submitted by Tony Dalton
A1 First rate. From Lloyds. The state of the ship’s hull is designated by letters starting with ‘A’ and that of the anchors etcetera, by numbers starting with ‘1’. Thus, A1 indicates something is first class.
ABACK. To be ‘taken aback’ is to be taken by surprise. From the sailing-ship term for when a ship encounters a 180-degree wind shift and the sails press against the mast to suddenly halt progress.
ADRIFT. To be absent, or late for duty. A ship adrift is at the mercy of wind and tide and thus out of schedule.
AGGIE WESTON’S. The Royal Sailors’ Rest Homes in Portsmouth,Chatham and Devonport.
ALL MY EYE AND BETTY MARTIN Nonsense. An old rendering of “O Mihi, Beate Martine”, a sailor’s prayer to St. Martin.
ALL SHIP-SHAPE AND BRISTOL FASHION Completely organised and ready – the port of Bristol had a reputation for efficiency.
ANDREW. A nickname for the Royal Navy and the nickname for a warship.‘Andrew Miller’ himself was a much-feared pressgang operator during the
Napeolonic wars in the Portsmouth area.
BACK AND FILL To be irresolute. A mode of tacking a sailing ship when the tide is with the vessel and the wind is against it so the ship has to constantly alter its heading to make progress.
BANYAN DAY A day in which no meat was issued in rations.
BARE POLES. To be ‘under poles’ was to be in one’s last extremity. From when a ship had no sail set due to bad weather.
BARRACK STANCHION. A sailor who remains in barracks for a length of time instead of being sent to sea.
BEAM ENDS. To be on one’s ‘beam ends’ is to be in extremity. From when a ship was laid completely on its side in a heavy gale.
BIG TRIANGLE. A sailing-ship voyage from the UK to Australia, then with coal from New South Wales to South America and back to UK with nitrate.
BIGHT To ‘Hook the Bight’ is to get married or become involved with a woman. From when the fluke of one anchor gets into the bight of another’s cable.
BITTER END. To do anything to the ‘bitter end’ is to do it until no more can be done. The end of the ship’s cable is secured to the ‘bitts’ i.e. the bollards on the foredeck, to prevent the cable being lost overboard and, when it reaches the bitts, it is the ‘bitter end.’
BOARD If something has ‘Gone by the board’, it is finished with. ‘Board’ is an old English word for the ship’s side – starboard, inboard, outboard etc.
Hence, to have ‘gone by the board’ is to have been thrown into the sea, done away with.
BOOBY To ‘Beat the Booby’ is to warm the hands by striking them under the armpits. Relates to the Booby bird, which sailors thought was stupid – hence
to be a ‘Booby’ is also to be stupid.
BOOM PASSENGER. A seaman working his passage home without pay. Relates to transportation when convicts were chained to the boom for daily exercise.
BOWLING, TOM. A ‘Tom Bowling’ is a sarcastic description of someone who thinks he is a perfect sailor. Comes from the character in the book “Roderick Random.”
BOX THE COMPASS. Somebody who ‘boxes the compass’ goes right around in his views on something and ends up where he started from. Derives from naming the 32 points of the compass in the correct order.
BRASSBOUNDER. A “Premium” apprentice on a merchant ship. One who has paid a cash premium for his apprenticeship. ‘Brass’ = money, hence he is ‘bound’ by the premium to see out his apprenticeship.
BRASS MONKEY. A ‘monkey’ was the term for a small, muzzle-loading, portable canon with a brass barrel which could be positioned at various points around
the gunwales of the ship. Its ammunition consisted of iron balls. Because brass has a different co-efficient of shrinkage than iron, in the northern latitudes the barrel contracted at a greater rate than the iron ordnance and the canon-balls wouldn’t fit the barrel. Hence the phrase , “It’s cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey.”
BROUGHT UP ALL-STANDING To go to bed ‘all-standing’ means to go to bed fully dressed. Comes from when a ship, with all sails set and ready to go,
was suddenly and unexpectedly halted.
BROWSE HIS JIB Somebody who has ‘browsed his jib’ has drunk until his face is flushed and swollen. ‘Jib’ means the face, to ‘browse’ means to fatten and ‘to browse the jib’ means to hold the jib taut – hence ‘tight.’
BRUSH To ‘Live over the brush’ is to omit the marriage service after publishing the banns and to live together as man and wife. Sailors would do this to have a shore address to which to send their allotment. Because it was not a legal marriage, a woman could ‘live over the brush’ with many sailors and look after their allotment for them, for a small fee. The ceremony would involve both parties linking hands and jumping over a horizontal brush, held by two people, who would be the witnesses to the transaction.
BUCCANEER A Protestant pirate of the 17th Century The word derives from the French ‘Boucanier’ , which means smoked and dried meat, and which the
natives of Hispaniola used in illegal trade.
BUM BOAT. A small, open boat which visits ships at anchor to trade in small, and generally worthless, objects. In Victorian times, it was a small craft which transported human excrement from ships lying in locked basins.
BY AND LARGE To take one thing with another. When a ship is close-hauled to sail ‘by and large’, it is to sail slightly off the wind to make it easier for the helmsman to steer and less like for the ship to be ‘taken aback”. (See ‘Aback).
CAPE COD TURKEY. Salt fish.
CAPE DOCTOR. The south-east wind at the Cape of Good Hope which was , and is, beneficial to health after passing through the doldrums. (See ‘Doldrums).
CAPER. “The weather is so rough, even a Caper would not go out”. A ‘Caper’ was a fisherman of Cape Clear, in Ireland, who was reputed to venture out in
the fiercest weather.
CAPTAIN OF THE HEADS. The rating in charge of the lavatories, originally positioned right forward, in the beakheads (or ‘heads’) of a vessel.
CARD. To ‘Speak by the card’ is to be careful with one’s words. It alludes to the card of a mariner’s compass which had to be read carefully to avoid trouble.
CAT “No room to swing a cat.” Describes a confined space. The naval cat o’ nine tails was six feet long, overall, and was required to be held at arm’s length and swung in an arc around the axis of the torso – hence, about nine square feet of clear space would be required to successfully flog somebody. There were nine tails on the cat because flogging by a ‘trinity of trinities’ satisfied early Christian superstition and was also highly effective as a punishment. The cat was not legally abolished as a punishment until 1948.
CAT’S – PUKE BUTTY MN term for a Heinz sandwich-spread sandwich.
CHARLEY MOORE. A navy term meaning ‘honest and respectable’ e.g. “everything’s Charlie Moore”. Originates from a pub advertisement in Malta, in Victorian times, which read “Charley Moore – The Fair Thing.”
CHARLEY NOBLE. The galley funnel. So-called from a Merchant Navy captain who kept his copper galley funnel brightly polished.
CHOCK-A-BLOCK. Full up, no room for any more. When the two blocks of a tackle meet, it prevents any more purchase being gained. The tackle is then
said to be ‘two blocks’, or ‘chock-a-block’.
CLEARING OUT FOR GUAM Going nowhere in particular. In gold-rush days, ships carried passengers to Australia without making arrangement to secure
return cargoes. Customs officials regulated that some port should be specified when clearing Australia on the outward voyage so it became the habit of Captains to name Guam as their hypothetical destination.
CLOSE QUARTERS. Alongside each other. >From when naval battles were fought in this manner, the ‘quarters’ of each ship touching.
CUT OF HIS JIB The expression on someone’s face. The ‘cut of a jib’, or headsail, was said to betoken the quality and character of a sailing ship. You either like, or don’t like, ‘the cut of someone’s jib.’
CUT NEITHER NAILS NOR HAIR AT SEA. Cuttings of nail and hair were offerings to Prosperine, the Roman Goddess of the infernal regions, and it would make Neptune angry to have offerings to somebody else made in his domain. Doing so would bring bad luck.
CUT AND RUN. To escape, or leave in a hurry. When ships anchor cables were made of hemp, the cable was cut, if required, to allow the vessel to run
before the wind. Sails were also set in a hurry by cutting the gaskets i.e. the small cords securing the sails to the yard.
DAVY JONES. An 18th century term for an evil spirit of the sea. It comes from the corruption of the West Indian “duppy”, meaning a devil, and ‘Jonah’
who was swallowed by a whale and became a symbol of bad luck. ‘Davy Jones’Locker’ is the sea as a graveyard of drowned sailors.
DEAD MARINES. Empty bottles, standing upright. Also, a person who is of no use.
DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA. To be between these is to be between two evils or two alternatives. The ‘devil’ is the old English name for the gunwale of
DEVIL TO PAY AND NO PITCH HOT A job to do and no means to do it or, an opportunity which has arisen and no chance to take advantage of it. The
‘devil’ was the outboard plank by the waterways of a ship with the seam between it, and the side of the vessel, was wider than the others and difficult to access. It consequently needed more pitch when caulking the planks.
DOCTOR. The name for a ship’s cook, commonly supposed to have ‘doctored’ the crew’s food.
DOC-WATCH. A two-hour watch (4-6 and 6-8) instead of the usual four-hour watch – a ‘docked’, or shortened, watch. Commonly, and mistakenly, written
as ‘dog’ watch.
DOLDRUMS. To be ‘in the doldrums’ is to have a sense of depression or be in a period of inactivity. The doldrums are regions near the Equator where ships are likely to be becalmed.
DOLLY-SHOP. “He dressed from the dolly-shop” means the wearer is badly attired. A dolly-shop was a marine store where sailors bought rags and old clothes.
DONKEY’S BREAKFAST. Merchant Navy term for a straw-filled mattress.
DOUBLE TIDES. “I feel as though I’ve worked double tides’ means one has worked extra hard or, two tide’s work in twenty-four hours.
DOVER STEW. Something made with left-overs i.e. to “do over” again.
DOWN IN THE JIB Means a person is, or looks, unhappy. The ‘cut of a jib’ apparently indicated the character of a sailing ship.
DRUNK AS A FIDDLER The fiddler who accompanied shanties was always paid by the crew in liquor.
DUTCH TALENT. Something not done in a true nautical and shipshape fashion- done more with brawn than brains.
DUTCHMAN’S BREECHES Two patches of blue in a stormy sky or, enough blue sky to make a Dutchman a pair of trousers.
DUTCHMAN’S LOG A method for finding a ship’s speed by throwing a piece of wood overboard and timing its passage between two marks on the vessel
which are a known distance apart.
EEL. If somebody “felt the end of a salt eel” it meant he was flogged. At one time, eel skins were used for whips at sea.
FANNY ADAMS. “Sweet Fanny Adams” or “Sweet FA” means nothing left, at all. In 1867, Fanny Adams, a child of 8, was murdered at Alton, Hampshire, and
dismembered. The Royal Navy adopted the name for tinned mutton which was generally so putrid that it was thrown away. It first became a phrase for ‘worthless’ and then for ‘nothing at all.’ A ‘Fanny’ is also the RN name for a mess-kettle, named after the tins the mutton came in.
FEATHER. If somebody ‘cuts a fine feather’, they have a good appearance, as a ship does when moving at speed and fine feather of spray is produced at
FIDDLER’S GREEN The imaginary happy land where sailors go when they die and where there is perpetual mirth, music, ale and tobacco and where the
shanty-man’s fiddle never stops playing.
FIGUREHEAD A nominal leader who plays no real part but whose social, or other position, inspires confidence, as does a ship’s figurehead in its crew.
FLOATING ACADEMY. A convict-ship.
FREEBOOTER. A pirate, from the Dutch ‘vrij’ , meaning ‘free’ and ‘buit’, meaning ‘booty’. Literally, it means “free booty” by one who plunders.
GANGWAY. Originally, it was the boarded way in the old galleys made for the rowers to pass from stem to stern and where the mast was laid when un-shipped.
GROG. Specifically, rum, diluted with water. In 1740, Admiral Vernon, Commander-in-Chief of the West Indies station, substituted watered-down rum
to officers and men for the neat spirit they used to drink. Vernon wore a coat made out of grogram ( silk and wool, stiffened with gum) and the name was transferred to the new beverage.
GROMMET. The ship’s boy. Also, a name for a ring formed by a loop in a single strand of rope which explains why the word is also used to describe the rectum.
GUNNER. To ‘Kiss the gunner’s daughter’ is to be flogged. At one time, RN sailors were tied, face down, over the breech of a canon to receive their punishment.
HANGING FIRE. Waiting. A naval expression derived from gunnery when the gun was slow to fire the charge.
HARRIET LANE Merchant Navy term for canned meat, especially Australian meat of the chopped-up variety. ‘Harriet Lane’ was a prostitute dismembered in Sydney and is thus the MN equivalent of the Navy’s ‘Fanny Adams.’
HAWSE-PIPE. A pipe in the ship’s bow for the anchor cable to run through. Anybody who has risen to Captain from lowly deckhand is said to have ‘come
up through the hawse-pipe.’
HIGH AND DRY Somebody who is stranded, far away from home, as a ship might be when aground.
HIGH SEAS All those area of sea not under the sovereignty of any state. (The opposite is ‘Territorial Waters’)
HORNPIPE. A sailor’s dance to the music of a ‘hornpipe’, which was a wooden pipe with a reed mouthpiece and a horn at the other end.
HORSE LATITUDES. A region of calms around 30-North and South. Sailing ships carrying horses to the USA and the West Indies would sometimes have to
jettison the horses between these latitudes through shortage of water.
JACK DUSTY The name for a stores-rating in the RN because he was often dusty from his job.
JACK TAR A seaman. In the earlier days, he was often covered in tar from the ship’s cordage and also wore tarred canvas breeches.
JAUNTY In the RN, the name for a Chief Petty Officer in the Regulating Branch (Naval Police), who was responsible for discipline. The word is a corruption of the French ‘gendarme.’
JERKY Dried meat cut into strips and dried in the sun – a mainstay of the diet on Victorian sailing ships running to Valparaiso for nitrates. From the Chilean word ‘charqui’, meaning dried meat.
JIB To ‘hang the jib’ is to protrude the lower lip in an ill-tempered, or sulky, fashion.
KEELHAULED. To ‘keelhaul’ somebody involved passing a line underneath a ship, from side to side, one end of which was knotted around the waist, the
other being held by a group of shipmates. The victim was then flung into the sea and his friends on deck had to run to haul their companion to the surface on the other side. If they were fast enough, the man was saved from drowning although barnacles and other marine growths would deeply lacerate the skin to produce cuts which would often prove fatal. If the victim had committed a particularly serious misdemeanour, such as striking an officer, or disobeying an order, then he would be ‘keelhauled’ from stem to stern, an experience from which there were no recorded survivors.
LUBBER. A big, clumsy fellow. A ‘landlubber’ is a derogatory term for a seaman who his shipmates feel would be better off behind a plough. The ‘lubber’s hole’ is a hole in the platform of a ship’s top used to avoid climbing the futtock-shrouds. If anybody is ‘wriggling through the lubber’s hole’, he is evading his responsibilities.
LIMEY. A British sailor, or ship. Derives from the practice of issuing lime-juice to a ship’s crew to combat scurvy.
LOBLOLLY A sailor’s term for gruel, soup etc. and other victuals eaten with a spoon.
LOBLOLLY’S BOY A surgeon’s mate or a ship’s steward.
MAINBRACE. To “Splice the mainbrace” is to get an extra tot of grog . It is a very rare occurrence. Extra rum was only given to those who performed
the dangerous and difficult task of splicing the main-brace, which is the brace attached to the main yard.
MAKE DEAD MEN CHEW If it was said of somebody that he would ‘make dead men chew’, it meant he was a scurrilous cheat and thief. It is an 18th
century expression used of pursers who “sold” tobacco to dead men who had died on voyage by entering the transaction in their books. The term also applied to those who drew the pay and victuals for those who had died or jumped ship.
MARK TWAIN The pseudonym of the novelist Samuel L. Clemens who adopted it from the Mississippi river pilot’s cry of “Mark twain!” when sounding two
MASSACHUSETTS SLEIGH-RIDE. To be towed behind a whale, in a whaler, by the line attached to the harpoon in the whale’s flanks. The term originated in
Boston, Massachusetts, which was the home of the American whaling fleet in the 19th century.
MATAPAN STEW. A meal of left-overs, so-called because the cook of HMAS ‘Perth’ concocted a scratch hot meal during the Battle of Matapan, in 1941.
MATE. “A man doesn’t get his hands out of the tar by becoming second- Mate.” It means that you need to get higher up the ladder before you can sit
back and enjoy success. In the days of sail, a second-mate was still expected to work with the tarpot with the crew. The First-mate was exempt.
MESSROOM. An area in a ship where meals are eaten. Derives from the Old French word, ‘mes’, meaning a portion of food.
MISTRESS ROPER A sailor’s name for a Royal Marine because of their alleged handling of ropes in a womanly, or unseamanlike, manner.
MONKEY The container which holds the full allowance of grog for a Mess.
MONKEY. To “Suck the Monkey” is to suck liquor from a cask through a straw. This is done to avoid broaching the cask, yet still get a drink from the cargo without the Captain knowing. Also, when the milk has been taken from a coconut and rum substituted, drinking this is called ‘Sucking the monkey.’
MONKEY. A ‘powder monkey’ was the young boy-seaman whose job it was to carry gunpowder to the canon and, also, by climbing the rigging, to get powder to the marksmen in the shrouds.
MONKEY-JACKET. A short coat worn by seamen which has “no more tail than a monkey”.
MOTHER CAREY’S CHICKENS Storm Petrels. Derived from the Latin ‘Mater Cara’ (Mother dear), referring to the Virgin Mary. Sailors also called
falling snow the same name.
MOTHER CAREY’S GOOSE The Pacific fulmar.
MOTHER CAREY IS PLUCKING HER GOOSE It is snowing.
NIP-CHEESE A nick-name for a purser who was generally assumed to be paring the crews’ rations.
NORWEGIAN WINCH. A derogatory English term meaning a number of men hauling on a rope.
OFFING. If something is “in the offing”’ it means something is about to occur. A ship is said to be ‘in the offing’ when visible at sea from the land, often approaching port. Hence it is ‘likely to occur’ that the ship will dock.
OX-EYE. A speck of cloud which could indicate the approach of wind.
PAINTING THE LION An old nautical punishment for a misdemeanour against shipmates, e.g. theft, whereby the culprit was stripped naked and painted
all over with tar.
PAINTER. “To cut the painter” is to sever connection with somebody or something. The painter is the line which secures a small boat to a mooring-post.
PIECES OF EIGHT. The Spanish silver peso of eight Reals of the 17th & 18th -centuries. One side was marked with a number ‘8’.
PIPE DOWN Stop talking. Derived from the boatswain’s call of this name meaning ‘hands turn-in.’
PORTSMOUTH DEFENCE Whereby a man accused of physical assault pleads guilty but, in defence, says he was outraged by homosexual advances. It stems from Portsmouth being the chief port of the British Navy. The defence is still valid today.
PRESS GANG. Naval parties who carried-out ‘impressment’. It dates back to the early 13th century and the Royal Navy relied on this method of recruitment until 1830. The word has nothing to do with ‘pressing’ in the sense of being ‘forced’ but derives from the ‘prest’ money (from the French preter, meaning ‘to lend’), advanced on enlistment. Impressment has never been abolished and is legal today.
REEF To ‘take in a reef’ means to moderate one’s behaviour or reduce one’s expenses. The reef of a sail is that part which is rolled and tied up by the reef points, using a ‘reef knot’, to reduce the sail area caught by the wind.
REEFER JACKET. A midshipman’s jacket, closely fitting, as though it was ‘reefed’ around the wearer.
ROARING FORTIES. The stormy regions between 40- and 50-degrees south where heavy westerly winds prevail.
SALLEE-MAN A pirate, so called from Sallee, a seaport near Rabat on the west coast of Morocco, which was notorious as being a nest of pirates.
SCHOONER-RIGGED Somebody who travels with only the barest minimum of clothes. A schooner was very lightly-rigged compared to other vessels.
SEA LAWYER. A shark. Also, a seaman constantly arguing about his ‘rights.’
SHANGHAI. To make a man drunk or insensible and get him aboard an outward-bound ship in need of a crew. Originated in the phrase “Ship him to Shanghai” where a known trouble-maker, signing-on at the seaman’s pool, would be sent on a long voyage to keep him out of the hair of the authorities.
SHANTY. A song to help the rhythmical action of sailors hauling on ropes. From the French ‘chanter’, meaning ‘to sing.’
SHEETS. To be ‘Three sheets in the wind’ is to be very drunk. The ‘sheet’ is the rope used for trimming sail : if the sheet if free, it is said to be ‘in the wind’, making the progress of the ship difficult. To have all three sheets of the sail ‘in the wind’ makes progress impossible.
SHEET ANCHOR. If somebody is a ‘sheet anchor’, that person in one’s last refuge for comfort or assistance. The sheet anchor is the heaviest anchor carried, a spare used for emergencies only, when disaster threatened.
SNOTTY. Slang for a midshipman, allegedly from the habit of wiping their noses on their sleeves – it is said that the three brass buttons on their jackets are there to prevent them doing this.
SON-OF-A-GUN. Derived from the days when women were allowed to live in naval ships. The ‘son-of-a-gun’ was one born in a ship, often in the greater
space near the midship gun, behind a canvas screen. If paternity was uncertain, the child was entered in the ship’s log as a “Son-of-a-gun.”
SPANISH MARE. To “Ride the Spanish mare” was an old nautical punishment. The victim was put astride a boom, with the stay slackened-off, when the
ship was at sea. If the culprit could successfully ride the wildly-swinging boom for an allotted period of time, then he was released – if he fell off, he drowned.
SPIN A YARN To tell a story. Sailors whiled away time by telling stories whilst making spun-yarn and other ropework.
SPOIL THE SHIP FOR A HA’PORTH OF TAR This is not at nautical phrase. It means that one can lose much by saving little and refers to sheep and the
smearing of tar on them, to guard against infection.
STONE FRIGATE. Sailor’s name for a shore establishment.
SWASHBUCKLER. A pirate, a ruffian, a swaggerer. From ‘swashing’, or tapping, a sword against a ‘buckler’, a small round shield, to distract an opponent’s attention before attacking.
TAPPING THE ADMIRAL To secretly broach a cask of liquor. It originates from the time when sailors are supposed to have tapped the cask of spirit in
which Admiral Nelson’s body was being carried back to England.
TIDE-WAITER. Someone who waits to see the trend of events before taking action.
TOW-RAG. A wastrel; someone beneath contempt.(Incorrectly spelled ‘toe-rag’ in modern English). A tow-rag was a rag made of ‘tow’, or hemp, used to
staunch wounds by naval surgeons and then thrown away.
TUB. To ‘Throw a tub to a whale’ is to create diversion in order to avoid real danger. In whaling, when a ship was threatened by a school of whales, it was usual for a tub to be thrown into the sea to divert their attention.
WARD-ROOM A mess shared by a naval captain and his officers. Derives from the compartment known as the ‘ward-robe’ or ‘award-robe’, which was a store
for valuables captured from prizes.
WASH-OUT. To fail, or to be a failure. Comes from the times when naval signals were taken down on a slate which was wiped clean when the message had been passed to the proper quarters.
WHISTLE. “You can whistle for it” originated from a superstition that, if a sailing ship was becalmed, a wind could be raised by whistling. However, whistling when under way in a good breeze was frowned upon because of the chance that the wind would increase to a storm. Nowadays, the meaning is completely inverted and means , “you won’t get it.”
WIDOW’S MAN. Naval slang for a non-existent seaman whose name was in the ship’s books, his pay and prize-money going to the Greenwich Hospital or to
a fund for naval widows.
WIND. “A soldier’s wind” was a fair wind both going out and returning home.
WIND. To “sail close to the wind” is to take chance. If a sailing ship was headed directly into, or ‘close’, to the wind, there was chance the vessel
would fall-off and lose headway. Bosun’s Locker
(Thanks to Capt. David Yell for the link.)