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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Donkey Riding is a shanty associated with loading cargo, the
"donkey" was the sailors' name for a chest containing provisions
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
FIGGY DUFF Naval name
for any kind of steamed suet pudding, whether or not it contains
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
HARD TACK Old slang name
for ship’s biscuit.
SOFT TACK Old slang name
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
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
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
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.