Customs of the Navy

Chapter 8 - A Few Expressions

For ease of arrangement the expressions given in this chapter are listed alphabetically. The compiling such a chapter it is difficult to decide what to include and what to omit; these are~ considered to be the most common of naval expressions that require explanation.

Ahoy: This boat hail was the battle cry of the Vikings. Andrew Miller or The Andrew - either means the Royal Navy. The antecedent was a press-gang officer who was so efficient, ruthless and zealous in recruiting seamen that it was alleged he owned the navy.

Banyan party: Until about 1880 Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays were meatless days. This practice probably resulted in part from the fasts of an eastern religious sect of ancient times, but more likely was carried out as a food conservation measure. It was 6f course prudent to save food from the day previous to a fast day. In times when food at sea became plentiful and wholesome banyan days were occasions of feasting. The term still relates to feasting in the sense of a picnic or beach party.

Bitter end: The inboard end of a ship's hempen anchor cable was less often used than the outboard end, and so was known as the better end, later pronounced bitter end, and meaning the very end or the extreme end.

Bloody is said to be a contraction of ‘By Our Lady’ (the Virgin Mary) but more than likely is just a seaman's colourful epithet having the same force and origin as flaming.

Bottle: Equivalent to a blast. An abbreviation of a dose from the fore-top men's bottle -- supposedly a cure-all.

Bum-boat - the small craft used by local tradesmen in ports throughout the world. Probably the original term was boom-boat, i.e. permitted by the executive officer to secure to the ship’s lower boom in order to conduct business. It has never been considered advisable to allow civilian tradesmen onboard.

Capstan drill: A former custom was for older hands to take the boys and young ordinary seamen to this form of drill, to deepen their high-pitched voices by jumping off the barrel of a capstan while keeping their legs straight.

Clear one's yardarm: In communications parlance this means no signals, i.e. flaghoists remain unexecuted. In normal usage it suggests that more than reasonable steps have been taken to avoid embarrassing mistakes or omissions.

Cock of the walk: Used in naval and civilian circ1es alike, though in the navy with the special connotation of winner, as in a regatta, sports meet, or combination of these events. The ex­pression cock of the barracks is more commonly used in shore establishments. The winning ship hoists at her yardarm a large, brightly painted galvanised iron silhouette of a "male domestic fowl" (Oxford Dictionary). It is a common practice, if the winning ship has won every single event as well, to hoist a broom at her masthead commemorating a clean sweep of the seas in the manner of the Dutch admiral Tromp (see chapter 7).

Conning (tower, etc.): Derived from cunning, in reference to the skill of the master in manoeuvring his ship, especially in action.

Crowsnest: The foremast lookout position now replaces a cage in which the Norsemen carried ravens as an early type of direction finder. When out of sight of land a bird would be released, and as it headed for the nearest land the ship would follow the dir­ection of its flight.

Crushers: Regulating petty officers, the descendants of the ship' corporals. Presumable the word refers to their alleged ability to detect rather than prevent offences. The term is now as ob­solete as the R.P.O.s to whom it refers.

Dead marine: In the R.C.N. we are not troubled with the animosity that appears to exist between the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines; the latter are variously known as the Royals, leathernecks, tur­keys or pongos. A further example of the lack of friendship is the expression dead marine for an empty bottle. The R.N. seaman says that like an empty bottle a marine is of no use to anyone, and if dropped over the side in the position of attention would float upright because of the size of his boots. The marine's retort is that like an empty bottle he is always ready for duty again.

Devil to pay: Trouble’s ahead. The devil in wooden ships is the longest seam in the hull and is the most difficult to~ caulk or pay. The same term appears in the old expression “Between the devil and the deep blue sea” - which is the hazardous position assumed by a man who is paying the devil seam.

Dog watch: There are various ideas about this common term: a cor­ruption of docked or dodge, or in reference to dog days of sum­mer in the autumn, what we in Canada call Indian Summer. Scarcely worthy of mention is the punster's comment that it is a watch cur-tailed.

Dutch courage: The uninhibited courage shown by a man who has had one too many. This refers to the old Dutch custom of issuing tots of schnapps before battle. The Dutch had every right to base similar sardonic remarks on the British rum issue.

Dutchman's pendant and Irish pendant. These two are included only to differentiate, as many seamen use them synonymously. While the former refers to a gash rope's end not secured in a seamanlike manner -- a dig at the Dutch -- the latter refers to the frays and tatters of bunting that develop in the fly of an ensign or flag that is exposed to strong winds for any length of time. The re­ference is to untidiness born of a carefree nature in. the Irish.

Jack nastyface. Not a name one is likely to find except in books on naval custom. It is said that this is the pen name of a sailor who wrote about the service in the navy in the 18th century. Another writer believes that he fought at Trafalgar and that some of the writings on that battle can be attributed to him. In the R.N. the term is sometimes applied to the ship’s assistant cook; ship’s cooks have long been the butt of sailors’ humour and this allusion probably has no more meaning than that.

Jacob's ladder: The name for a boat ladder, taken of course from Jacob’s dream in the Old Testament of a ladder which rose from earth to heaven; to the uninitiated the length of both would appear to be similar.

Jaunty - master-at-arms: A corruption of the French gendarme policeman through the old R.N. term John Damme, to its present form.

Joint: In reference to a meat dish, refers to the old practice of serving whole portions of meat, bone and all, which the diner held in both hands.

Long shin: A mildly uncomplimentary term occasionally heard in wardrooms, reflecting on one's hospitality in failing to offer a guest a drink; he has to go a long way to find one. Or: a long time between drinks,

Make and mend: Before the times when uniforms were issued the men made their own. When hands could be spared from work about the ship the pipe was make “hands to make and mend clothes”. Later it was the practice for two or three men, more expert tailors than their fellows to obtain permission to form in partnership what was called a jewing firm, in the figurative sense of un­scrupulous dealers. The expression make and mend today bears little relation to its original use. Now it means a half-holiday granted in harbour; at sea we have a pipe down instead. Makers is the usual slang abbreviation. We have come a long way from the original term with our sports makers.

Make it so: Rarely heard nowadays except in large ships. When the communicator at the ensign staff reports “Eight o’clock sir” (or nine o'clock in winter) it is customary for the Commander to reply “Make it so”, whereupon the corporal of the gangway will sound the requisite number of bells. The ceremony of colours then follows.

Mess: A word that causes considerable doubt in many ships. Some cynics think it refers to the normal state of the messdecks. Actually it is the anglicised form of the Spanish word for table – mesa. Mass has the same derivation. Until the last century a seamen's mess was nothing more than a table; even benches were not provided until the 19th century.

Naval nicknames: A practice probably unique in naval and military circles is that of associating certain nicknames with particular surnames. A few of the more common ones are Daisy Bell or Dinger Bell, Nobby Clark (e), Jimmy Green, Taffy Jones, Pincher Martin, Dusty Miller, Spud Murphy, Nosey Parker, Spike Sullivan, Buck Taylor, Knocker White and Tug Wilson. Although the reason for some of these is obvious the origins of others are obscure. Padre: Affectionate slang term for a chaplain; it is the Spanish and Italian word for father.

Queen's hard bargain: Originally a British army term, now rarely heard in that service or our own. It is customary in law to give consideration to make a contract legal and binding. So it was that the old-type recruiting officer used to give a new recruit a shilling on enrolment. To refer later to the same man as a Queen’s hard bargain, because of laziness or incompetence, meant in effect that the sovereign had lost on the transaction.

Regatta: Formerly pertained to gondola races on Venetian canals, now is any kind of boat race.

Room to swing a cat: Referring to the foul berth of a ship at anchor it means that there is no room to swing even a cat-o'-nine-tails. (The feline mammal has never been a favoured pet at sea, except in the merchant service; whenever a cat is mentioned in this or any book about the navy almost invariably the reference is to the instrument of punishment described in chapter 6.)

She and He (in reference to a ship): The weight of evidence seems to be in favour of calling a ship she though there are examples of the masculine being used: merchantman, men-o’-war. In the navy officers in particular are apt to call a naval vessel he because of the practice of referring to the commanding officer by the name of his ship. An example of this is the answer to a boat hail given by the coxswain of a boat carrying the captain of a ship, the name of his ship being shouted in re­ply. In defence of she much could be written. First of all several of the parts of a ship, particularly of a sailing vessel and its rigging, are the same as the parts of a woman's body or her ornaments. Also we speak of dressing ship. Before the era of steam propulsion a figure-head mounted on the stem of a ship was usually of a female. A few collected suggestions are that a ship, like a woman, is obstinate and perverse, requires much cleaning and polishing, is an object of affection, needs men to look after her but they in turn are looked after by her, and whenever she sinks she takes a lot of good men down with her!

Ship’s people: Ship's company. There is at least one commanding officer in the R.C.N. who requires that his commander, in calling the ship's company to attention at divisions, call them ship's people. A more usual custom is to call them by the name of the ship, e.g. ONTARIO's. Probably because of the numerous lengthy Indian names for R.C.N. ships this latter custom is obsolescent in our own service. On the same subject, it is quite usual for a captain to refer to “my people”, “my ship”, “my boats”, etc. These phrases no doubt brought about the jocular term for the captain, The Owner. Until recent times captains assumed that every article brought on board was their personal property.

Sick berth, later sick bay, was introduced in the Mediterranean Fleet in l798 by Lord St. Vincent. When he became First Sea Lord in 1801 he caused sick berths to be fitted in all ships. At that time these were usually below the forecastle. Now they are located amidships because there is less motion than either forward or aft.

Snotty: A midshipman. At the time when midshipmen joined their first ships as boys of twelve or thirteen, and often too poor to afford handkerchiefs, it is said that they would dry their tears of homesickness and wipe their noses on their sleeves, and to curtail this practice three large brass buttons were sewn on the cuff of each sleeve. It was after l857 that this became the rank insignia for chief petty officers. It is because of the youthful age at which midshipmen joined the navy that the officer appointed in charge of them has always been known as the Snotties' Nurse.

Son of a gun: A uncomplimentary expression dating from the times when women were allowed onboard and between decks. Reference has been made previously to the debauchery which took place in the gun-decks where the men lived.

South wind: The correct retort to “how's your glass?” might be “there's a south wind in it” meaning it is empty. A nor’wester is half spirit and half water, while a north wind is neat spirit -a bitter wind.

Spitkid. A kid is a small tub, usually of wood, or any small container. The naval expression “as handy as a cow in a Spitkid is adequately descriptive of clumsiness.

Stone frigate: A shore establishment. After the first Canadian naval college was partially destroyed in the Halifax explosion of l9l7 it was moved to the Royal Military College, Kingston, Ontario, into one of the barrack blocks renamed H.M.C.S. STONE FRIGATE. This was, of course, not the original use of the term.

Sun is over the foreyardarm: A phrase meaning it is late in the forenoon. The only time it is ever used nowadays is perhaps by a crusty old officer who thinks it is time to have the wardroom bar opened. At a time when naval officers indulged in heavy drinking the Admiralty directed that no officer was to partake of liquor until the sun was over the foreyardarm.

Swallow the anchor: A very old phrase meaning to retire from sea service. The idea seems to be that once swallowed it is of no further use.

Talk a good day's work: Not often heard in the service but often applicable, and in any case self-explanatory.

Two hands for the Queen: The normal practice of a man aloft in a ship's rigging is to hold on with one hand and work with the other – “a hand for the navy and one for myself”. A man com­pletely dedicated to naval service is alleged to work with both hands at all times.

Very good: Is said by a senior, normally an officer, when a report is made by a junior. It seems to be obsolescent, especially among junior officers, giving place to thank you or some such civilian phrase. Very good sir, in lieu of Aye aye sir is not used in the navy although proper usage in the army and air force. Roger, sir is also, for the present, unacceptable.

Winger: An uncomplimentary term in its original sense, as a boy or young seaman befriended by an older man. In present usage winger is one’s best friend.

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