A cable equals one-tenth of a sea mile - 608 ft. The length of a ship's
hempen anchor cable was formerly 101 fathoms.
100 fathoms = 1 cable
10 cables = 1 nautical mile (very nearly)
Unofficial name given to that part of the wardroom dinner table (as far
distance from the Mess President as is practicable) where the younger and/or
more exuberant spirits are wont to gather for dinner, there to sail as close
to the wind in their conversation and general behaviour as they dare.
CHINESE WEDDING CAKE
Sailors' slang name for rice pudding with currants or raisins in it.
THE CALLIANTI STROKE
A long, slow rowing stroke, in which the rowers rise from their thwarts with
Iron or tin cylinders, with iron, tin or wood tops and bottoms, filled with
bullets packed in sawdust. Formally used as one form of ammunition for
muzzle-loading cannon. The fore-runner of "Shrapnel", it was also known as
Naval name for stains down the front of jumper, jacket or coat caused by food
Originally, the Captain of a warship was a courtier or Army officer who
embarked in the ship with his soldiers to do the fighting, the sailing of the
ship being in the hands of the Naval crew under the Master and the Boatswain.
This was changed in the Elizabethan era, when the long sea voyages undertaken
made it necessary for the Captain to have a real knowledge of ship handling
and not of fighting only.
Where captains of ships of the first six rates only, the commanding officers
of which ships were of the substantive rank of Captain: lesser ships had
Commanders or Lieutenants in command, who were naturally (and correctly)
called Captain while in that job. Thus a Post Captain is a Captain by rank or
Were first appointed to flag ships in 1677. In the Merchant Navy, the old
title of Master still remains, as the Commanding Officer of a Merchant ship
is concerned with ship handling and not with fighting. An old custom now
dying out is that of giving to a Commander RN the courtesy title of Captain,
especially when being introduced to civilians.
CAPTAIN OF THE HEADS
The rating in whom is vested the responsibility for the cleanliness of the
CAPTAIN OF THE FLEET
A Captain of the Fleet is the senior administrative adviser in a Fleet
To beach a ship and list her so as to expose her bottom for the marine growth
to be scraped off. The word comes from an old French word "Carine" meaning
the bottom of a ship.
A "carvel built" boat is one on which the planks of the sides are laid close
together without any overlap; in a "clinker-built" boat the planks overlap.
CASKS IN THE NAVY
The chines of a cask are the projection of the staves beyond the head. Rum
casks have their chines painted red; lime juice casks have their chines lime
green; Vinegar casks have their chines white.
The bung of a cask is always directly in line with the rivets of any two
opposite hoops and so can easily be found in the dark.
The belly of a cask is called its bilge.
Contline is the space between the bilges of casks stowed side-by-side.
The "Beds" on which casks are stowed is a gantry; casks properly stowed on
the gantry are "Bung up and bilge free", i.e. bungs uppermost and the bilges
- thanks to the gantry - clear of the deck.
To "bull" a cask is to put a small quantity of fresh water in an empty rum
cask, with the aim of thereby obtaining a week grog.
A payment of wages made to an officer or rating at a time other than a
routine payment time; Commonly known as a "casual". Casual payments are
recorded in the pay ledger in red ink; routine payments in black.
ROOM TO SWING A CAT
Common slang expression meaning the space required for any particular job.
This does not refer to the domestic animal, but to the Naval cat-o'-nine'
tails (The "Cat").
CAT IS OUT OF THE BAG
Common slang expression, meaning "The secret is out". From the practice of
keeping the Naval cat o' nine tails in a red baize bag and not removing it
until the offender was secured to the gratings and there was no possibility
of a reprieve.
(1) To drive oakum into the seams of wooden deck planking etc., to make the
whole watertight. After being caulked, deck seams are "paid" with hot pitch.
(2) Colloquially, to "caulk" is to have a nap; from the fat that a man who
had had a nap on the hot deck could be identified by the pitch marks on his
TO CHAFFER UP
To smarten up, make extra tidy or "tiddly". The expression comes from the
shipwrights' bench, where it means to take off the sharp edge of a piece of
wood with a chisel.
A form of artillery projectile common in sailing ship days. It consisted of
two cannon-balls connected by a short length of iron chain and was used to
destroy the rigging of ships.
A split single cannon-ball whose two halves were connected by chain was call
THE CHAINS The name given to the platforms projecting from the projecting
from the upper deck of a warship either side, abreast the bridge, on which
the leadsman stood when heaving the lead.
The Chaplain is usually referred to by rating as the Padre; officers usually
refer to him officially as either the Chaplain or the Padre.
In the wardroom, the Chaplain will frequently answer to the names BISH,
VICAR, REVERENCE or HOLINESS.
An old Naval slang word for dirty, untidy. Most often met in the expression
"Happy and chatty".
An old nickname (now quite obsolete) for the Marines, derived from the
looping up of the tails of their coats.
On all formal occasions, the Navy cheers HOORAY, not HURRAH, and the cheers
are called for with three HIPS.
Sailors' nickname for the senior Cook rating on board.
TO CHEW THE FAT
Naval slang expression for to talk volubly. It is possibly derived from the
considerable jaw work involved in chewing the old-time ration meat before the
days of refrigerators or canned meat.
CHIPS, CHIPPY, CHIPPY-CHAP
The inevitable traditional Naval nickname for a Shipwright, both officer and
CHOCK A BLOCK, CHOCKER
Chock-a-block is an old Naval expression, meaning "Complete" or "Full up";
synonyms were "Two blocks" and "Block and block". It derives from the use of
a hauling tackle - when the two blocks of the purchase were touching each
other the lower one could obviously be hoisted no further, and so the work
Modern slang has corrupted the expression to "Chocker", meaning "Fed up".
Customary naval slang for praise, usually fulsome; its antonym is a Bottle.
The words Velma Suchard (rarely any other trade-name) are sometimes
satirically used in this connection.
CHOPS OF THE CHANNEL
Maritime name for the western entrance to the English Channel.
Chinese word for food; often to be met on the lips of officers and men who
have at one time served on the Far East Station.
CHRISTMAS DAY CUSTOMS IN THE NAVY
Mastheads and yardarm tips are decorated with bunches of green foliage; this
is done by the Boatswain's party in the dark hours of the night of 24/25
December. Messes and messdecks are decorated with paper streamers, foliage,
etc.; a small prize may be awarded to the mess adjudged to have the best
After church service, with carols, messdeck rounds start at about 11:00 AM,
when the Captain and officers, and perhaps their ladies, visit each mess and
exchange seasonal compliments. Up to the nineteen-twenties it was usual for
samples of each mess's Christmas far to be offered to the Captain. The
procession is headed by a Boy rating wearing the uniform of the Master-at-
Arms, accompanied perhaps by a Bugler dressed a Colour-Sergeant and other
ratings dressed as officers (this is clearly a reference to the medieval Lord
of Misrule and Boy Bishops). The ship's cook and bakers work very hard and
lavish meals are provided.
Naval slang for a demonstration of applause. Enthusiastic supporters of a
ship's regatta boat's crew form a chucking-up party. The expression may
originate from the practice of throwing hats in the air when excited. An
early form of this word was CHUCKER UP
Two ships whose crews have struck up a particular friendship for each other.
Common slang expression meaning civilian life.
CIVVIES Common slang name for non-uniform clothes - a word seldom used in the
Old Naval slang name for the pastry top to a pie; synonyms are CLAGGER and
The small cords which support the head and foot of a hammock.
TO FIT DOUBLE CLEWS
Naval slang expression meaning to get married. A synonym is "to get spliced".
TO CLEW UP
Naval slang expression meaning to bring to an end. In a square-rigged ship.
to 'clew up' is to haul up the lower corners of the sails by means of the
clew-lines preparatory to furling the sails.
OUT TO A CLINCH
A rope is said to be 'out to a clinch' when all the free part of the rope has
run out, only its extreme end remaining inboard, but that end duly secured. A
CLENCH is the stout fitting securely attached to the ship's structure to
which the inboard end of a cable or hawser is shackled.
Metaphorically, to be 'out to a clinch' means that one has reached the limit
of one's resources in the field denoted by the context.
A 'Clinker-built' boat is one the planks of whose sides overlap one another:
in a 'Carvel-built' boat, the planks are laid close to each other with no
A reference to the 43rd article of the Naval Discipline Act which, from its
very general wording, gives wide scope to the Commanding Officer. The 43rd
Article includes the words - "any act, disorder or neglect to the prejudice
of good order and Naval discipline ....."
Optional item of uniform for Naval and Marine officers; lined with white
satin for Naval, crimson satin for Marine officers.
N.B. The cloak properly is a combined coat and cape but this is nowadays very
seldom seen and the name is now commonly applied to the cape only.
LOSING THE CLOTH
If contention arose between master and crew in old days the master was
required to remove the tablecloth three times, as a warning, before he turned
any or all of the crew off the ship. As there was only one real meal a day
then, this appears to have been equivalent to giving three days' notice.
BLACK COATED WORKERS
Common slang name for Stewed Prunes.
An anchor is said to be "a'cock bill" when it is hung up and down ready for
letting go. Yards are said to be "a'cock bill" when they are topped at an
angle with the horizontal - sign of mourning, otherwise known as
SICK BAY COCKTAIL
Naval slang name for a draught of sal volatile given to a person who faints
which receiving treatment in the sick bay; or, more often, for any form of
medicine issued in the sick bay.
HOISTING AND LOWERING COLOURS
The present ceremony of hoisting colours (Union Jack at the jackstaff, and
White Ensign at the ensign staff) each morning, with a guard and band
paraded, was instituted by Lord St. Vincent in 1797 after the mutinies at
Spithead and the Nore. At this time it was the routine for colours to be
hoisted at sunrise, but in 1844 the time for this ceremony was changed to
that now in use - in home waters 0800 from 25th March to 20th September, 0900
from 21st September to 24th March: at 0800 abroad. If an H.M. ship is in a
foreign port, or if a foreign warship is in company, the National Anthem of
the country or ship concerned is played immediately after the British
Colours are lowered at actual sunset time (unless in extreme northern waters
where an arbitrary time may be fixed); guard and band are not paraded at
sunset unless it is an occasion of special ceremony when the "Ceremonial
Sunset" (an exquisite bugle concerto) may be played.
At sea the Union Jack is not flown (unless the ship is dressed) and the
ensign remains flying day and night.
At "Colours" and "Sunset", all officers and ratings on the upper deck face
aft (i.e. to the ensign, not to the jack) and officers salute.
200 years ago a Naval lexicographer (William Falconer) defined a Commander as
a large wooden mallet used on Sunday occasions in a ship: this definition
The officer in command of one H.M. ships, whatever his actual rank, is
addressed as "The Commanding Officer" (not "Officer Commanding").
THE NAVAL OFFICER'S COMMISSION
The Naval officer's commission is worded as follows:-
By the Commissioners for Executing the Office of Lord High Admiral of the
hereby appointed a ...............
in Her Majesty's Fleet.
By Virtue of the Power of Authority to us given by Her Majesty's Letters
Patent under the Great Seal, We do hereby constitute and appoint you a
............... in Her Majesty's Fleet. Charging and Commanding you in that
rank or in any higher rank to which you may be promoted to observe and
execute the Queen's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions for the Government
of Her Majesty's Naval Service and all such Orders and Instructions as you
shall from time to time receive from Us or from your Superior Officers for
Her Majesty's Service. And likewise Charging and Commanding all Officers and
Men subordinate to you according to the said Regulations Instructions or
Orders to behave themselves with all due Respect and Obedience to you their
Given under our hands and the Seal of the Office of Admiralty this
............ day of ....... 19... in the ..... Year of Her Majesty's Reign.
With Seniority of ..........
(It is signed by two Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty and a Secretary,
i.e. a quorum of the board.)
This title was introduced into the British Navy about 1700. In 1731 the
Admiralty tried unsuccessfully to make it a permanent rank, but it seems
always to have been a temporary one.
A block is said to complain when its sheave squeaks.
Ships are built until they are launched: thereafter they are completed.
An old gunroom drink - lime-juice cordial (with water) flavoured with a dash
of Angostura bitters. The bitters being "on the house" gave this drink an air
of "something for nothing" which appealed to its consumers.
An old Naval slang word meaning of high quality. The bottoms of wooden ships
were sheathed with copper to protect them from attack by marine parasites;
this was expensive and so could only be afforded by the really well-to-do
shipping companies and the Royal Navy.
CORPORAL PUNISHMENT (i.e. FLOGGING)
In 1871, Admiralty issued instructions by circular letter (of 18th December,
1871) that corporal punishment was to be inflicted only in cases (1) mutiny
and (2) using or offering violence to a superior officer.
Circular letter of 16th September, 1879, directed that no Commanding Officer
was to award a sentence of corporal punishment exceeding 25 lashes.
On 10th January, 1881, a Bill to amend the N.D.A. of 1866 with a view to
abolishing corporal punishment was presented to the House of Commons. This
was finally withdrawn on 12th July, 1881, but on 3rd August, 1881, Admiralty
issued instructions that the power of Command Officers to award corporal
punishment was suspended until further orders.
Administrative action was taken in 1881 to advise Court-martial convening
authorities that corporal punishment was not to be awarded without Admiralty
approval - one assumes that Admiralty approval would not be given.
Authority to award corporal punishment was finally removed from the Naval
Discipline Act by an Order-in-Council dated 29th March, 1949; the only form
of corporal punishment which now remains is a maximum of twelve cuts with a
cane for Boy ratings. The "cat" itself was a whip with nine lashes; the
French name for it was "martinet" (from the Marquis de Martinet, a French
Colonel of the 17th Century who was a great disciplinarian). Originally it
was made by the victim, but later it was introduced as a ready-made Naval
Another name for St. Elmo's Fire.
SEWING UP A CORPSE FOR BURIAL AT SEA
It is the custom when sewing up a corpse previous to burial at sea for the
sailmaker (or other rating doing this job) to put the last stitch through the
nose of the corpse. This is done to make certain that the body is indeed a
corpse, since it happened once that when the sailmaker inadvertently put his
needle through the nose of the body, the alleged corpse suddenly made a move
to sit up, the shock of having his nose pierced being sufficient to revive
him from his state of catalepsy.
Naval slang for Milk.
Originally the officer ("Sweyne") in charge of a COG - i.e. the Cog's Sweyne.
TO CATCH A CRAB The generally accepted name for the mishap in rowing when an
(inexperienced) oarsman misses the water with the blade of his oar and so,
usually, falls backwards off his thwart.
Navalese for increasing speed; it is an old sailing ship expression meaning
to speed more sails.
CRACKING IT DOWN
Sailors' slang for having a nap.
A modern common slang expression directing the importance of haste; possibly
derived from the old sailing ship expression "Cracking on".
THE NAVEL CROWN
The Naval crown (showing the sterns of one-and-two-halves sailing ships,
separated by two square sails as can be seen in this unit's Richmond Crest)
goes back at least to 1746. It is not peculiar to the Royal Navy - it is
incorporated in the authorised badge of the Merchant Navy.
THE ROYAL CROWN
As portrayed on badges, buttons, etc., the crown of a British male monarch is
the Tudor crown (dome-shaped): the crown of a female monarch is the St.
Edward's crown (with depression in centre top, and the upper part of a heart
Sailors' slang for a Regulating Petty Officer - a ship's policeman. Prior to
1914 these ratings were known as SHIP'S CORPORALS. In earlier days they had
spent their time looking for (and so crushing) crime rather than preventing
Old Naval name for the Admiral's or Captain's cabin in a warship.
It was originally the Master's cabin in a sailing ship.
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