My Favorite Navy Sayings – And Their Origins!

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shutterstock_140968657Having served more than seven years in the British Royal Navy, it’s interesting to discuss with ex-US Navy and Service friends both the close ties and the history of the British and the American Navies.

A very good summary of this relationship can be found in the paper ‘Changing American Perceptions of the Royal Navy Since 1775’ written by John B. Hattendorf and Ernest J. King, Professor of Maritime History, U.S. Naval War College.

It is fascinating reading.

shutterstock_194577320Around 1775, the Royal Navy was the superior naval power around the world. But today, there’s a huge difference in scale between the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy. The slimmed-down Royal Navy has 30,440 personnel. The US Navy, which has also been through personnel cuts, has about 326,000 active duty personnel with another 110,000 in the U.S. Navy Reserve.

After the Second World War, influenced by Royal Navy operational patterns and approaches, the US Navy took over many of the Royal Navy’s policing efforts around the world, mostly through the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Today, after many years of standardized procedures, equipment, supplies, and communications for multilateral naval operations, the Royal Navy and the U.S Navy enjoy a close and professional working relationship.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and both Navies over the years have learnt a lot from each together. The U.S. Navy celebrates its own famous battles, just like the Royal Navy’s tradition of the Trafalgar Night dinners, a celebration of the anniversary of the triumphant Battle of Trafalgar, and commemorating its Royal Navy leader at the time, Admiral Lord Nelson.

The U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Jay L. Johnson in 1999, announced that commencing in 2000, the U.S. Navy would pause to celebrate its heritage by beginning the annual practice of having a “dining in” to mark the anniversary of the battle of Midway, one of the most decisive sea battles in world history . . . won, not because the U.S. Navy had more sailors or better technology, but by the courage and determination of the service personnel who fought a ferocious and violent air and sea battle against overwhelming odds.

What interests me, though, and simply reaffirms the close ties of these world-class Navies, is the use of old Royal Navy and U.S. Navy sayings, that I hear all the time!

Here are some of my favorites, found in a book given to me last Christmas: ‘Not Enough Room to Swing a Cat’ and through a number of sites on the Internet. But there are many, many more sayings, too numerous to mention here!

Son of a Gun –

When sailors managed to sneak a woman on board while in port, the gun deck was the favorite place for amorous activities. Later when the woman returned seeking paternity support but didn’t know the father’s name, the child was logged in as a “Son of a Gun”.

Let the Cat Out of the Bag –

In the Royal Navy, the punishment prescribed for most serious crimes was flogging. This was administered by the Bosun’s Mate using a whip called a cat o’ nine tails. The “cat” was kept in a leather or baize bag. It was considered bad news indeed when the cat was let out of the bag. Other sources attribute the expression to the old English market scam of selling someone a pig in a poke (bag) when the pig turned out to be a cat instead.

Marry the Gunner’s Daughter –

Old Navy nickname for a flogging, particularly when across a gun.

A Square Meal –

In good weather, crews’ mess was a warm meal served on square wooden platters sawn from a plank.shutterstock_245964988

As the Crow Flies –

When lost or unsure of their position in coastal waters, ships would release a caged crow. The crow would fly straight towards the nearest land thus giving the vessel some sort of a navigational fix. The tallest lookout platform on a ship came to be known as the crow’s nest.

Overbearing –

To sail downwind directly at another ship thus “stealing” or diverting the wind from his sails.

Leeway –

The weather side of a ship is the side from which the wind is blowing. The Lee side is the side of the ship sheltered from the wind. A lee shore is a shore that is downwind of a ship. If a ship does not have enough “leeway” it is in danger of being driven onto the shore.

Windfall –

A sudden unexpected rush of wind from a mountainous shore, which allowed a ship more leeway.

Over the Barrel –

The most common method of punishment aboard ship was flogging. The unfortunate sailor was tied to a grating, a mast or over the barrel of a deck cannon.

To Know the Ropes –

There were miles and miles of cordage in the rigging of a square rigged ship. The only way of keeping track of and knowing the function of all of these lines was to know where they were located. It took an experienced seaman to know the ropes.

Dressing Down –

Thin and worn sails were often treated with oil or wax to renew their effectiveness. This was called “dressing down”. An officer or sailor who was reprimanded or scolded received a dressing down.

Footloose –

The bottom portion of a sail is called the foot. If it is not secured, it is footloose and it dances randomly in the wind.

First Rate –

Implies excellence. From the 16th century on until steam powered ships took over, British naval ships were rated as to the number of heavy cannon they carried. A ship of 100 or more guns was a First Rate line-of-battle ship. Second rates carried 90 to 98 guns; Third Rates, 64 to 89 guns; Fourth Rates, 50 to 60 guns. Frigates carrying 48 to 20 guns were fifth and sixth rated.

Pipe Down –

Means stop talking and be quiet. The Pipe Down was the last signal from the Bosun’s pipe each day which meant “lights out” and “silence”.

Chock-a-Block –

Meaning something is filled to capacity or over loaded. If two blocks of rigging tackle were so hard together they couldn’t be tightened further, it was said they were “Chock-a-Block”.

Groggy –

In 1740, British Admiral Vernon (whose nickname was “Old Grogram” for the cloak of grogram which he wore) ordered that the sailors’ daily ration of rum be diluted with water. The men called the mixture “grog”. A sailor who drank too much grog was “groggy”.

shutterstock_228601924Pooped –

The poop is the stern section of a ship. To be pooped is to be swamped by a high, following sea.

By and Large –

Currently means in all cases or in any case. From the nautical: by meaning into the wind and large meaning with the wind: as in, “By and Large the ship handled very well.”

Cut and Run –

If a captain of a smaller ship encountered a larger enemy vessel, he might decide that discretion is the better part of valor, and so he would order the crew to cut the lashings on all the sails and run away before the wind. Other sources indicate “Cut and Run” meant to cut the anchor cable and sail off in a hurry.

The Bitter End –

The end of an anchor cable is fastened to the bitts at the ship’s bow. If all of the anchor cable has been played out you have come to the bitter end.

Toe the Line –

When called to line up at attention, the ship’s crew would form up with their toes touching a seam in the deck planking.

Overhaul –

To prevent the buntline ropes from chaffing the sails, crew were sent aloft to haul them over the sails. This was called overhauling.

Slush Fund –

A slushy slurry of fat was obtained by boiling or scraping the empty salted meat storage barrels. This stuff called “slush” was often sold ashore by the ship’s cook for the benefit of himself or the crew. The money so derived became known as a slush fund.

Under the Weather –

If a crewman is standing watch on the weather side of the bow, he will be subject to the constant beating of the sea and the ocean spray. He will be under the weather.

Gone By the Board –

Anything seen to have gone overboard or spotted floating past the ship (by the board) was considered lost at sea.

Above Board –

Anything on or above the open deck. If something is open and in plain view, it is above board.

Between the Devil and theDeep BlueSea-

The devil seam was the curved seam in the deck planking closest to the side of the ship and next to the scupper gutters. If a sailor slipped on the deck, he could find himself between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Advance-Note –

A piece of paper worth a month’s pay, handed to a sailor when he signs on a ship, which can be turned into cash by one of the sailor’s relatives after his ship has sailed.

Bleed the Monkey –

Surreptitiously to remove spirit from a keg or cask by making a small hole and sucking through a straw.

No Room to Swing a Cat –

The entire ship’s company was required to witness flogging at close hand. The crew might crowd around so that the Bosun’s Mate might not have enough room to swing his cat o’ nine tails.

Shiver my timbers! –

An expression of surprise or unbelief, as when a ship strikes a rock or shoal so hard that her timbers shiver.

Taking the wind out of his sails –

Sailing in a manner so as to steal or divert wind from another ship’s sails.

Start Over with a Clean Slate –shutterstock_173571509

A slate tablet was kept near the helm on which the watch keeper would record the speeds, distances, headings and tacks during the watch. If there were no problems during the watch, the slate would be wiped clean so that the new watch could start over with a clean slate.

Taken Aback –

A dangerous situation where the wind is on the wrong side of the sails pressing them back against the mast and forcing the ship astern. Most often this was caused by an inattentive helmsman who had allowed the ship to head up into the wind.

At Loggerheads –

An iron ball attached to a long handle was a loggerhead. When heated it was used to seal the pitch in deck seams. It was sometimes a handy weapon for quarrelling crewmen.

Fly-by-Night –

A large sail used only for sailing downwind and requiring rather little attention.

No Great Shakes –

When casks became empty they were “shaken” (taken apart) so the pieces, called shakes, could be stored in a small space. Shakes had very little value.

Give (someone) a Wide Berth –

To anchor a ship far enough away from another ship so that they did not hit each other when they swung with the wind or tide.

Cut of His Jib –

Warships many times had their foresails or jib sails cut thinly so that they could maintain point and not be blown off course. Upon sighting thin foresails on a distant ship a captain might not like the cut of his jib and would then have an opportunity to escape.

Garbled –

Garbling was the prohibited practice of mixing rubbish with the cargo. A distorted, mixed up message was said to be garbled.

Press Into Service –

The British navy filled their ships’ crew quotas by kidnapping men off the streets and forcing them into service. This was called impressment and was done by Press Gangs.

Touch and Go –

This referred to a ship’s keel touching the bottom and getting right off again.

Scuttlebutt –

A butt was a barrel. Scuttle meant to chop a hole in something. The scuttlebutt was a water barrel with a hole cut into it so that sailors could reach in and dip out drinking water. The scuttlebutt was the place where the ship’s gossip was exchanged.shutterstock_89102368

Show a leg! –

The traditional call of the boatswains mate on a British warship when the hands were called to turn out in the morning. It arose from the old days when seaman, who were signed on for the duration of a ships commission, were always refused shore leave when in harbor for fear that thy would desert. Instead of shore leave, women, ostensibly wives were allowed to live on board while the ship remained in harbor, and of course joined the men in their hammock’s at night. When hands were called in the morning the women were allowed to lie in, and the boatswain’s mate, when he saw a hammock still occupied would check the sex of the occupant by requiring him/her to show a leg over the side of the hammock. If it was hairy, it was probably male, if hairless, probably female.

Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey –

Has nothing what so ever to do with simian anatomy. It seems that those neat pyramids of cannonballs were formed by creating a base in a dimpled try called a monkey. Normally, the “monkey” was made of iron, but for dress ship occasions, a brass tray, or monkey was used. The difference in the co-efficient of expansion (or contraction) between the two metals was often enough to cause the pyramid to topple…hence “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”.

Mind your P’s and Q’s –

An admonishment to stay alert or be on your best behavior. Originated from tavern owners who allowed Sailors to drink “on credit” until they were hired by a ship. P’s refers to pints, Q’s refers to quarts. Some unscrupulous tavern owners would try to put extra check marks under the P’s and Q’s columns if they saw the Sailor wasn’t paying attention (or was obviously inebriated).

Many of these phrases are in common use today, yet not many people are aware of the original meanings!shutterstock_202912288

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