BACKING AND FILLING
A common expression - of maritime origin - for constantly changing ground in
a decision or argument.
BANNS OF MARRIAGE
Prior to a Church of England marriage, "banns" must by law be published on
three successive Sundays before the wedding: if the wedding does not take
place within three months of the banns having been called, the banns must be
re-published. Banns must be read in the parish churches of both the bride and
bridegroom or in the churches where they are accustomed to worship, their
names being on that church's electoral roll (one of which will be the church
where the wedding is to take place). The officiating clergyman must not
perform the marriage ceremony without documentary proof (i.e. "Banns
Certificate") that banns have been read in churches of which he has not
personal knowledge. A Naval man's ship is his ecclesiastical parish, so his
banns must be read on board his ship and the ship's Chaplain or Commanding
Officer must provide the Banns Certificate.
An old Naval name for a picnic party.
A rare example of the good things in life being remembered better than the
The Marines' mess deck in a warship called the Barracks.
A small water barrel carried in boats. The word comes from the Spanish
"Barrica" - a cask.
In action, a ship wears extra "battle ensigns" in any convenient position.
This has been done for years, to ensure that the colours remain flying
whatever the damage received.
Bayonets were first used in Bayonne in 1641. During a battle the soldiers ran
out of ammunition, stuck knives into the muzzles of their guns and charged
ON THE BEACH
Naval slang expression normally, and originally, meaning retired from the
Service, but of recent years sometimes used to describe an appointment to a
A sailing expression, meaning to bear the tiller up to windward in order to
keep the vessel's head away from the wind. It is in common use, with the
metaphorical meaning of "Keep your spirits up!"
A piece of rope, each of whose ends is secured - e.g. rope handle of a wooden
bucket. The "slots" on the top of a pair of trousers or on a raincoat through
which a belt is passed are beckets. In Naval slang, Beckets mean pockets.
BEER IN THE NAVY
Before brandy or rum were drunk by the sailors, beer was the accepted ration
drink provided. In their days Hawkins and Frobisher said they could cruise as
long as the beer lasted. But the beer must been terrible stuff -according to
William Thompson, who addressed an "appeal to the public to prevent the Navy
being supplied with pernicious provisions" (1761). It "stand as abominably as
the foul stagnant water which is pumped out of many cellars in London at the
midnight hour and the sailors were under the necessity of shutting their eyes
and stopping their breath by holding their noses before they could conquer
their aversion so as to prevail upon themselves in their extreme necessities
to drink it". In 1634 Nathaniel Knott, in his "Advice of a Seaman" wrote that
"The brewers have gotten the art to sophisticate beer with broom instead of
hops, and ashes instead of malt, and (to make it more lively) to pickle it
with salt water so that, whilst it is new, it shall seemingly be worthy of
praise, but in one month wax worse than stinking water".
Primarily, to make fast or secure. Thus, metaphorically, to cease whatever
one is doing.
STRIKING THE BELL TO DENOTE THE TIME
The origin of this custom is obscure, but records show that this method of
denoting the time was in use as early as the 13th Century. The method of
keeping time, i.e. the approximate time, was by means of a half-hour glass
(similar to an egg-timer), the bell being struck every time the glass was
turned. Half-hour glasses were in use in the Royal Navy until after 1850 and
at this period it was common to hear time being expressed in glasses, e.g.
"We should finish the job in about three glasses", meaning one-and-a-half
ROUND THE BEND
General Navy slang for "half-witted".
Old Naval slang name for Holystones, from the fact that in order to use them
properly a man had to go down on his knees (hence also the name "Holy
Stone"). The smaller sized stones were similarly known as "Prayer-Books".
Common slang name for any voluble religious orator. Hence, loosely, the
Chaplain or any ardent churchgoer.
Old Naval slang name for leg-irons (referred to in the phrase "clapped him in
BILGE OR BILGE WATER
Common slang work of nautical origin for rubbish or nonsense. Bilge water is
the water which collects in the bilges of a ship - if left, it soon acquires
an offensive colour of corruption.
A Bill of Exchange drawn by a ship's Purser on the Accountant General of the
Navy at three days' sight. In effect, it is the Navy's form of cheque.
It used to be the custom for the wine to be passed, after the Royal Toast, at
dinner on an officer's birthday in order that his messmates might have wine
(at his expense) wherein to drink his health. Nowadays, the more usual custom
is for the birthday officer to stand drinks all round before lunch.
Officers' slang name (abbreviation of Bishop) for the Chaplain.
Common slang name for stewed prunes.
A Naval slang word for a grumble, used as both noun and verb.
TO BLEED (SUCK) THE MONKEY
To extract rum from a barrel by boring a small hole in the barrel or cask.
THE BIGGEST BLOCK IN THE SHIP
Is the butcher's block (Old Naval catch question).
Slang for the second in command of a ship.
Soldier's slang name for a sailor.
TILL ALL'S BLUE
Derived from sailing across the ocean until in blue (coastal) water again.
THE NAVY BOARD
The Navy Board was first established by Patent of 24th April 1546 (though
there was some record of its existence in embryo in 1512). It was to relieve
the Lord High Admiral of various branches of his duty, notably in the
administrative spheres of civil, construction and supply affairs. It was
composed of civil commissioners - the Lieutenant of the Admiralty, the
Treasurer of Marine Causes, the Comptroller of Ships, the Surveyor of ships,
the surveyors of Victuals and two extra officers. The Navy Board first met in
Greenwich of Deptford, but later established its first office on Tower Hill,
thence to Walsingham House in Seething Lane on the site of the dissolved
Monastery of the Crutched Friars. Then to Somerset House in 1786. The Navy
Board was finally abolished in 1832, being absorbed into the Navy Office.
BOATSWAIN (PRONOUNCED BO'SUN)
In sailing ships, the Boatswain was the officer responsible for the rigging,
sails and sailing equipment. The Bo'sun looks after the general working of
the ship, especially with regard to anchors, cables, blocks and tackles. He
takes his orders from all officers. All ropes and hawsers are under his
charge. He is in charge of endless stores, such as rope, wire, wash-deck gear
and canvas, and he examines and passes men for higher "rating".
The rope or chain used to confine the bowsprit downwards to the stem.
Metal or stone "stumps" around which ropes are belayed.
Slang for to pilfer, steal or scrounge. The word comes from the name of a
Boatswain in Admiral Cornwallis's Flag Ship, who was notorious for making
good deficiencies in his stores by stealing from other ships. The Admiral is
reported to have said to the Boatswain on one occasion: "I trust, Mr. Bone,
you will leave me with my anchors".
BOTH SHEETS AFT
Naval phrase descriptive of a sailor with his hands in his pockets.
Naval slang for a reprimand. Shortened from "A dose from the Foretopman's
bottle". This may be connected with the story that, in sailing ship days,
bottles of medicine (for the commoner ailments) were labelled according to
the "parts of the ship" and that, when a seaman reported to the sick bay, he
was dosed from the bottle belonging to his own part of the ship.
CROSSING THE BOWS OF A SENIOR OFFICER
It is the custom in the Royal Navy for ships at sea never to cross the bows
of a senior officer without asking permission to do so.
AS HONEST AS A BOW OAR
The bowmen of launches were the most easily spared members of a boat's crew
and were usually the biggest scoundrels in the ship. When attending yardarm
executions, it was the bowmen of the attending boats who provided the party
on the whip hauling the condemned man to the yardarm. Notorious rogues were
given the bows oar duty so that, by their active participation in an
execution, they might receive a severe warning of what might come their way
unless they turned over a new leaf. Thus "as honest as a bow oar" is a
picturesque way of saying "very little".
TO PART BRASS RAGS
Naval ratings used to share bags in which polishing rags were kept. Thus, the
friend with whom you shared a bag was your "Raggie" and, when you fell out,
you parted brass rags with him.
BRASS MONKEY WEATHER
Slang expression for bitterly cold weather.
The order given in the gun room by the Sub-lieutenant, denoting that Junior
Midshipmen present were to stop their ears with their fingers, so as to be
unable to hear the conversation of their seniors. Similarly, "Fishbones"
meant "Close your Eyes" and "Matchboxes" meant "Close your Mouth and Keep
BREADTH (OF FLAGS)
Naval flags are measured in breadths. A breadth is nine inches (i.e. thumb
tip to little finger tip when the hand is outstretched). The measurement is
made up (or down) the side of the flag nearest the mast (called the head, the
opposite side is called the fly; upper and lower edges have not specific
names). A 6-breadth ensign measures 4ft 6ins by 9ft. Standards, Ensigns and
Jacks are twice as long as wide. Admirals' flags are in the proportion 2 x 3.
Signal flags are very nearly square.
A small wooden barrel, primarily used for holding water supplies in boats.
The day's rum ration for mixing into grog is kept in a special breaker, under
a sentry's charge, until mixed into grog. Some years ago the synonym
"Barricoe" was invariably pronounced "breaker."
Naval slang name for a gun projectile.
Polished metal fittings in a ship.
THE BROAD ARROW
The Government mark formerly put on all solid material used in HM ships and
dockyards to denote their Government ownership -similar to the Rogue's Yarn
laid up in cordage. See ROGUE.
The origin of the mark is obscure. An act of 1698 authorised penalties for
persons found in possession of articles marked with this mark.
A slang adjective sometimes applied to a man with acne or pimples.
Naval slang for grog.
THE (CHIEF) BUFFER
Naval nickname for the Chief Bo'sun's Mate. As he is the First Lieutenant's
right-hand man and the one by whom he passes orders to the Captain of Tops,
he is considered to be the buffer between officer and ratings.
BUN-WORRY (OR BUN-FIGHT)
An old Naval officers' slang name for a tea-party, with ladies, ashore.
The old Naval nickname for the Cooper rating.
BUNG UP AND BILGE FREE
Naval expression meaning "Everything correct".
Naval name for the belly of a sail and the middle of a yard.
Naval slang name for a Signalman - abbreviation for bunting-tosser.
Sailors' slang name for porridge.
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