that the galley's smoke stack was
made of copper and therefore should receive a daily polishing. In today's Navy it is the custom to send green recruits to
find Charley Noble, a hunt which causes endless amusement for the ship's veterans.
|CHEWING THE FAT
||"God made the vittles, but the devil made the cook," was a popular saying used
by seafaring men in the last century when salted beef was staple diet aboard ship.|
This tough cured beef, suitable
only for long voyages when nothing else was as cheap or would keep as well, required prolonged chewing to make it edible.
Men often chewed one chunk for hours, just as if it were chewing gum and referred to this practice as "chewing the fat."
One tradition carried on in the Navy is the use of the "chit." It is a carry
over from the days when Hindu traders used slips of paper called "citthi" for money, so they wouldn't have to carry heavy
bags of gold and silver.
British sailors shortened the word to chit and applied it to their mess vouchers. Its most
outstanding use in the Navy today is for drawing pay and a form used for requesting leave and liberty. But the term is currently
applied to almost any piece of paper from a pass to an official letter requesting some privilege.
The crow (the bird, not the rating badge) was an essential part of the early
sailors' navigation equipment. These land-lubbing fowl were carried on board to help the navigator determine where the closest
land lay when the weather prevented sighting the shore visually. In cases of poor visibility, a crow was released and the
navigator plotted a course that corresponded with the bird's because it invariably headed toward land.
The crow's nest
was situated high in the main mast where the look-out stood his watch. Often, he shared this lofty perch with a crow or two
since the crows' cages were kept there: hence the "crow's nest."
British seaman, apt to be ashore and unemployed for considerable periods between
voyages, generally preferred to live in boarding houses near the piers while waiting for sailing ships to take on crews. During
these periods of unrestricted liberty, many ran out of money so the innkeepers carried them on credit until hired for another
When a seaman was booked on a ship, he was customarily advanced a month's wages, if needed, to pay off his
boarding house debt. Then, while paying back the ship's master, he worked for nothing but "salt horse" the first several weeks
Salt horse was the staple diet of early sailors and it wasn't exactly tasty cuisine. Consisting of a low quality
beef that had been heavily salted, the salt horse was tough to chew and even harder to digest.
When the debt had been
repaid, the salt horse was said to be dead and it was a time for great celebration among the crew. Usually, an effigy of a
horse was constructed from odds and ends, set afire and then cast afloat to the cheers and hilarity of the ex-debtors.
just as in the days of sail, "dead horse" refers to a debt to the government for advance pay. Sailors today don't burn effigies
when the debt is paid but they are no less jubilant than their counterparts of old.
|DEVIL TO PAY
Today the expression "devil to pay" is used primarily as a means of conveying
an unpleasant and impending happening. Originally, this expression denoted a specific task aboard the ship as caulking the
ship's longest seam.
The "devil" was the longest seam on the wooden ship and caulking was done with "pay" or pitch.
This grueling task of paying the devil was despised by every seaman and the expression came to denote any unpleasant task.
Ditty bag (or box) was originally called "ditto bag" because it contained at
least two of everything: two needles, two spools of thread, two buttons, etc. With the passing of years, the "ditto" was dropped
in favor of "ditty" and remains so today.
Before World War I, the Navy issued ditty boxes made of wood and styled after
foot lockers. These carried the personal gear and some clothes of the sailor.
Today the ditty bag is still issued to
recruits and contains a sewing kit, toiletry articles and personal items such as writing paper and pens.
Dog watch is the name given to the 1600-1800 and the 1800-2000 watches aboard
ship. The 1800-2000 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.
its corrupted form, dodge became dog and the procedure is referred to as "dogging the watch" or standing the "dog watch."
Webster defines dungaree as "a coarse kind of fabric worn by the poorer class
of people and also used for tents and sail." We find it hard to picture our favorite pair of dungarees flying from the mast
of a sailing ship, but in those days sailors often made both their working clothes and hammocks out of discarded sail cloth.
cloth used then wasn't as well woven nor was it dyed blue, but it served the purpose. Dungarees worn by sailors of the Continental
Navy were cut directly from old sails and remained tan in color just has they had been when filled with wind.
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. Since the cloth was called
dungaree, clothes made from the fabric borrowed the name.
The name given the Navy's junior most officer dates 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 US Army the lowest ranking officer was originally called "ensign" because he, like the
squire of old, would one day lead troops into battle and was training to that end. It is still the lowest commissioned rank
in the British army today.
When the US Navy was established, the Americans carried on the tradition and adapted the
rank of ensign as the title for its junior commissioned officers.
Fathom was originally a land measuring term derived from the Anglo Saxon word
"faetm" meaning literally the embracing arms or to embrace. In those days, most measurements were based on average sizes of
parts of the body such as the hand or foot, or were derived from the average lengths between two points on the body. A fathom
is the average distance from fingertip to fingertip of the outstretched arms of a man, about six feet.
Even today in
our nuclear Navy, sailors can be seen "guesstimating" the length of line by using the Anglo Saxon fingertip method; crude
but still reliable. And every housewife measuring cloth today knows that from the tip of her nose to the tips of her fingers
of one outstretched arm equals one yard.
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. No one, however, knows for certain where the term originated;
there are several plausible theories:
In the 1920s, a comic strip character named Harold Teen and his friends spent
a great amount of time at Pop's candy store. The store's name was the Sugar Bowl but Harold and company always called it the
geedunk for reasons never explained.
The Chinese word meaning a place of idleness sounds something like "gee dung."
is sound made by a vending machine when it dispenses a soft drink in a cup.
It may be derived from the German word
"tunk" meaning to dip or sop either in gravy or coffee. Dunking was a common practice in days when bread, not always obtained
fresh, needed a bit of "tunking" to soften it. The "ge" is a German unaccented prefix denoting repetition. In time it may
have changed from getunk to geedunk.
Whatever theory we use to explain geedunk's origin, it doesn't alter the fact
that Navy people are glad it all got started!
In the modern Navy falsifying 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 navigation lessons. Each mid 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.
Certain 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 this information, they proceeded to
the gundeck to "gundeck" their navigation homework by simply working backwards from the dead reckoning position.
|HE KNOWS THE ROPES
When we say someone knows the ropes we infer that he knows his way around at
sea and is quite capable of handling most nautical problems. Through the years the phrase's meaning has changed somewhat.
Originally, the statement was printed on a seaman's discharge to indicate that he knew the names and primary uses of the main
ropes on board ship. In other words, "This man is a novice seaman and knows only the basics of seamanship."
The words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Idle as a painted ship upon a painted
ocean" well describe a sailing ship's situation when it entered the horse latitudes. Located near the West Indies between
30 and 40 degrees north latitude, these waters were noted for unfavorable winds that becalmed cattle ships heading from Europe
Often ships carrying horses would have to cast several overboard to conserve drinking water for the rest
as the ship rode out the unfavorable winds. Because so many horses and other cattle were tossed to the sea, the area came
to be known as the "horse latitudes."
|IN THROUGH THE HAWSEPIPE
Sometimes we hear an old chief petty officer claim he came into the Navy through
the hawsepipe and it makes one wonder if he is referring to some early enlistment program. Actually, it was an enlistment
program of sorts; it means a person is salty and savvies the ways of the sea because he began his nautical career on the lowest
ladder of the deck force. A hawsepipe or hawsehole, incidentally, is a hole in the bow of the ship through which the anchor
A jacob's ladder is a portable ladder made of rope or metal and used primarily
as an aid in boarding ship. Originally, the jacob's ladder was a network of line leading to the skysail on wooden ships. The
name alludes to the biblical Jacob reputed to have dreamed that he climbed a ladder to the sky.
Anyone who has ever
tried climbing a jacob's ladder while carrying a seabag can appreciate the allusion. It does seem that the climb is long enough
to take one into the next world.
To be keelhauled today is merely to be given a severe reprimand for some infraction
of the rules. As late as the 19th century, however, it meant the extreme. It was a dire and often fatal torture employed to
punish offenders of certain naval laws.
An offender was securely bound both hand and foot and had heavy weights attached
to his body. He was then lowered over the ship's side and slowly dragged along under the ship's hull. If he didn't drown --
which was rare -- barnacles usually ripped him, causing him to bleed to death.
All navies stopped this cruel and unusual
punishment many years ago and today any such punishment is forbidden.
The term knot or nautical mile, is used world-wide to denote one's speed through
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."
log line was a length of twine marked at 47.33-foot intervals by colored knots. At one end was fastened a log chip; 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.
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 onto 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 term stuck.
The master-at-arms 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 sail, the MAAs were truly "masters at arms." The master-at-arms in the US Navy can trace the beginning
of his rate to the Union Navy of the Civil War.
"Midshipmen" originally referred to the youngsters aboard British Navy vessels
who were in training to become naval officers. Their primary duties included carrying orders from the officers, quartered
in the stern, to the crew, quartered in the fo'c'sle. The repeated scampering through the middle part of the ship earned them
the name "midshipmen" and the nickname "middle."
Naval Academy students and Navy Reserve Officer Training Candidates
are still called midshipmen because, just like their counterparts of old, they are in training to become officers in the sea
service. It is interesting to note that mids (the term middie went out of use only recently) back in the days of sail could
begin their naval careers at the ripe old age of eight.
|MIND YOUR Ps AND Qs
There are few of us who have not at one time or another been admonished to "mind
our Ps and Qs," or in other words, to behave our best. Oddly enough, "mind your Ps and Qs" had nautical beginnings as a method
of keeping books on the waterfront.
In the days of sail when sailors were paid a pittance, seaman drank their ale in
taverns whose keepers were willing to extend credit until payday. Since many salts were illiterate, keepers kept a talley
of pints and quarts consumed by each sailor on a chalkboard behind the bar. Next to each person's name a mark was made under
"P" for pint or "Q" for quart whenever a seaman ordered another draught.
On payday, each seaman was liable for each
mark next to his name, so he was forced to "mind his Ps and Qs" or get into financial trouble. To ensure an accurate count
by unscrupulous keepers, sailors had to keep their wits and remain somewhat sober. Sobriety usually ensured good behavior,
hence the meaning of "mind your Ps and Qs."
||There aren't many "old salts" in today's Navy who haven't been required sometime
in their career to heave around on a length of hawser in order to tie up a ship. Hawser used in this backbreaking task is
called mooring line and gets its name from a combination of two terms used in the early days of sail. The Middle Dutch word
"maren" meant "to tie," and the Middle English words "moren rap" meant "ship's rope." Through the years the terms merged and
were Americanized, hence any line used to tie a ship to the pier is called "mooring line."|
Blue has not always been "navy blue." In fact it wasn't until 1745 that the expression
navy blue meant anything at all.
In that year several British officers petitioned the Admiralty for adaption of new
uniforms for its officers. The first lord requested several officers to model various uniforms under consideration so he could
select the best. He then selected several uniforms of various styles and colors to present to George II for the final decision.
George, unable to decide on either style or color, finally chose a blue and white uniform because they were the favorite color
combinations of the first lord's wife, Duchess of Bedford.
Sailors who have to endure pea-soup weather often don their pea cots 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, coarse, stout kind of twilled blue cloth with the nap on one side. The cloth was
sometimes called P-cloth for the initial letter of the word and the garment made from it was called a p-jacket -- later a
pea coat. The term has been used since 1723 to denote coats made from that cloth.
Sometimes, novice seamen will ask "how comes holes on the starboard side are
called portholes instead of starboardholes?" Many old salts are ready with explanations, but actually the name "porthole"
has nothing to do with its location. The word originated during the reign of Henry VI of England (1485). It seems the good
king insisted on mounting guns too large for his ships and therefore the conventional methods of securing the weapons on the
forecastle and aftcastle could not be used.
A French shipbuilder named James Baker was commissioned to solve the problem.
And solve it he did by piercing the ship's sides so the cannon could be mounted inside the fore and after castles. Covers,
gun ports, were fitted for heavy weather and when the cannon were not in use.
The French word "porte" meaning door,
was used to designate the revolutionary invention. "Porte" was Anglicized to "Port" and later corrupted to porthole. Eventually,
it came to mean any opening in a ship's side whether for cannon or not.
|ROPE YARN SUNDAY
On the day the tailor boarded a sailing ship in port, the crew knocked off early,
broke out rope yarn and mended clothes and hammocks. One afternoon per week at sea, usually a Wednesday, was reserved for
mending. Since it was an afternoon for rest from the usual chores, much like Sunday, it was dubbed "rope yarn Sunday."
Navy adhered to the custom up to the years immediately after World War II; men used Wednesday afternoon for personal errands
like picking up their laundry and getting haircuts. Of course they paid back the time by working a half-day on Saturdays.
uniforms require less attention so rope yarn Sunday has been turned to other purposes; mainly early liberty or a time for
catching up on sleep. Some, however, still adhere to tradition and break out the ditty bag for an afternoon of uniform PMS
[Preventative Maintenance Schedule].
"Sally ship" was not a ship but a method of loosing a vessel run aground from
the mud holding her fast. In the days before sophisticated navigation equipment, ships ran aground much more often than today.
A grounded ship could be freed with little or no hull damage if she could be rocked out of her muddy predicament.
free her, the order was given to "sally ship." The crew gathered in a line along one side and then ran athwartships from port
to starboard and back and forth until the vessel began to roll. Often the rolling broke the mud's suction and she could be
pulled free and gotten underway.
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 side causing her to sink, and "butt," a cask or hogshead
used in the days of wooden ships to hold drinking water; thus the term scuttlebutt means a cask with a hole in it. "Scuttle"
describes what most rumors accomplish if not to the ship, at least to morale. "Butt" describes the water cask where men naturally
congregated, and that's where most rumors get started. The terms "galley yarn" and "messdeck intelligence" also mean the spreading
of rumors and many, of course, start on the messdeck.
Sea chanties were songs sung in the days of sail by crews as they worked at heaving
the lines or turning the capstan. The songs' rhythms caused everyone to push or pull simultaneously, hence causing a concerted
effort and better results.
Some believe the term is a derivation of the French word "chanter" which means "to sing."
Others maintain the spelling should be "shanties," claiming the name refers to the shanties along the Mobile, Ala. waterfront
where many of the tunes were learned by sailors.
Whatever the origin, chanties were divided into three distinct classes.
Short-drag chanties, used when a few strong pulls were needed; long-drag chanties, longer songs to speed the work of long-haul
jobs; and heaving chanties, used for jobs requiring continuous action such as turning the capstan.
One man, the chanty-man,
stood high above the working crew and sang the main lines while the rest of the crew added their voices strongly on the second
line. On the last word, a combined pull made the ropes "come home."
A good chanty-man was highly prized by officers
and crew alike. Although he had no official title or rate, he was usually relieved of all duties to compose new verses for
Sometimes when a ship is heading for the yards, an old salt says that she is
going to see her husband now and it causes novices to wonder what he's talking about. A ship's husband was once a widely used
term which described the man in charge of the shipyard responsible for the repair of a particular ship. It was not uncommon
to hear the sailors of creaky ships lament, "Ah, she's been a good ship, lads, but she's needing her husband now."
the course of a ship's life, she may have had more than one husband but this had little bearing upon her true affections.
Tradition has it, her love was saved solely for her sailors.
|SHOW A LEG
Many of our Navy's colorful expressions originated as practical means of communicating
vital information. One such expression is "show a leg."
In the British Navy of King George III and earlier, many sailors'
wives accompanied them on long voyages. This practice caused a multitude of problems but some ingenious bosun solved one that
tended to make reveille a hazardous event: that of distinguishing which bunks held males and which held females.
avoid dragging the wrong "mates" out of the rack, the bosun asked all to "show a leg." If the leg shown was adorned with silk,
the owner was allowed to continue sleeping. If the leg was hairy and tattooed, the owner was forced to "tum-to."
today's Navy showing a leg is a signal to the reveille petty officer that you have heard his call and are awake.
In the modern Navy, sickbay is the place a sailor can receive medical attention.
In the days of sail there were few such places on shore designated specifically for ill seamen, but onboard most ships there
were sick berths located in the rounded stern. The contour of the stern suggested the shape of a bay and consequently the
sailors began calling the ancient dispensaries sickbays.
The use of sideboys is a custom inherited from the British Navy. In the days
of sail, gangways weren't frequently used so sailors boarded ship by climbing the rope ladders. Important persons were granted
the privilege of wrestling with the jacob's ladder. Very important persons, many of whom were rather hefty or aged, were hoisted
aboard in a bos'un's chair.
The officer of the deck instructed the bos'un's to rig a chair hoist from a yardarm and,
with much heaving and hoeing, the VIPs were hoisted aboard much like casks of salt horse. The men who did the hoisting were
Today, sailors lined up in clean uniforms on the quarterdeck when visiting dignitaries embark are
still called sideboys, preserving another naval tradition.
Originally, skylarking described the antics of young Navymen who climbed and
slid down the backstays for fun. Since the ancient word "lac" means "to play" and the games started high in the masts, the
term was "skylacing." Later, corruption of the word changed it to "skylarking."
Skylarking is a familiar term to most
sailors and a popular pastime for others. Today, it is generally looked upon with disfavor while on board ship because "goofing
off" can cause accidents and wastes time. However, skylarking wasn't always viewed unfavorably. Back in the days of wooden
ships, it was thought to be the better "occupation" of sailors with free time on their hands -- skylarking on the weatherdeck
-- rather than engaging in mutinous talk in a ship's dark corners.
Sea dogs who sailed the wooden ships endured hardships that sailors today never
suffer. Cramped quarters, poor unpalatable food, bad lighting and boredom were hard facts of sea life. But perhaps a more
frustrating problem was getting fire to kindle a cigar or pipe tobacco after a hard day's work.
Matches were scarce
and unreliable, yet smoking contributed positively to the morale of the crew so oil lamps were hung in the fo'c'sle and used
as matches. Smoking was restricted to certain times of the day and by the bos'un's. When it was allowed, the "smoking lamps"
were "lighted" and the men relaxed with their tobacco.
Fire was, and still is the great enemy of ships at sea. The
smoking lamp was centrally located for the convenience of all and was the only authorized light aboard. It was a practical
way of keeping open flames away from the magazines and other storage areas.
In today's Navy the smoking lamps have
disappeared but the words "smoking lamp is lighted in all authorized spaces" remains, a carryover from our past.
|SPINNING A YARN
Salts and landlubbers alike delight in hearing a tall tale told with all the
trimmings by someone with a talent for "spinning a yarn." While today "spinning a yarn" refers to any exaggerated story, originally
it was exclusively a nautical term understood by sailors only.
Officers and mates in the old Navy were stern disciplinarians
who believed if sailors were allowed to congregate and tell sea stories, no work would be done. However, there was one job
that required congregating on a weekly basis -- unraveling the strands of old line.
On this day, the salts could talk
to their heart's content and the period came to be known as the time for "spinning yarns." Later anyone telling a tale was
said to be "spinning a yarn," a cherished naval tradition.
Today tonnage refers to a ship's displacement in the water or the gross pounds
of cargo it is capable of carrying. In the days of sail this was not so. Tonnage was spelled "tunnage" and referred to the
number of "tuns" a ship could carry. A "tun" was a barrel normally used for transporting wine and tunnage specified the number
of barrels that would fit into the ship's hold.
|TOOK THE WINDS OUT OF HIS SAILS
Often we use "took the wind out of his sails" to describe besting an opponent
in an argument. It simply means that one noble adversary presented such a sound argument that his worthy opponent was unable
to continue the verbal pugilistics.
Originally the term described a battle maneuver of sailing vessels. One ship would
pass close to windward usually ahead of another, and thereby blanket or rob the breeze from the enemy's canvas causing him
to lose headway.
Aboard 18th century British ships there was a compartment called the wardrobe
and used for storing booty taken at sea. The officers' mess and staterooms were situated nearby, so when the wardrobe was
empty they congregated there to take their meals and pass the time.
When the days of swashbuckling and pirating had
ended, the wardrobe was used exclusively as an officers' mess and lounge. Having been elevated from a closet to a room, it
was called the wardroom.
Americans are known by their nicknames from Hong Kong to Timbukto; one of the
most widely used is "Yankee." Its origin is uncertain but it is believed to have been given us by the early Dutch.
American sea captains were known, but not revered, for their ability to drive a hard bargain. Dutchmen also regarded as extremely
frugal, jokingly referred to the hard to please Americans as "Yankers" or wranglers and the nom de plume persists to this
*The American counterpart, the British sailor, was known
as a “LIMEY” because of his consumption of limes while on the high seas. Scurvy is a
disease caused by the deficiency of vitamin C, and the latter stages generally result in death. The British sailors historically
consumed limes, a fruit known to be high in Vitamin C, to avoid the deadly condition. Scurvy can easily be
avoided with proper diet, but because of the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables during the American Civil War, it was responsible
for the deaths of thousands of Confederate soldiers.
Reading: Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S.
Navy. From Publishers Weekly: Starred
Review. Toll, a former financial analyst and political speechwriter, makes an auspicious debut with this rousing, exhaustively
researched history of the founding of the U.S. Navy. The author chronicles the late 18th- and early 19th-century process of
building a fleet that could project American power beyond her shores. The ragtag Continental Navy created during the Revolution
was promptly dismantled after the war, and it wasn't until 1794—in the face of threats to U.S.
shipping from England, France
and the Barbary states of North Africa—that Congress
authorized the construction of six frigates and laid the foundation for a permanent navy. Continued below…
Department of the Navy followed in 1798. The fledgling navy quickly proved its worth in the Quasi War against France
in the Caribbean, the Tripolitan War with Tripoli and the
War of 1812 against the English. In holding its own against the British, the U.S.
fleet broke the British navy's "sacred spell of invincibility," sparked a "new enthusiasm for naval power" in the U.S. and marked the maturation of the American navy. Toll
provides perspective by seamlessly incorporating the era's political and diplomatic history into his superlative single-volume
narrative—a must-read for fans of naval history and the early American
Reading: If By Sea: The Forging of the American Navy-From the Revolution
to the War of 1812. From Publishers Weekly:
Daughan brings a long academic career and solid command of his sources to this provocative history of the origins of the U.S.
Navy. Conventional wisdom has the navy beginning in the 1790s. Daughan instead traces its roots to the Revolution. The fleet
established by the Continental Congress had a relatively undistinguished career, but Daughan demonstrates that the Americans
gained technical experience, produced talented officers, trained seamen and developed a basic understanding of how a navy
should be employed. Continued below…
then was whether a navy would concentrate too much authority in the central government and risk embroiling the new country
in foreign quarrels. By contrast, a coastal defense force of small ships threatened nobody, foreign or domestic. Daughan traces
the debate through four administrations, smoothly integrating political with external influences like the Quasi-War with France
(1798–1800) and the campaign against the Barbary pirates. Not until the War of 1812,
when the navy proved critical, did a national consensus emerge that preparing for war was the best way of avoiding one—a
lesson that remains worth remembering.
Reading: The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War
II Story of the U.S. Navy's Finest Hour. From Publishers Weekly: One of the finest WWII naval action narratives
in recent years, this book follows in the footsteps of Flags of Our Fathers, creating a microcosm of the war's American Navy
destroyers. Hornfischer, a writer and literary agent in Austin, Tex., covers the battle off Samar, the Philippines, in October
1944, in which a force of American escort carriers and destroyers fought off a Japanese force many times its strength, and
the larger battle of Leyte Gulf, the opening of the American liberation of the Philippines, which might have suffered a major
setback if the Japanese had attacked the transports. Continued below…
the men who crewed the destroyer Taffy 3, most of whom had never seen salt water before the war but who fought, flew, kept
the crippled ship afloat, and doomed ships fighting almost literally to the last shell. Finally, Hornfischer provides a perspective
on the Japanese approach to the battle, somewhat (and justifiably) modifying the traditional view of the Japanese Admiral
Kurita as a fumbler or even a coward-while exalting American sailors and pilots as they richly deserve. (American admirals
don't get off so easily.) Not entirely free of glitches in research, the book still reads like a very good action novel, indicated
by its selection as a dual split main selection of the BOMC and History Book Club alternate.
Reading: George Washington's Secret Navy (Hardcover). Description: In July 1775, in his first inspection of the American encampment
on the outskirts of Boston, the Continental Army's newly arrived commander-in-chief noted its haphazard design and shabby
construction--clearly the work of men unprepared to face the world's most powerful fighting force. George Washington had inherited
not only an army of woefully untrained and ill-equipped soldiers, but a daunting military prospect as well. To the east he
could see the enemy's heavily fortified positions on Bunker Hill and a formidable naval presence
on the river beyond. British-occupied Boston was defended by impressive redoubts that would
easily repel any American assault, and Boston Harbor bristled with the masts of merchant ships delivering food, clothing, arms, ammunition,
and other necessities to the British. Washington knew that
the king's troops had all the arms and gunpowder they could want, whereas his own army lacked enough powder for even one hour
of major combat. The Americans were in danger of losing a war before it had truly begun. Continued below…
complete lack of naval experience, Washington recognized that harassing British merchant ships was his
only means of carrying the fight to the enemy and sustaining an otherwise unsustainable stalemate. But he also knew that many
in Congress still hoped for reconciliation with England,
and in that climate Congressional approval for naval action was out of the question. So, without notifying Congress and with
no real authority to do so, the general began arming small merchant schooners and sending them to sea to hunt down British
transports “in the Service of the ministerial Army.” In George Washington's Secret Navy, award-winning author
James L. Nelson tells the fascinating tale of how America's first commander-in-chief
launched America's first navy. Nelson
introduces us to another side of a general known for his unprecedented respect for civilian authority. Here we meet a man
whose singular act of independence helped keep the Revolution alive in 1775.
is not the first historian to reveal this little-known albeit incredibly important aspect of our Revolution, but no one has
done it more thoroughly or with greater literary grace." --William M. Fowler, author of Empires at War
Reading: Civil War Navies, 1855-1883 (The
U.S. Navy Warship Series) (Hardcover).
Description: Civil War Warships, 1855-1883 is the second in the five-volume US Navy Warships encyclopedia set. This valuable
reference lists the ships of the U.S. Navy and Confederate Navy during the Civil War and the years immediately following -
a significant period in the evolution of warships, the use of steam propulsion, and the development of ordnance. Civil War
Warships provides a wealth and variety of material not found in other books on the subject and will save the reader the effort
needed to track down information in multiple sources. Continued below…
size and time and place of construction are listed along with particulars of naval service. The author provides historical
details that include actions fought, damage sustained, prizes taken, ships sunk, and dates in and out of commission as well
as information about when the ship left the Navy, names used in other services, and its ultimate fate. 140 photographs, including
one of the Confederate cruiser Alabama recently uncovered by the author further contribute to this
indispensable volume. This definitive record of Civil War ships updates the author's previous work and will find a lasting
place among naval reference works.
Reading: A History of Ironclads: The Power of Iron over Wood. Description: This
landmark book documents the dramatic history of Civil War ironclads and reveals how ironclad warships revolutionized naval
warfare. Author John V. Quarstein explores in depth the impact of ironclads during the Civil War and their colossal effect
on naval history. The Battle of Hampton Roads was one of history's greatest naval engagements. Over the course of two days
in March 1862, this Civil War conflict decided the fate of all the world's navies. It was the first battle between ironclad
warships, and the 25,000 sailors, soldiers and civilians who witnessed the battle vividly understood what history would soon
confirm: wars waged on the seas would never be the same. Continued below…
About the Author: John V. Quarstein is an award-winning author and historian. He is director
of the Virginia
War Museum in Newport News and chief historical advisor for The Mariners' Museum's new USS Monitor Center
(opened March 2007). Quarstein has authored eleven books and dozens of articles on American, military and Civil War history,
and has appeared in documentaries for PBS, BBC, The History Channel and Discovery Channel.