Pull Your Finger Out: The Royal Navy Slang You Never Knew You Were Speaking

 
Powder monkey (left) on a Ship of the Line
Powder monkey (left) on a Ship of the Line
 
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Anyone still in the hammock once the sailors were up could be asked to “show a leg” to ensure that it was the girlfriend and not the sailor who was in the hammock.

In Britain, it is said that you are never more than 70 miles from the sea. As a small island, its most important means of defense has historically been its navy. So it is not surprising that many aspects of Navy life and culture have filtered into everyday life.

Among these are many common expressions we use today. Sailors in the Royal or Merchant Navy were often called “Jack Tars.”

The name “Jack” was used generically to refer to a common man, in the way we might talk today about an average Joe. “Tar” referred to the tarpaulin or sailcloth, so the term “Jack Tar” distinguished a man from other Jacks.

Because of this, naval slang is sometimes referred to as “Jack Speak.” You have probably been using “Jack Speak” for years without even realizing it. Here are ten common expressions used today and their origins.

Recruitment poster from the Napoleonic Wars
Recruitment poster from the Napoleonic Wars

Chock-a-block

This expression is a variation of “block to block.” It refers to the blocks on the pulleys which were used for hauling and lifting heavy objects on the ship. When the two blocks on the pulley were sitting close together, the pulley would not move.

So, the expression was used to describe a situation where things were packed so closely together that there was no room to move. That is why we use it today to refer to a packed room or train carriage.

Manual of military engineering (1905)
Manual of military engineering (1905)

Bell Bottoms

The traditional wide-legged trousers worn by sailors had little to do with either fashion or practicality. They were, in fact, the result of the sailors’ limited sewing abilities.

All sailors were expected to make their own trousers. To keep things simple, they did not bother to shape the fabric to fit. Instead, they just used it as it came.

 

As the standard width of a bolt of fabric was 54 inches, a sailor just cut it down the middle. After stitching the seams, they were left with two legs around 25 inches around the bottom which became the standard uniform.

As it happened, the additional width made it easier to roll them up and keep them clear of water on the deck.

Illustration of sailors in uniform, 1854
Illustration of sailors in uniform, 1854

Letting the cat out the bag

The cat in question here was not a ship’s cat, although feline sailors were often kept onboard to keep down the mice and rats which could eat the rations or gnaw through the ropes.

In this case, the cat referred to is the cat o’nine tails, a whip that was used for punishing the sailors. It consisted of three chords each divided into three strands and attached to a wooden stick.

It was kept in a bag, so whenever the “cat” was let out of the bag, it meant that someone was going to be in trouble. Although the term has now come to mean disclosing a secret, the underlying idea remains that the disclosure is likely to get someone into trouble.

Sailor being flogged with a cat-o’-nine-tails while four sailors are waiting for their turn to flog him.Photo: Wellcome Collection gallery CC BY 4.0
Sailor being flogged with a cat-o’-nine-tails while four sailors are waiting for their turn to flog him.Photo: Wellcome Collection gallery CC BY 4.0

Room to swing a cat

Again, the cat in question was the cat o’nine tails. This term describes a space without enough room to swing the cat — namely a very small space.

In this context, although swinging the cat does not involve cruelty to animals, it certainly involved cruelty to humans who could be punished with lashes for what would be considered fairly minor offenses today.

A sailor is stripped to the waist and tied to a grid by his wrists while being flogged with a cat-o’-nine-tails with the captain looking on. Pen and ink drawing. Iconographic Collections CC BY 4.0
A sailor is stripped to the waist and tied to a grid by his wrists while being flogged with a cat-o’-nine-tails with the captain looking on. Pen and ink drawing. Iconographic Collections CC BY 4.0

True colors

Ships were identified by the colors of their flags. However, there were times when it was acceptable to use false colors to avoid being identified. If, for example, you were approaching an enemy ship but not yet actually in battle, it was considered acceptable.

However, once the fighting began, each of the two ships was obliged to show their true colors. This is why when someone shows their true colors we release they are not as we had originally imagined.

Naval Battle between French and British at Chesapeake Bay. American Revolution. Illustration by US Navy Naval History and Heritage Command.
Naval Battle between French and British at Chesapeake Bay. American Revolution. Illustration by US Navy Naval History and Heritage Command.

Show a leg

The call to show a leg is usually a wake-up call meaning you have to show that you are at least awake and will be getting up soon. However, it was not the sailors who were expected to show a leg but their girlfriends.

When sailors were in port, their girlfriends were allowed to spend the night onboard. The girls were even allowed an extra 30 minutes in bed after the sailor had got up.

But anyone still in the hammock once the sailors were up could be asked to “show a leg” to ensure that it was the girlfriend and not the sailor who was under the covers in the hammock

Mrs. Hansen taking the noon site on board the barkentine AURORA.
Mrs. Hansen taking the noon site on board the barkentine AURORA.

Pull your finger out

The finger in question here is the finger of the so-called “powder monkey” whose job it was to prime the cannon on the ship. To do this, he would insert a small amount of gunpowder into the ignition hole which had to be held in place by his finger. When it was time to fire, he would pull out his finger.

Consequently, the idea of not holding back and getting into action has, by extension, come to mean putting in some effort to achieve the desired result.

A powder monkey on a Union vessel during the American Civil War, ca. 1864
A powder monkey on a Union vessel during the American Civil War, ca. 1864

Square meal

Why do we talk of about a square meal when most of us eat from a round plate? Because sailors used to have their meals served on a square tray. This may have been for the convenience of easy stacking and storing when space was limited.

The meal served on the tray was the main meal of the day. That is why a square meal today is a substantial one.

Of course, with so many restaurants now serving food on boards and other variations, you could say that the navy was ahead of its time in terms of culinary presentation.

For the Square Deal and the Square Meal Share the Meat
For the Square Deal and the Square Meal Share the Meat

Groggy

If you ever wake up feeling a bit groggy, it is probably not because you have been drinking “grog.” Grog was the sailors’ rum which, at 57% proof, is stronger than the standard 40% we drink today.

The rum was diluted one part rum to two parts water, and this task was overseen by Admiral Edward Vernon who always wore a coat of grogram which was a coarse mixture of silk and wool. This earned him the nickname “Old Grog,” and so “grog” was the name given to the diluted rum.

Sailors who overindulged inevitably felt rather groggy the following day.

Royal Navy grog ration
Royal Navy grog ration

Read another story from us: We Use Everyday Slang That Started in WWI – You Are So Over The Top

On the fiddle

This phase, which implies cheating or fraud, also comes from the sailors’ meal times. Food supplies had to be rationed strictly to ensure there was enough to last the journey.

As a result, the plates had a small lip around the edge known as the “fiddle” to mark how high they should be filled. Any sailor who overfilled his plate was said to be “on the fiddle” which was, in fact, a punishable offense.

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