Over the centuries, sailors have created a language all their own to describe objects, people, actions and places. Much of this slang has found itself being integrated into the English language, without the majority knowing it originated in the Navy. Interested in learning which phrases came about on the open seas? Keep on reading to find out.
When a vessel is returning to port for repairs, a sailor may say that the ship is returning to her husband. In this instance, the “husband” refers to the man in charge of the shipyard where the vessel will be returned to working order.
In through the hawsepipe
“In through the hawsepipe” is Navy slang used by seamen who become officers via non-traditional means – it’s how they describe their ascent through the ranks of a ship. In this context, it means to start from the very bottom. The hawsepipe itself, also called the hawsehole, is the hole in the bow through which the anchor cable passes.
Let the cat out of the bag
Letting the cat out of the bag is Navy slang to describe the punishment of whipping. The “cat” refers to the cat o’ nine tails, a formidable multi-tailed whip stored within a cloth bag. Sailors knew it was about to be used when the superior doling out the punishment pulled it out of its bag.
A knot is a unit used worldwide as a measurement of speed through water. The term originated from the way sailors measured a ship’s speed. A vessel had a length of rope with colored knots every 47.33 feet. At the end was a buoyant piece of wood that remained stationary in the water, unreeling the rope as the ship moved through the water.
The number of knots that passed through a sailor’s fingers over a 28-second period provided a measurement of the vessel’s speed.
Scuttlebutt is Navy slang for a rumor. The word comes from “scuttle,” which means to intentionally sink one’s ship by opening holes in the side, and “butt,” the water container men would group around and talk. Essentially, it describes the effect rumors have on morale.
He knows the ropes
This term, commonly used in the English language, was originally used to describe a novice sailor. It would be printed on their discharge and meant they knew the names and purpose of a ship’s main ropes… Basically, it informed their superiors that they knew the very basics of seamanship.
Spinning a yarn
Today, to spin a yarn means to tell a story, one that’s perhaps slightly exaggerated. Its seagoing origins date back to naval officers who believed that, if seamen spent too much time telling stories, then no work would be done.
At least once a week, a ship’s crew would have to unravel old lines of rope. During this, the men could converse and tell stories as much as they pleased, and the time became known “spinning yarns.” Eventually, telling a tall tale turned into spinning a yarn.
Devil to pay
This expression is used today to describe that something unwanted 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.
The 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 was eventually used to describe any unwanted situation.
On the fiddle
The fiddle was a raised lip around the edge of a sailor’s plate. If food touched it, this meant he had too much and was described as being “on the fiddle.” This could earn him a whipping.
A sailor may say the word bokoo, meaning “many.” This actually comes from the French word, beaucoup, which has the same meaning. The spelling was simplified over time and is an example of the many words from other languages that have been incorporated into Navy slang when traveling the world.
A peacoat is a thick jacket worn by sailors during bad weather. A potential origin for the name comes from the material from which its made, pilot cloth. Sailors would refer to the coarse, heavy fabric with the initial “P,” instead of pilot, which eventually became the “pea” in peacoat.