Over the centuries, sailors at sea have created a language all of their own. They created words and phrases for particular objects, people, actions, and places, many of which have found themselves being integrated into the English language.
Some of these are now everyday sayings for those of us without our sea legs, but others may be totally foreign to those who live life on dry land. Read on to find out some of the strangest nautical words and bits of navy slang.
1. Ships husband
A sailor may say the ship is returning to her husband when on their way to a shipyard for repairs. The husband refers to the man in charge of the shipyard repairing the vessel.
2. In through the hawsepipe
“In through the hawsepipe” is a way for a seaman who became an officer via non-traditional means to describe his ascent through the ranks of a ship. In this context, it means to start from the very bottom of the rank structure. The hawsepipe itself, also known as the hawsehole, is the hole in the bow through which the anchor cable passes.
3. Let the cat out of the bag
Letting the cat out of the bag is an old term that describes the punishment of whipping. The cat in the phrase refers to the cat o’ nine tails, a formidable multi-tailed whip that was stored in a cloth bag. When it was used, the cat o’ nine tails was pulled out of the bag.
A knot is a unit used worldwide as a measurement of speed through water. The term comes from the way a ship’s speed was measured. A ship had a length of rope with colored knots every 47.33 feet. At the end of the rope was a buoyant piece of wood that would remain stationary in the water, unreeling the rope as the ship moved. The number of knots that passed through a sailor’s fingers over a 28 second period would provide a measurement of the ship’s speed.
Scuttlebutt is a naval term for a rumor. The word comes from “scuttle,” to intentionally sink your own ship by opening holes in the side, and “butt,” the water container where men would often group around and talk. Essentially, it describes the effect rumors have on morale.
6. He knows the ropes
This term, which is commonly used in the English language today, was originally used to describe a novice sailor. It would be printed on a sailor’s discharge and meant he knew the names and purpose of a ship’s main ropes, which is the very basics of seamanship.
7. Spinning a yarn
Today, to spin a yarn means to tell a story, one that is perhaps slightly exaggerated. Its ocean-going origin comes from naval officers, many of whom believed that if seamen spent too much time telling stories, then no work would be done.
At least once a week, though, the ship’s crew would have to unravel old lines of rope. During this job, the men could converse and tell stories as much as they pleased, and the time became known “spinning yarns.” Eventually, telling a tall tale would be spinning a yarn.
8. Devil to pay
This expression is used today to describe something unwanted that is looming. However, some claim the term originates from the despised task of waterproofing a wooden ship’s longest seam along the keel. This is sometimes disputed, but there are many who believe it.
This seam was named the “devil” and would be “paid” or covered by tar. Paying the devil was an extremely unpleasant and difficult job, and the name would eventually be used to describe any unwanted situation.
9. On the fiddle
The fiddle was a raised lip around the edge of a sailor’s plate. If food touched the fiddle, this meant he had too much and was described as being “on the fiddle.” This could earn a sailor a whipping.
A sailor may say the word bokoo meaning “many.” This actually comes from the French word “beaucoup,” which means the same thing. While the meanings are the same, the spelling was simplified over time and is an example of the many words from many languages incorporated into nautical slang when traveling the world.
11. Pea coat
A pea coat is a thick jacket worn by sailors during bad weather. One potential origin for the name was from the material used for it, which was known as pilot cloth. Sailors would refer to the coarse, heavy fabric with the initial P instead of pilot, eventually becoming the “pea” in pea coat.