Everyday Slang We Didn’t Know Originated In the Navy

Photo Credit: Orbtal Media / Unsplash / Free to Use
Photo Credit: Orbtal Media / Unsplash / Free to Use

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.

Ships husband

Workers attending the launch of La Seine at the Shipyards of France
Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images

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

Hawespipe attached to a red dashboard
Photo Credit: S.J. de Waard / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.5

“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

Cat o' nine tails against an orange backdrop
Photo Credit: USS Constitution Museum / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

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.


Chip log with a timer placed beside it
Photo Credit: Rémi Kaupp / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

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.


San Giorgio scuttled in the water
Photo Credit: SeM Studio / Fototeca / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

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

Ropes extending from the front of a ship
Photo Credit: Maciej Karon / Unsplash

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

William Kent speaking with three women on a boat
Photo Credit: Fox Photos / Getty Images

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

Gotheborg at sea
Photo Credit: VALERY HACHE / AFP / Getty Images

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

Fiddler performing for a crowd
Photo Credit: Newtown Graffiti / clusternote / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

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.


Painting of ships at sea
Photo Credit: Print Collector / Getty Images

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.

Pea coat

Black peacoat against a white backdrop
Photo Credit: Sirimiri / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

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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.

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE