Hand Book
What are Shanties?
Evolution of Shanties
Types of Shanties
Origin of the word shanty
Story of Grog
Donkey Riding
Screwing Cotton
Blow the man down
The Dead Horse
White Stocking Day
General Taylor
Jack Speak
Sally Brown
What are Shanties?

Shanties are tuneful, rousing songs with a pronounced beat, sung by sailors at their work. Although records show the earliest shanties as being well over 200 years old ('Lowlands' was sung on Sir Walter Raleigh's ship), the most creative time for shanty singing was between 1820 and 1850.

Shanties fall into separate categories, differing in rhythm and timing: some long and repetitive for capstan-hauling, others having a short, jerky delivery for hand-over-hand-hauling or pumping, while others incorporate action words which were shouted for the 'stamp-and-go' long-hauling.

Hand in hand with the shanty is another type of sea-song, the forebitter. It is a simple sea-song or a ballad with a nautical flavour, sung for entertainment during the off-watch. On warm tropical nights the sing along would take place on deck around the forebits, hence the name.

The selection of a shanty to accompany a particular task, and the leading of the singing, was primarily the duty of the shantyman. He would sing the verse and stamp or beat the rhythm, while the crew joined in boisterously rather than tunefully in singing the choruses and heaving and hauling on the shouted words.

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Evolution of Shanties

The nineteenth century was probably the most popular period for shanty singing, for great fleets of sailing ships pursued their business in this their heyday before steamships began to take over.

The major happenings of the time proved the inspiration of many of the shanties. The French wars gave rise to 'Boney Was a Warrior' and 'Blood Red Roses'. From the American Civil War came 'The Alabama', and Britain's Jack Tar quickly put his own words to 'Marching Through Georgia', 'John Brown's Body' and 'When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again'.

The 1820s until the 1850s, including the period of the Irish Potato Famine and the great migration to America by the Irish, saw the introduction of the Western Ocean Packets (Black Ball Line and the Blue Cross Line recurs in a number of songs).

The emigrants and the Packet Rats were responsible for a whole range of new songs, such as 'Liverpool Judies', 'The Liverpool Packet', 'The Banks of Newfoundland', 'Paddy West', 'Paddy Doyle's Boots', 'Paddy Lay Back', 'Leave Her, Johnny', 'Blow the Man Down' and 'Can't You Dance the Polka'.

A further important period was the growth of the cotton trade around the confluence of the Mississippi, the Ohio and Missouri rivers and Mobile Bay. It was here that the sailors developed the new skill of cotton 'Hoosiers', down in the holds of their own ships. There they worked side by side with the Negroes stowing bales of cotton, known as 'Screwing Cotton', by forcing the bales into every corner.

Popular songs among the sailors at that time were 'Donkey Riding', 'Shenandoah', 'Johnny Come Down to Hilo' and 'Clear the Track, Let the Bulgine Run' which demonstrates the coexistence of black and white sailors.

1848 saw the west coast of America opened up by the finding of gold in Sacramento, California. No Panama Canal existed then and everyone had to go by way of the dreaded Horn. Soon new shanties were being sung, telling of the hardships suffered in the tempestuous Southern Ocean and the Roaring Forties - shanties like 'Valparaiso Round the Horn', 'Sacramento', 'The Gals around Cape Horn' and 'Good-bye Fare-ye-well'.

Australia produced it's own smaller crop of shanties due to it's own gold rush and the wool-clippermen (flying-fish sailors), the most famous of which is the capstan shanty 'South Australia'. Another famous shanty 'Strike the Bell' pinched the tune from a sheep farmers song called 'Click Go the Shears'.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1867 saw the 'damnable tin-kettles' (steamships) taking over the China tea and the Australian wool trades. So sadly the great sailing ship era died, and with it faded the necessity to create new shanties.

Shanties can be said to be one of the earliest and truest examples of folk music, setting out simply and tunefully the hopes and aspirations of their creators, describing the important events of the times and leaving a melancholy record of the hardships endured by simple sailormen and their dependents in an illustrious period in Britain's maritime history.

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Types of Shanties

There are two main kinds of shanties. First are the work shanties that are divided into short drag (short haul), long drag (halyard), windlass, and capstan songs. Second are the forecastle or fo'c'sle shanties. These are often ballads or tell of some historical event, and take their name from the part of the ship where the singing usually took place, the forecastle, which was the crew's quarters.

Short drag or short haul shanties were for tasks that required quick pulls over a relatively short time, such as shortening or unfurling sails. When working in rough weather these songs kept the sailors in a rhythm that got the job done safely and efficiently.

Long drag or halyard shanties were for work that required more setup time between pulls. It was used for heavy labour that went on for a long time, for example, raising or lowering a heavy sail. This type of shanty gave the sailors a rest in between the hauls, a chance to get a breath and a better grip, and coordinated their efforts to make the most of the group’s strength for the next pull. This type of shanty usually has a chorus at the end of each line.

Stan Hugill aboard the schooner 'Leading Light' in 1933

Capstan (or windlass) shanties were used for long or repetitive tasks that simply need a sustained rhythm. Raising or lowering the anchor by winding up the heavy anchor chain was their prime use. This winding was done by walking round and round pushing at the capstan bars, a long and continuous effort. These are the most developed of the work shanties.

Pumping Shanties. Pumps were fitted in ships to empty the bilge (the lowest part of the ship) of water. Wooden ships leaked, but not so fast that the crew could not pump the water out. There were several different types of pumps, which accounts for the variation in the timing of pumping shanties.

Forebitter or Forecastle Shanties. In the evening, when the work was done, it was time to relax. Singing was a favored method of entertainment. These songs came from places visited, reminding the sailors of home or foreign lands. Naturally the sailors loved to sing songs of love, adventure, pathos, famous men, and battles. Of course after all the hard work just plain funny songs topped their list.

Whaling Shanties. Life on a whaler was worse than on any other type of vessel; your life might be shorter on a pirate’s ship, but the work wouldn't be so hard! Voyages typically lasted from two to three years, and sailor’s lives were filled with unrelenting, dangerous work and the ever-present stench of whale oil. Whalers risked maiming and death when giving chase in small boats that were often overturned or even smashed by the whale’s tail in the fight! Songs helped give these men the will to go on in the face of their dreadful circumstances.

Pilot verses were sailing directions sung to popular tunes. This was a handy way to memorise crucial navigation information. There's a bunch of Newfoundland ones recorded in the Admiralty Court, in London. Hugill quotes one from this collection, dated 1756, which was apparently considered the best guide to Newfoundland waters at the time. It's to the tune of "I'll Tell me Ma", which is still well known.

From Bonavista to the Cabot Isles
the course is north full forty miles
When you must steer away nor'-east
till Cape Freals, Gull Isle, bears west-nor'-west
Then nor'-nor'-west thirty-three miles
three leagues off shore lies Wadham's Isles,
Where of a rock you must beware
two miles sou'-sou'-east from off Isle bears.

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The Origin of the word Shanty

The exact origin of the word 'shanty' is lost in the mists of time, but a number of theories have been put forward, any of which may be correct.

1. French "chantez" - either Norman French, Modern or 'Gumbo' dialect of New Orleans.

2. English "chant" or Old English "chaunt"

3. The drinking Shanties (bars) of the Gulf of Mexico ports (Mobile in particular) where black and white would congregate. Despite the non "musical" origin of the word, many coloured sailors went to sea from this area during the C19th and made reputations as singers of work songs.

4. Much the same as 3. - in Australia a "shanty" is a public-house, especially an unlicensed one (1864) and to shanty is to carouse or get drunk. Again, during the C19th, many seagoing shanteymen came from Australia and few people are likely to deny that drinking and singing (and sailors!) often go together.

5. Boat songs of the old French voyageurs of the New World, known as chansons.

6. The lumbermen's songs which often start with "Come all ye brave shanty-boys" - a shantyman here being a lumberman or a backwoodsman. However, it must be noted that the derivation is given as from the French, via French-Canadian, "chantier" - a work site or workshop, and not from "chanter" - to sing. Therefore the connexion "workshop/lumberman" to "deep sea shipboard songs" seems quite tenuous.

7. West Indian Negroes used to move their shanties (huts built on stilts) by gangs pulling with a singing leader perched on the roof - he was the shanty man.

Shanty hut

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Clear away the track (Let the Bulgine Run). Bulgine, in the title of this old shanty, was the nickname for the little locomotive that ran up and down the dock delivering cargo to and from the various ships.

Bristol Harbour Railway still preserve their dockside tracks and rolling stock.

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Horatio Nelson (1758 - 1805)

'England expects that every man will do his duty.' With these words Nelson successfully inspired his squadron before the Battle of Trafalgar, in 1805, during which he died. At his death, Britain lost a complex leader who balanced a personal longing for honour and glory with a compassion and respect for his men.

Born in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, the sixth of 11 children, he joined the Navy at age 12. He became a captain at age 20, and saw service in the West Indies, Baltic and Canada. He married Frances Nisbet in 1787 in Nevis, and returned to England with his bride to spend the next five years on half-pay, frustrated at not being at sea.

When Britain entered the French Revolutionary Wars in 1793, Nelson was given command of the Agamemnon. He served in the Mediterranean, helped capture Corsica and saw battle at Calvi (where he lost the sight in his right eye). He would later lose his right arm at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife (1797).

As a commander he was known for bold action, and the occasional disregard of orders from his seniors. This defiance brought him victories against the Spanish off Cape Vincent in 1797, and at the Battle of Copenhagen four years later, where he ignored orders to cease action by putting his telescope to his blind eye and claiming he couldn't see the signal.

At the Battle of the Nile (1798), he successfully destroyed Napoleon's fleet and bid for an overland trade route to India. His next posting took him to Naples, where he fell in love with Emma, Lady Hamilton. Although they remained married to others, they considered each other soul-mates and together had a child, Horatia, in 1801. Earlier that same year, Nelson was promoted to Vice-Admiral.

Over the period 1794 to 1805, under Nelson's leadership, the British Navy proved its supremacy over the French. His most famous engagement, at Cape Trafalgar, saved Britain from threat of invasion by Napoleon, but it would be his last. Struck by a French sniper's bullet he died on the first day of battle, October 21, 1805.

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Screwing Cotton

An important period was the growth of the cotton trade around the confluence of the Mississippi, the Ohio and Missouri rivers and Mobile Bay. It was here that the sailors developed the new skill of cotton 'Hoosiers', down in the holds of their own ships. There they worked side by side with the Negroes stowing bales of cotton, known as 'Screwing Cotton', by forcing the bales into every corner.

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Donkey Riding

Donkey Riding is a shanty associated with loading cargo, the "donkey" was the sailors' name for a chest containing provisions or belongings.

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The Story of Grog

From the earliest days of sail, men needed liquid during voyages. Water quickly developed algae and turned slimy, and beer turned sour. The original ration of beer for seamen was a gallon a day, a significant amount to store over a long voyage. As the British Empire grew and longer voyages became more common, the problem of spoilage and shortages increased.

The origin of grog lies with Vice-Admiral William Penn, father of the founder of Pennsylvania. In 1655, during Penn's campaign for Cromwell in the Indies, Penn arrived in Barbados and captured Jamaica. Unfortunately Jamaica had few stores of beer or wine. Jamaica did, however, have rum. Penn, therefore, began the use of rum as a ration.

In the seventeenth century, an early form of rum was known as "rumbustion." In Elizabeth I's time, privateers and pirates traded in rum, and it was a liquor well-known to sailors. After 1655, as the Indies became an increasingly popular port, the use of rum increased. Although it became common, rum was not part of the "Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty's Service at Sea" until 1731 at which time a half a pint of rum was made equal to the provision of a gallon of beer. In the early days this was specific only to ships in the West Indies, and rum was not diluted.

Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon is known as the father of grog. Vernon was a noted seaman, and victorious at Porto Bello. He was also a constant critic of the Admiralty and a supporter of better conditions aboard ships. He derided pressment and advocated better treatment of sailors. His sailors gave him the name of "Old Grog" because of a waterproof boat cloak he wore. The boat cloak was made of grogam, a thick material which was a combination of silk, mohair and wool. Grogam was often stiffened with gum.

By Vernon's time straight rum was commonly issued to sailors aboard ship - and drunkenness and lack of discipline were common problems. On August 21, 1740, Vernon issued an order that rum would thereafter be mixed with water. A quart of water was mixed with a half-pint of rum on deck and in the presence of the Lieutenant of the Watch. Sailors were given two servings a day; one between 10 and 12 AM and the other between 4 and 6 PM. To make it more palatable it was suggested sugar and lime be added. In 1756 the mixture of water and rum became part of the regulations, and the call to "Up Spirits" sounded aboard Royal Navy ships for more than two centuries thereafter.

If the use of grog was common practice, the mixture was anything but standard. Vernon ordered a quarter of water to a half a pint of rum (four to one), others ordered three to one, and Admiral Keith later issued grog at five to one. The mixture seamen used for grog was named by compass points. Due North was pure rum and due West water alone. WNW would therefore be one third rum and two thirds water, NW half and half, etc. If a seaman had two "nor-westers," he'd had two glasses of half rum and half water.

Rum aquired the nickname "Nelson's Blood" after Trafalgar (1805). Legend has it that Lord Nelson's body was placed in a barrel of rum for preservation, when the sailor's learned of this, they drank the rum. From that time on, grog was also known as "Nelson's Blood". (In fact it was a barrel of brandy.)

Dilution of rum into grog did not solve the problem of lack of discipline. In 1823 the Admiralty conducted an experiment cutting the daily rum ration in half, to one quarter pint (gill). In compensation they issued tea and cocoa, increased pay two shillings a month. In 1824 the experiment became permanent with the added bonus of an increased meat ration. However, as a gill at that time was equal to four double whiskies today, it was still a very strong mix.

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Blow the man down

Between 1850 and the early 1900's, the fastest clipper ships were the Black Ballers, plying between Liverpool and New York. The westbound voyage was usually 4 weeks against the wind and the returning eastern voyage was about 3 weeks, going with the winds. And the more quickly a ship returned to homeport, the quicker a sailor would get paid. A position aboard the Black Ballers was one to be envied, however, the reputation of the Black Baller captains was notorious, they ran a brutal ship. When it was said that a man was blown down, it meant that he was beaten to the ground, which was rumored to happen often aboard the Black Ballers.

'Orpheus' of the Black Ball Line

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The Dead Horse

A ship would dock and the sailors go on shore where they would spend all their wages long before it was time for the ship to leave. This was somewhat depressing, since most of the "attractions" of the port would not take credit...and so the custom of "drawing on a dead horse'', or drawing a month's wages in advance, came into being.

Unfortunately, this leads to an equally depressing payday a month later, where your shipmates are getting paid, and you aren't.

A ritual developed around the "death'' of the debt. The ship's sailmaker would use the materials at hand to build an effigy of a horse, and at dusk a solemn candlelight procession would form on deck.

The Dead Horse ritual on board a modern American sail training ship.

The horse would be paraded around the ship three times, and then hoisted on a rope to the topmost yardarm. There, the youngest member of the crew would cut the rope on cue, dropping the horse into the sea.

The traditional three-cheer salute was given, and the captain would issue a ration of grog to each man.

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White Stocking Day

Seafarers families had to cope with the absence of their main wage earner for long periods of time. The sea shanty Rio Grande sings of White Stocking Day, which was when sailors’ female relatives dressed up in their best clothes, including white stockings, to go and collect their allotments of money from the various Liverpool shipping companies’ offices. In the early 20th century the politician Eleanor Rathbone of Liverpool criticised the traditional system of paying seamen because of the effect which it had on seamen’s families. Not all sailors made an allotment to their wives from their pay but only drew an advance note for themselves. Rathbone believed that wives should automatically receive a share of their husbands’ pay to ensure that their families were cared for.

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General Taylor

General Zachary Taylor defeated the Mexican General Santa Ana at Buenavista in February 1847, helping to secure Texas, and gain California, for the United States. He became President of the USA after the war with Mexico, but died after only a short term in office. A.L. Lloyd thought that this shanty probably dates from around 1850, though many of the elements in it (the ritual funeral, the references to the semi-mythical "Stormy" or "Stormalong"), are older.

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Jack Speak

The term used to describe the Royal Navy “slang” language.

ALL FAIR AND ABOVE BOARD A commonly used expression of nautical origin meaning "Utterly fair nothing hidden". Things "above board" were on or above the upper deck and so open for all to see.
ACID Sailors’ slang for sarcasm - used in the phrase "Don’t come the old acid"
ACKERS Naval slang name for any foreign currency. The word comes from Egypt, where beggars use it when pleading for baksheesh (Piastres).
ADRIFT This is the accepted Naval word for anyone or anything that cannot be found when it is wanted.
A1 The accepted synonym for first-class. In Lloyd’s Register, A1 is the mark of a wooden ship of the first class, A referring to the quality of her hull and "1" to the quality of her equipment.
ALOFT This comes from the Anglo-Saxon word "alofts" meaning "on high".
TO SWALLOW THE ANCHOR - To leave the Navy for good - implying that one has no further use for the implement one has for so long trusted.
AVAST Avast! means Hold! Enough! Finish! It comes from the Italian word "Basta".
AYE The derivation of this is generally thought to be unknown, but some experts think it may possibly come from the German "Eiey!" - an exclamation of astonishment or admiration.
BACKING AND FILLING A common expression - of maritime origin - for constantly changing ground in a decision or argument.
BAG MEAL A meal of sandwiches, etc. provided in a paper bag for a man who, because of his employment, will not be at his normal meal place (ashore or afloat) in time for his proper meal.
BALE The verb to bale out, meaning to remove water, comes from the old name "boyle" for a bucket.
BANYAN PARTY An old Naval name for a picnic party, especially nowadays by bus. The word "Banyan" originates from the time when, as an economy, meat was not issued on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays: these days were called "Banyan Days" after a religious sect in the East which believed it wicked to eat meat. It became the custom for men to save up portions of their rations to tide them over these meatless days, and also to be sent ashore on those days to gather fruit. Meatless days were discontinued in 1884. A rare example of the good things in life being remembered better than the bad things!
BEAR UP! A sailing expression, meaning to bear the tiller up to windward in order to keep the vessel’s head away from the wind. It is in common use, with the metaphorical meaning of "Keep your spirits up!"
BECKET A piece of rope, each of whose ends is secured - e.g. rope handle of a wooden bucket. The "slots" on the top of a pair of trousers or on a raincoat through which a belt is passed are beckets. In Naval slang, Beckets mean pockets
BELL-BOTTOMED TROUSERS The uniform trousers of a seaman of height about 5ft 10ins measure 25 inches round the bottom. It is said that the practice of making sailors’ trousers very full arose from the days when the men made their own clothes, when they found it easier and less wasteful of material to use the full width of the material. A bolt of serge in Britain has for years measured 54ins across. This, allowing to turn-ins, would just give the two trousers legs. That wide trousers legs were subsequently found to be easier to roll up when scrubbing decks is often given as the reason why trousers were made wide, but it seems that this was not the original reason.
ROUND THE BEND General Navy slang for "half-witted".
THE BILBOES Old Naval slang name for leg-irons (referred to in the phrase "clapped him in irons".
BIG OD Lowest of the low member of the crew.
BILGE OR BILGE WATER Common slang work of nautical origin for rubbish or nonsense. Bilge water is the water which collects in the bilges of a ship - if left, it soon acquires an offensive colour of corruption.
BLACK-COATED WORKERS Common slang name for stewed prunes.
BLACK TOT DAY July 31, 1970 the Admiralty abolished the daily rum ration on board Royal Navy ships.
BLEAT A Naval slang word for a grumble, used as both noun and verb.
TO BLEED To bleed a buoy is to drain from it any water which may have got inside thus adversely affecting its buoyancy.
TO BLEED THE MONKEY To extract rum from its barrel by boring a small hole in the barrel.
THE BIGGEST BLOCK IN THE SHIP is the butcher’s block (Old Naval catch question).
THE BLOKE Sailors’ slang for the Executive Officer, second in command of a ship.
BLOOD BOAT Before the days when ships had large refrigerators, a duty cutter was sent ashore daily (usually in the early hours of the morning) to draw fresh meat. This boat, which often sailed or pulled many miles to complete the trip, was nicknamed the "Blood Boat" - later more generally known as the beef boat.
BLOOD CHIT Naval slang name for the Indemnity Certificate required to be signed by a civilian before embarkation in a Service ship or aircraft.
BLOOD MONEY An old Naval slang name for prize money.
NELSON’S BLOOD One of the slang names for rum. It originated from a story that the spirit (actually brandy) in the cases in which the body of Nelson was brought to this country after the battle of Trafalgar was tapped by the sentries keeping watch over it. This story is said to have appeared in the papers at that time and to have been officially denied.
BLUE Soldier’s slang name for a sailor.
BLUERS An old Naval slang name for extra work - said to be a dim reference to the "Blue" Marines (Royal Marine Artillery) who were famous for hard work.
BOATSWAIN (PRONOUNCED BO’SUN) In sailing ships, the Boatswain was the officer responsible for the rigging, sails and sailing equipment. This responsibility still remains, although it is much smaller now than then. From the 11th Century, ships of the Buscarles were commanded by a Batsuen or Boatswain (i.e. the Boat’s Sweyne), who acted as Master and Steerman. The Bo’sun looks after the general working of the ship, especially with regard to anchors, cables, blocks and tackles. He takes his orders from all officers, more especially form the Commander. All ropes and hawsers are under his charge and he is responsible for seeing that boats’ falls (i.e. the ropes used for hoisting and lowering boats) are renewed every six months and changed end-for-end every three months. He is in charge of endless stores, such as rope, wire, wash-deck gear and canvas, and he examines and passes men for higher "rating".
BOBBERY Slang word for any hubbub, from Pidgin English; probably from an Indian soldier’s customary shrill outcry when disturbed.
BOLLARD Metal or stone "stumps" around which ropes are belayed. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for a tree. (One nowadays often hears reference to the bole of a tree).
BONE Common (originally Naval) slang for to pilfer, steal or scrounge. The word comes from the name of a Boatswain in Admiral Cornwallis’s Flag Ship, who was notorious for making good deficiencies in his stores by stealing from other ships. The Admiral is reported to have said to the Boatswain on one occasion: "I trust, Mr. Bone, you will leave me with my anchors".
BOTH SHEETS AFT An old Naval phrase descriptive of a sailor with his hands in his pockets.
BOW The word "bow" was Anglo-Saxon for shoulder.
TO PART BRASS RAGS Naval ratings used to share bags in which polishing rags were kept. Thus, the friend with whom you shared a bag was your "Raggie" and, when you fell out, you parted brass rags with him.
BRASS MONKEY WEATHER Slang expression for bitterly cold weather.
BRASS HAT Slang name for the uniform cap worn by officers of Commander’s rank and above; hence generically used to refer to such officers themselves.
BROWN JOB Naval nickname for a soldier.
THE (CHIEF) BUFFER Naval nickname for the Chief Bo’sun’s Mate. As he is the Executive Officer’s right-hand man and the one by whom he passes orders to the Captain of Tops, he is considered to be the buffer between officer and ratings.
BULLOCK One of several Naval slang names for a Royal Marine. Reason adduced for this name is that Royal Marines are "Big, beefy, brawny and brave".
BUN-WORRY (OR BUN-FIGHT) An old Naval officers’ slang name for a tea-party, with ladies, ashore.
JIMMY BUNGS The old Naval nickname for the Cooper rating. BUM NUTS Naval Term for eggs
TO GO ROUND THE BUOY Naval slang for to come up (usually surreptitiously) for a second helping of food, especially in cafeteria messing.
BURGOO Sailors’ slang name for porridge. Hence, a Surgoo-eater is a Scotsman.
TO GO FOR A BURTON Old Naval slang expression to mean to fall all of a heap; to take a toss as, for example, when one trips over a rope or door-still when running at speed. The complete collapse of the victim is inherent in the phrase, not merely a stumble.
CHINESE WEDDING CAKE Sailors’ slang name for rice pudding with currants or raisins in it.
TO TAKE THE CAN BACK Common slang expression meaning to be blamed for the acts or faults of another. The expression may have arisen from the custom in some dockyards of employing a boy to fetch beer from a local public house; this boy was invariably blamed if accounts were unpaid or cans not returned.
CANTEEN MEDALS Naval name for stains down the front of jumper, jacket or coat caused by food or drink.
ROOM TO SWING A CAT Common slang expression meaning the space required for any particular job. This does not refer to the domestic animal, but to the Naval cat-o’-nine’ tails (The "Cat"). It has been suggested that this phrase came from the name - "Cat" - given to sailing colliers in the Middle Ages and up to the 18th Century. As these ships sailed in hundreds, there must have been great congestion when they anchored at Yarmouth Roads or Gravesend and swung to their anchors, so that the Master of a large craft would naturally condemn a tight anchor berth as "not Big enough to swing a Cat in". Perhaps Dick Whittington’s cat was really one of these boats!
CAT IS OUT OF THE BAG Common slang expression, meaning "The secret is out". From the practice of keeping the Naval cat o’ nine tails in a red baize bag and not removing it until the offender was secured to the gratings and there was no possibility of a reprieve.
TO CHAMFER UP To smarten up, make extra tidy or "tiddly". The expression comes from the shipwrights’ bench, where it means to take off the sharp edge of a piece of wood with a chisel.
CHATTY An old Naval slang word for dirty, untidy. Most often met in the expression "Happy and chatty".
CHEEKS An old nickname (now quite obsolete) for the Royal Marines, derived from the looping up of the tails of their coats.
CHEER On all formal occasions, the Navy cheers HOORAY, not HURRAH, and the cheers are called for with three HIPS. On formal occasions (e.g. end of football match), two HIPS are normal, given by all the members of the team.
TO CHEW THE FAT Naval slang expression for to talk volubly. It is possibly derived from the considerable jaw work involved in chewing the old-time ration meat before the days of refrigerators or canned meat.
BEEF-CHIT Officers’ slang name for a menu card.
CHOCK A BLOCK, CHOCKER Chock-a-block is an old Naval expression, meaning "Complete" or "Full up"; synonyms were "Two blocks" and "Block and block". It derives from the use of a hauling tackle - when the two blocks of the purchase were touching each other the lower one could obviously be hoisted no further, and so the work was completed. Modern slang has corrupted the expression to "Chocker", meaning "Fed up".
CHUCK Naval slang for a demonstration of applause. Enthusiastic supporters of a ship’s football team or a regatta boat’s crew form a chucking-up party. The expression may originate from the practice of throwing hats in the air when excited. An early form of this word was
CHUCKER UP CIVVY STREET Common slang expression meaning civilian life.
CIVVIES Common slang name for non-uniform clothes.
CLAKKER Old Naval slang name for the pastry top to a pie; synonyms are CLAGGER and AWNING.
CLEAN INTO Navalese for to dress oneself in the ‘rig’ ordered. Thus one used to get the anomalous order to ‘Clean into coaling rig’.
COW JUICE Naval slang for Milk.
COWBOY MEAL Sailors’ slang name for bacon and tomatoes. If onions and bubble n’ squeak are added, the meal is called "Train Smash"(Because it looks like a train wreck)
DHOBEY Services’ slang name for Laundry - both the firm who does the work and the materials which are washed; from Hindustani. A Dhobey Firm is a man (or men) who do other men’s laundry for them.
DIG IN Common slang for "Help yourself" (to food)
DIG OUT Common slang for "Work hard", "Get down to it".
DOGSBODY Common slang name for someone of very little importance
THE DRINK Maritime slang name for the Sea. Synonyms are the Ditch, the Pond, and the Oggin.
DUMMY RUN The naval name for a trial or practice in which all the motions are gone through but nothing else. e.g., in a gunnery dummy run all the motions of laying, setting, loading and firing are gone through meticulously but the gun is not actually fired. The expression is therefore freely used in the Navy to mean a rehearsal.
FIGGY DUFF Naval name for any kind of steamed suet pudding, whether or not it contains figs.
FAG END To ‘fag’ is to separate or tease out the strands of a rope; thus the fag end is the extreme end. This expression has no original connection with cigarettes.
A FACE LIKE A SEABOOT A nautical way of describing an expressionless face.
FANNY ADAMS Miss Fanny (or Frances) Adams was a child aged 9 who was murdered at Alton, Hants on 24th April 1867. The murderer (Frederick Baker, a solicitor’s clerk aged 24) cut up the body into pieces some of which were said to have been found in Deptford Victualling yard. Baker was tried at Winchester and hanged in December 1867. At about this time tinned mutton was introduced into the Navy and somewhat naturally it soon acquired the name of Fanny Adams. The tins themselves were found very useful by the sailors as mess gear (there was no official issue of mess gear in those days) and to this day the name FANNY remains attached to the small round "mess kettle" (similar in appearance to a painter’s pot - also called a kettle).
FISH A naval slang name for a torpedo: synonyms are MOULDY, TINFISH, KIPPER.
FISHES’ EYES Sailors’ slang name for tapioca pudding.
FISH-HEAD A Fleet Air Arm officers’ slang name for any non-flying naval officer.
FISHING FLEET A naval slang collective name for unmarried ladies, who frequent the Ladies’ Lounge of the Union Club in Valletta, Malta (or other places where naval officers are much to be found ashore).
FLAT ABACK The accepted naval way of describing a sailor’s cap jammed on the back of his head. It was a sailing ship expression said of square sails when the wind blew from right ahead.
FORE AND AFTER Old officers’ slang name for the uniform cocked hat.
THE FOUL ANCHOR Commonly known as "the seaman’s disgrace", the foul anchor was the seal of the Earl of Nottingham, Lord High Admiral in 1600; as Lord Howard of Effingham the Earl had been in command of the British forces which defeated the Spanish Armada in July 1588. GAMMIES Old sailor’s slang name for Raisins.
GOFFER Naval name for a non-alcoholic drink such as lemonade; the place where goffers are sold is the Goffer Bar. Before the days of NAAFI soda fountains, goffers were often made and sold on board by authorised members of the ship’s company, known as the Goffer Firm. Sometimes erroneously spelt Gopher (from Genesis vi.14.).
THE GOLDEN RIVET An old mythological story was that one of the rivets in the lower parts of the ship’s hull was made of gold. The golden rivet is as fabulous as the Key of the Starboard watch and a Hammock ladder and, like them, has covered many a new entry with confusion. In other words, it didn’t exist.
GONG Common slang name for medals and decorations.
GUMPERS Sailors’ slang for sentimental.
GUNPOWDER PROOF RUM the Pusser would take a bit of gunpowder and pour some rum over it. He would then attempt to ignite the mix. If the gunpowder ignited, the rum as “at proof,” hence the name Gunpowder Proof Rum.
HEADS Naval name for latrines - originally sited in the extreme bow - or head - of the ship. The rating responsible for their general cleanliness is the CAPTAIN OF THE HEADS.
TO HOG OUT A naval expression meaning to scrub or clean thoroughly. It comes from the name (hog) of the special brush made of birch twigs provided in bygone days for cleaning a sailing ship’s bottom.
HOGGING AND SAGGING Unfair strains and stresses are set up in a ship’s structure when part of her hull is unsupported. When waves are supporting the bows and stern of a ship but not her amidships part (i.e., when the hull tends to assume a concave shape), the ship is said to be sagging: when the amidships part is supported but not the extremities (i.e., when the hull tends to become convex), the ship is said to be hogging.
HOLIDAY Naval name for a gap, such as an area on a ship’s side left unpainted, or a space on a clothes line between pieces of linen hung out to dry.
HUGGER OR HUGGER-MUGGER An old naval word meaning slovenly, confused, muddled.
INSULT Naval slang name for the money paid to individuals on pay day (ratings are paid fortnightly).
JAWBATION An old naval slang word for a reprimand, a telling off.
JETTISON OR TO JETTISON To throw overboard.
JEW OR JEWING Naval nickname for tailoring. This may have originated from the fact that tailoring is a popular profession among Jews, or "J" was substituted for "S".
JEWING FIRM A sailor on board who in his spare time does tailoring for others.
JEWING BAG or BUNDLE The bag in which a sailor keeps his sewing gear. Also called a HOUSEWIFE.
JIB OR CUT OF HIS JIB A maritime phrase descriptive of a person’s facial appearance. It comes from the days of sail when a ship’s nationality could be told at a distance by the cut of her sails.
HANGING JUDAS Said of a rope when insecurely made fast or belayed, i.e. false and unreliable as was Judas.
KAGG (or CAGG) Naval slang name for an argument - defined as "positive assertion followed by flat contradiction and culminating in personal abuse."
RED LEAD A sailors’ slang name for tinned tomatoes.
SHOW A LEG In the days when women used to be allowed to sleep on board they were allowed to lie in and the call "Show a leg" was made to see that it really was a woman who was enjoying the privilege. The old cry was "Show a leg or else a purser’s stocking".
A LONG SHIP An officers’ slang expression applied to a lengthy interval between drinks or to slowness in showing hospitality.
LONG TOM A paint brush lashed to the end of a long pole, used for painting places difficult of access.
LOT’S WIFE Sailors’ slang name for table-salt (from Genesis XIX.26).
LUBBER’S HOLE The opening or hatchway in the deck of the tops on sailing ships’ masts, provided as a means of access to the tops for those ‘lubbers’ afraid to climb up via the futtock-shrouds.
LUBBER’S LINE The mark on the binnacle which is brought to meet the desired point on the compass-card. So called because a ‘real’ seaman can do without it.
LURK OR TO LURK Originally, to ‘lurk’ someone was to impose on his kindness to do something for you. Nowadays the word is merely a naval synonym for to ‘detail’ someone for a job, though it implies that the job is one for which no volunteers are forthcoming.
MAKE A SIGNAL Naval signals are made not sent.
MAKE-AND-MEND OR A MAKERS The official naval name for a half day off. It comes from the old pipe "Hands to Make and Mend Clothes", the traditional occupation for the hands when no official ship’s work is to be carried out, see UNIFORM (Ratings) "Make-and-mend pud" is a slang name for a stodgy pudding which should assist its eaters to sleep heavily after lunch.
MARRY THE GUNNER’S DAUGHTER An old naval expression meaning to be laid over a gun to receive a thrashing.
MATEY or DOCKYARD MATEY The navy’s affectionately offensive name for a dockyard workman.
MISSMUSTERS Men who for any reason have failed to attend a general occasion or ‘parade’ - such as payment, medical inspection, etc. - attend at a later session, specially arranged for them, as "Missmusters", because they have missed the original muster.
BLACK DOG FOR A WHITE MONKEY To "give a black dog for a white monkey" is an old naval way of expressing a fair exchange - a quid pro quo.
CHARLIE MOORE An old naval synonym for fair play; from a Maltese innkeeper’s sign - "Charlie Moore, the fair thing" (about 1850).
MOULDY A naval slang name for a torpedo (said to be an allusion to the mole): synonyms are KIPPER, TIN-FISH, TAMPEEDIE.
MUNJY A sailors’ slang name for food: perhaps from the French Manger but more probably from the Maltese Mangiare (to eat).
TO MUSTER YOUR BAG A naval metaphorical expression meaning to be seasick. NATIVE Naval name for an officer or rating whose home is in the port where the ship is lying. A native is sometimes said to be "changing his name to Nippinoff" from the rapidity with which, it seems to non-natives, he goes ashore!
NEW NAVY The old naval man’s term of contempt for any innovation.
NIBBY An old naval name for a ship’s biscuit - something to nibble.
NUTTY Naval slang name for chocolate, whether or not it contains nuts.
THE OGGIN Modern sailors’ slang for the sea; it is said to be derived from Hogwash, though some assert that it comes from a mispronouncement of Ocean. Synonyms are The Ditch, The Pond, The Drink, all three of which words are used by officers more often than Oggin.
OYSTER OR BOMBAY OYSTER An old maritime name for a laxative draught consisting of a double dose of caster oil in a glass of milk; a more modern name for such a laxative would be "elephant-rouser".
OFFING OR IN THE OFFING Old naval expression meaning near at hand; originally it meant a distance from the shore - i.e., towards the horizon.
PRAIRIE-OYSTER A morning-after reviver composed of port wine, worcester sauce, red pepper, mustard and the unbroken yolk of an egg.
BAGS ON PASSION Modern sailors’ slang name for mails from home
PERKS Naval abbreviation of the word "Perquisites", referring to allowances, either in money or in kind, given with any particular office or appointment.
TO POKE CHARLIE A common slang expression meaning to treat anyone or anything with derision - to make fun of.
POZZIE Old sailor’s slang name for Jam or Marmalade.
PUSH OR TO PUSH THE BOAT OUT Old navel expression meaning to stand drinks all round.
PUSSER The inevitable corruption of PURSER and/or PAYMASTER.
PUSSER BUILT Naval slang description of an officer or rating who abides closely to the letter of the regulations.
PUSSERS An adjective used to describe any article of service stores, especially clothing, to differentiate it from the similar article bought from civilian sources.
PUSSERS CRABS Naval slang name for boots bought from the slop room.
PUSSERS CRABFAT Naval slang name for Admiralty pattern grey paint.
PUSSERS DIRK Slang name for the uniform clasp-knife, part of every seaman’s kit.
PUSSERS TALLY Naval slang for a false name, such as may be given by a malefactor to the patrol or on other occasions when the concealment of a man’s own name seems desirable.
PUSSERS VINOLIA Naval slang name for soap, particularly for Admiralty pattern hard yellow soap.
ON THE PUTTY Naval slang expression for Aground.
RABBITS Naval slang name given to articles taken, or intended to be taken, ashore privately. Originally "rabbits" were things taken ashore improperly (i.e. theft or smuggling - the name arose from the ease with which tobacco, etc., could be concealed in the inside of a dead rabbit) but with the passenger of time the application of the word has spread to anything taken ashore; an air of impropriety nevertheless still hangs over the use of the word, whether or not this is justified (it seldom is). Hence the phrase "Tuck its ears in", often said to an officer or rating seen going ashore with a parcel.
THE RIG OF THE DAY Naval name for the type of uniform directed to be worn each day; it is piped at breakfast time in each ship daily.
THE RUB Naval expression meaning the Blame or Responsibility.
A RUB OR RUBBER Naval slang word for a Loan.
A RUB OF THE GREEN OR A GREEN RUB Naval slang expression for an Unfortunate mishap.
RUMBO Condemned rope.
SALTASH LUCK Old maritime expression meaning No success at all. It is said to be derived from the many anglers who sat on the bridge at Saltash for hours and caught nothing but colds.
RECEIVE A SCRUBBING Naval slang for Receiving a reprimand.
TO SCRUB ROUND Naval slang for To avoid (from the course pursued by some chairwoman - and other wielders of a scrubbing brush).
SCUPPER OR SCUPPERED Naval slang for Killed. In the days of sail, if a man on deck was washed into the lee scuppers by a heavy sea he was almost certain to sustain at least serious injury.
SEA OR LOWER DECK LAWYER Naval name for a sailor who is fond of arguing and would have one believe that he knows all the regulations. Usually an excellent example of a little learning being dangerous.
FACE LIKE A SEA-BOOT Naval expression for a man’s face devoid of any expression - or a woman’s face devoid of beauty.
SET A full set of moustache, beard and side whiskers.
KNOCK SEVEN BELLS OUT OF A MAN An old naval expression for the giving of a sound thrashing (the nautical equivalent of "Knocking a man for six"); presumably to knock all eight bells out of a man would be to kill him! If you scare the TEN BELLS out of someone, they are dead and have come back!!!
SEWN UP Said of a man who is completely drunk and incapable - so much so that he might just as well be sewn up in his hammock and tripped over the side.
SHAKY Expressed of anything in which there is a suspicion of short measure. E.g., a rating may say that he received a shaky tot, meaning that he thinks his rum ration was of short measure.
JACK SHALOLOO Old naval name for a boaster, or braggart. As an epithet applied to a ship it denotes slackness.
TO SHOVE ONE’S OAR IN Old naval expression meaning to interrupt, to break into someone else’s conversation.
SHOVEWOOD A word often used in naval circles in circumstances when a civilian might refer to a "Do-hickey", a "What-not", a "What-do-you-call-it".
SIPPERS A sip from a messmate’s tot of rum or grog; an illegal practice that started in the 1939?45 war and became a customary birthday gift to a lucky sailor from all his messmates, often with disastrous results. But compare the wardroom birthday practice whereby the birthday boy provides drinks for his messmates!
SLOPS Naval name for any article of clothing (ready-made) which can be purchased from the ship’s clothing store. Slops were introduced into the Navy in 1623. The compartment in a ship where slops are kept and issued is called the SLOP ROOM. The intending purchaser indents for his requirements on an established form called a SLOP CHIT; this name has come to mean metaphorically the amount of work a man has to do or responsibility he assumes, in the phrase "It’s on your slop chit now". Mobile slop room introduced at Portsmouth in July, 1954.
THE SNAKE PIT Formal naval officers’ slang name for the ladies’ lounge of the Union Club, Valletta, Malta = a favourite haunt of the Fishing Fleet. SNOB Naval name for a boot-repairer or cobbler.
FLUATERS IN THE SNOW Sailors’ slang name for Sausages and Mashed Potatoes.
SPITCHER Naval slang work meaning "Finish" - used as either a verb or a noun. From the Maltese word of that meaning.
PORT AND STARBOARD In the earliest ships there was no rudder and the ship was steered by a "Steerboard" (large car or sweep) sited over the right-hand side of the stern; hence that side of the ship came to be known as the Starboard side. The other side of the ship was in consequence used for going alongside for embarking or disembarking cargo through the ‘load-ports’; the left hand side of the ship therefore became known as the "Loadboard" side, the "Larboard". As the use of this latter word inevitably caused confusion with the word Starboard, the word Port came to be used instead. By some authorities, the Venetians are given the credit for the origin of "the word" - ‘board’ comes from the Italian ‘Borda’ meaning side; the side with the steering oar was ‘Questa borda’: the other side was ‘Quella boarda’; these two expressions would rapidly become adapted into Starboard and Larboard.
STOP A GLASS RINGING It is an old tradition that a ‘ringing’ glass must be silenced without delay; the old saying is "Stop a glass ringing to save a sailor drowning".
STRONGERS A bucketful of strong soda water, used for cleaning paintwork, etc. Usually referred to as a drop of strongers
SWING IT Slang expression meaning "Don’t worry about it"m "postpone" or "cancel". The motto of the VERNON is irreverently quoted as "Swing it till Monday".
HARD TACK Old slang name for ship’s biscuit.
SOFT TACK Old slang name for bread.
ON THE WRONG TACK Naval expression meaning doing things incorrectly or pursing the wrong line in an argument. A sailing ship makes progress towards the direction from which the wind is blowing by tacking; so a ship on the wrong tank is progressing in the wrong direction. It has been suggested that a ship on the wrong tack is one on the port tack, whose responsibility it is to give way to a ship on the starboard tank.
TALLY Slang word meaning Name; hence, Cap-tally (= cap-ribbon with ship’s name on it), Death-tally (= identity disc).
A TAUT HAND A good all-round seaman whom everyone respects.
LONG TOM A paint brush lashed to the end of a long pole, used for painting inaccessible places.
TOUCH AND GO An expression commonly used to mean uncertainty. It is of maritime origin and refers to a ship touching the sea-bottom and then slipping off.
TRAIN SMASH A lower deck name for bacon and tinned tomatoes.
A TRICK The naval name for a spell of duty, a watch, particularly as coxswain at the steering wheel.
WEBS Sailor’s slang name for his feet.
TO HAVE A WEED ON Sailor’s slang for having a grievance and dilating on it.
WEIGH OFF Naval slang for awarding punishment. Clearly this use of the word comes from the idea of the scales of Justice.
WHALES Sailors satirical slang name for Sardines.
WINGER Any young rating who has been ‘adopted’ as his particular friend - taken under his wing - by a senior rating. The word was not a complimentary one, though with the passage of time its original insinuation is probably nowadays seldom appreciated.
THE SUN IS OVER THE YARDARM (OR FORE YARD) Naval officers’ expression meaning "It is time for a drink", it is bad form to have a drink on board before sun is over the yardarm, i.e. approaching noon. The last word of this phrase is more correctly FOREYARD than YARDARM.
YARD ARM CLEARING To clear one’s yard, or yard arm, is to clear oneself of blame, either before or after an incident has occurred. Thus an order which puts responsibility on someone else is known as a YARD ARM CLEARER.

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Sally Brown

The younger sister of Charlie Brown in the comic strip Peanuts by Charles Schulz.
I'm sorry. If you can do any better, let me know.

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