SAILCLOTH The specification for naval sailcloth in 1794 (the heyday of
sailing ships required the material to be made of the best flax, unbleached,
with a small admixture of hemp.
NAMES OF PARTS OF BOATS' SAILS
Head ... upper edge (Peak to Throat).
Luff ... foremost edge (Throat to Tack).
Leach ... after edge (Peak to Clew).
Foot ... lower edge (Clew to Tack).
Roach ... curve in the foot or leach.
Throat (or Knock) ... upper foremost corner (between Head and Luff).
Peak ... upper after corner (between Leach and Head).
Tack ... lower foremost corner (between Luff and Foot).
Clew ... lower after corner (between Leach and Foot).
The inevitable general nickname for a Sailmaker rating.
NEAR ENOUGH FOR A SAILING SHIP
Naval expression meaning as near as makes no odds = Approximately. Sailing
ships, unlike steam ships, are unable to forecast their time of arrival in
port to a minute, being dependent on the vagaries of the weather, and so have
to leave generous margins.
THE NAVAL SALUTE
Saluting with the hand was introduced into the Navy by Queen Victoria to take
the place of uncovering the head as a mark of respect. Saluting with the left
hand, alternatively to the right hand, was abolished in 1923 out of deference
When going on board an H.M. Ship it is customary to salute when going over
the side whether the gangway leads to the quarter-deck or not.
Naval slang name for the single gun fired at "colours" on the day of a court-
Old maritime expression meaning No Success at All. It is said to be derived
from the many anglers who sat on the bridge at Saltash for hours and caught
nothing but colds.
SCANDALISING YARDS AS A SIGN OF MOURNING
Probably the last occasion on which one of H.M. ships followed the old
practice of scandalising her yards to denote mourning was in 1908 when H.M.S.
EXMOUTH did it at Lisbon as a sign of mourning for the murdered King of
Portugal. Main yards were sloped down to starboard, fore yards sloped down to
port and lower booms were drooped.
The general maritime slang name for a man or ship from Norway, Sweden or
Denmark. Sometimes "Scowegian" or "Scandihoovian".
The vertical movement of the sea's waves, or of a ship or boat because of it.
SCHOONER ON THE ROCKS
Old sailors' slang name for a roast joint of meat with roast potatoes round
The customary abbreviation of (Rock) Scorpion.
Any piece of metal, wood, leather, canvas, etc., used to prevent chafe or
THE SCRAN BAG
A bag (nowadays usually a cupboard or locker) in which all articles of
clothing found lying about on the mess decks are put; to redeem these
articles a fine of one inch of bar soap is (was) levied. The scran bag is
usually in the charge of the Petty Officer of the Messdecks or one of the
Regulating staff; the soap is used to supplement the official issue for
cleaning various compartments of the ship. Scran is a general slang name for
food; the original scran bag was probably a bag in which unwanted food was
put, for re-use, to prevent waste.
SCRATCH or THE SCRATCHER
Officers' slang name for the Clerk - Captain's normally but very occasionally
TO GET SCRUBBED or RECEIVE A SCRUBBING
Naval slang for receiving a reprimand.
Naval slang for Killed. In the days of sail, if a man on deck was washed into
the lee scuppers by a heavy sea he was almost certain to sustain at least
A gun room evolution wherein junior midshipmen are stationed one at each
gunroom scuttle when the ship is at sea to open the scuttles to admit
ventilation into an otherwise very fuggy gunroom, and, most important, to
close and secure them when a wave is seen approaching.
Naval name for a sailor who is fond of arguing and would have one believe
that he knows all the regulations. Usually an excellent example of a little
learning being dangerous.
FACE LIKE A SEA-BOOT
Naval expression for a man's face devoid of any expression - or a woman's
face devoid of beauty.
Serving a rope consists of binding it with close turns of spunyarn, with a
special "Serving Mallet", in the opposite direction to the lay of the rope.
A rope, or part of a rope, is wormed, parcelled and served to protect it from
chafe, to make it less liable to chafe other ropes and, with wire rope, to
protect the hands of men handling the rope. See PARCEL: WORM.
Attendance of officers and ratings at Divine Service in our period was
mandatory. It is now voluntary, but persons under the age of 17 years may be
ordered to attend unless they have obtained formal permission to be absent on
grounds of religious scruples. Voluntary attendance was introduced in the
latter part of 1946.
TO KNOCK SEVEN BELLS OUT OF A MAN
An old naval expression for the giving of a sound thrashing (the nautical
equivalent of "Knocking a man for six"); presumably to knock all eight bells
out of a man would be to kill him!
Said of a man who is completely drunk and incapable - so much so that he
might just as well be sewn up in his hammock and tripped over the side.
THE SHAKE BOOK
The book in which is recorded the names and whereabouts of ratings requiring
a early shake in the mornings (e.g., the duty cook who turns-to long before
the hands are called.
Expressed of anything in which there is a suspicion of short measure. e.g., a
rating may say that he received a shaky tot, meaning that he thinks his rum
ration was of short measure.
Old naval name for a boaster, or braggart. As an epithet applied to a ship it
Naval slang for Sheerness - often described affectionately as "The last place
A third bower anchor formerly carried by all big ships. The sheet anchor was
the same size as the bower anchors - kept as a reserve anchor for use in
Correctly, a "ship" is only a three-masted sailing vessel, square rigged on
all three masts.
H.M. Ships may only correctly be described as "H.M.S. So-and-so", or "The So-
and-so" or "The frigate So-in-so;" the name of the ship without any prefix is
by old custom, an Admiral's method of referring to the Captain of that ship
in person. The same rule applies in the French navy; the Marine Nationale
found it necessary in 1934 to issue a memorandum to this effect: at the same
time they established rules for the gender of the definite article to be
used. British ships are invariably feminine, whatever their actual names.
ALL SHIPSHAPE AND BRISTOL FASHION
This expression may well have had its origin in the XVIII century when
Bristol was the second most important commercial port in the United Kingdom.
In those days (Bristol's docks were not constructed till 1804), the high
range of tides experienced at Bristol necessitated ships berthed alongside
there being left high and dry at the fall of the tide and so ships regularly
trading to Bristol had to be of specially stout construction.
TO SHOOT A LINE
To boast or to tell a bragging (or 'tall') story.
TO SHOVE ONE'S OAR IN
Old naval expression meaning to interrupt, to break into someone else's
A word often used in naval circles in circumstances when a civilian might
refer to a "Do-hickey", a "What-not", a "What-do-you-call-it".
The custom of calling the sick berth the 'Sick Bay' originated in the early
part of he XIX century. A sick berth was first introduced by Lord St Vincent
when C. in C. Mediterranean in about 1798; he directed that a sick berth was
to be prepared in each ship of the line under his command, which was to be
'situated under the forecastle with a roundhouse enclosed for the use of the
sick'. At this period, the term sick bay was not used, but later, with the
introduction of the rounded bow, the sick berth found itself in a bay
comparable to the bay window in a room and the worn 'bay' begun to be used
instead of 'berth'.
SICK BAY SHACKLE
Sailors' slang name for a Safety-pin.
MANNING THE SIDE
It is customary for the officer-of-the watch to order "Man the Side" when
receiving certain officers on board. At this order, the quartermaster,
corporal of the watch, sideboys, and quarter-deck messengers fall in on the
quarter-deck athwartships at the top of the gangway, to "receive" the
visiting or returning officer.
This custom originated in the days when ships were fitted with sea gangways
which were used by junior officers and all ratings for entering and leaving
the ship in harbour, and by everyone at sea. This gangway consisted of narrow
wooden steps permanently secured to the ship's side, each alternate step
being longer than the ones either side of it; on these longer steps stood the
sideboys and to these they clung when ordered to man the side for passing the
manropes into the hands of the person boarding the ship. In doing so, the
sideboys were clear of the gangway and were literally manning the side
(literally being sideboys, too).
Sea gangways continued to be fitted in H.M. Ships built up to 1905.
The sailor's black silk "handkerchief" worn round the throat, is of far great
antiquity than as a sign of mourning for Lord Nelson. Originally it was worn
in action either round the brow to prevent sweat running into the eyes, or as
a general purpose sweat rage, or as a pad to cushion the body against hard
knocks or chafe. Nowadays it is only a traditional piece of uniform clothing.
Commonly known as a "Silk", it was, until 1935, a square of black silk 36"
square, worn with two diagonally opposite corners knotted together (the knot
being worn at the back of the neck beneath the collar, and bight (known as a
"Duff Bag") being secured in the tapes of the jumper), so that a drowning
man's rescuer would have an efficient handgrip.
RATS DESERT A SINKING SHIP
Although disliking rats on board ship, most sailors believe that if rats
leave the ship before sailing, bad luck will overtake the ship and she will
STRIKING SIXTEEN BELLS
Midnight 31st December/1st January is marked by the striking of 16 bells - 8
for the old year and 8 for the new. The youngest officer on board has the
privilege of doing this. It used to be a custom to play practical jokes on
this officer, such as smearing the bell-rope with marmalade (but not jam), or
even connecting up electricity so that the lad got a mild shock when he
grasped the bell-rope.
This word comes from the Dutch Schipper, meaning "Captain". It is used
occasionally, as slang, in the Navy referring to the Commanding Officer (rare
in our period).
The official naval word, verb and noun, for Frolic, Playing about,
Ballyragging. In sailing ship days the order "Hands to dance and skylark" was
sometimes given; this was probably as a form of physical training, to liven
the crew up after a period of dullness, the 'skylarking' perhaps referring to
races run in the rigging.
SLEEPING ON WATCH
Always a reprehensible habit, in the time of King Henry VIII, "If any man
within a ship had slept upon his watch four times and so proved, this shall
be his punishment: the first time he shall be headed at the main mast with a
bucket of water poured upon his head. The second time he shall be armed, his
hands held up by a rope and two buckets of water poured into his sleeves (In
Nelson's time, this was known as Grampussing). The third time he shall be
bound to the main mast with gun chambers tied to his arms and with as much
pain to his body as the Captain will. The fourth time being taken asleep he
shall be handed to the bowspritend of the ship in a basket with a can of
beer, a loaf of bread and a sharp knife, and choose to hang there until he
starve or cut himself into the sea".
Naval name for any article of clothing (ready-made) which can be purchased
from the ship's clothing store. Slops were introduced into the Navy in 1623.
The compartment in a ship where slops are kept and issued is called the SLOP
ROOM. The intending purchaser indents for his requirements on an established
form called a SLOP CHIT; this name has come to mean metaphorically the amount
of work a man has to do or responsibility he assumes, in the phrase "It's on
your slop chit now".
Old sailors' nickname, now obsolete, for the ship's Cook.
Old name for a Hurt Certificate, given to any officer or rating who suffers
injury during his service career, and which he produces subsequently if
wishing to claim any form of disability pension. This name was used
officially at the end of the 18th century.
Naval name for a boat-repairer.
FLUATERS IN THE SNOW
Sailors' slang name for Sausages and Mashed Potatoes.
A SOFT NUMBER
Common slang expression meaning a Sinecure - an easy job.
The common wardroom nickname for the Marine Officer. At one time by custom a
Lieutenant H.M. was referred to and addressed as SOLDIER and a Captain H.M.
as (the) Major. The nickname JOBY is affectionately given to any H.M. officer
(though seldom to his face !) If 2 Lieutenants in a ship the junior one is
referred to as Young Joe.
The Aurora Australia.
TO SPEAK A SHIP
Old navalease for to communicate with another ship, or with a shore signal
station, by visual signalling methods. In this context the verb needs no
preposition after it - i.e., one speaks such-and-such a ship, not to it.
TO SPIT BROWN
An old naval slang expression implying that the person referred to is an old-
time sailor who chewed his tobacco instead of smoking it.
Naval slang work meaning "Finish" - used as either a verb or a noun. From the
Maltese word of that meaning.
Old-time naval slang name for a Kipper; sometimes also called a "One-eyed
A large saucer-shaped receptacle about one foot in diameter used as a
cigarette ash-tray. Originally wooden spittoons, they are now made of
SPLICE THE MAINBRACE
An extra issue of one-eight of a pint of rum to each officer and man of an
over the age of 20 who desires to take the rum: lemonade to others. The rum
is mixed with water into grog for all ratings below Petty Officer. Ratings
marked "T" in the ship's books may draw rum or grog or lemonade when the main
brace is spliced; no money payment in lieu is allowable. The order to make
this extra issue may be given only by the Sovereign (or a member of the Royal
Family) or by the Admiralty. Splicing the main brace is the only occasion
when officers may be issued with service rum.
The name arose from the reward customarily given in sailing ships to men who
carried out the task of splicing the main brace. As the main brace had to be
led through blocks, a long splice (as opposed to a short splice or a knot)
had to be made in it when repair was necessary, and the ship had to remain on
the one tack until the job was completed. Thus the work had to be done at
great speed and in whatever conditions prevailed at the time since the ship
could not be steered effectively with a broken main brace. The ship's best
Able Seamen normally were chosen to do the work under the supervision of the
Boatswain. The VICTORY's main brace was of 5?" hemp.
EVERYTHING ON A SPLIT YARN
Old naval expression meaning 'in every respect ready'. From the practice of
having gear all ready and secured in place by a piece of thin twine, or a
split yarn, which could be easily and swiftly broken or out, thus releasing
the gear at once all ready for immediate use.
A platform built out from the side of a ship.
Naval nickname for a New Entry. The word is often therefore used by a man
when referring to his own small son.
PORT AND STARBOARD
In the earliest ships there was no rudder and the ship was steered by a
"Steerboard" (large car or sweep) sited over the right-hand side of the
stern; hence that side of the ship came to be known as the Starboard side.
The other side of the ship was in consequence used for going alongside for
embarking or disembarking cargo through the 'loed-ports'; the left hand side
of the ship therefore became known as the "Loadboard" side, the "Larboard".
As the use of this latter word inevitably caused confusion with the word
Starboard, the word Port came to be used instead.
By some authorities, the Venetians are given the credit for the origin of
"the word" - 'board' comes from the Italian 'Borda' meaning side; the side
with the steering oar was 'Questa borda': the other side was 'Quella boarda';
these two expressions would rapidly become adapted into Starboard and
Wardroom nickname for Creme de Menthe, otherwise known as "Sticky Green".
Until 1933, steering orders given to the helmsman gave, by long established
custom, the direction in which the tiller was to be moved, i.e., the opposite
direction to that in which the ship's head (and the rudder) was to move. On
1st January, 1933, direct steering orders were introduced in the Royal Navy,
with a six months' transitional period in which the words "wheel to" were to
be included in the order.
The upward inclination of a sailing ship's bowsprit.
Nicknames for a Marine bugler. See DRUMMER
Dockyard slang name for a sailmaker - from the sticky concoction of beeswax
and tallow which he rubs on his twine before sewing with it.
Officers' slang name for Creme de Menthe.
STOP A GLASS RINGING ....
It is an old tradition that a 'ringing' glass must be silenced without delay;
the old saying is "Stop a glass ringing to save a sailor drowning".
Queen Anne's Act of 1704 (3 Anne Cap. X. "An Act for encouraging the
Importation of naval-stores from Her Majesty's plantations in America")
contains the following words: * .. The Royal Navy and Navigation of England
wherein, under God, the Wealth, Safety and Strength of the Kingdom is so much
concerned, depend upon the supply of Stores necessary for the same".
An illuminated copy of these words ornaments the mantal in the office of the
Director of Stores at the Admiralty.
A HARBOUR STOW
An old naval expression signifying something which would not be disturbed for
a long time. It comes from the normal naval practice of making up the sails
tightly and neatly, with sail covers on, preparatory to a period in harbour.
STRATEGY AND TACTICS
The aim of naval strategy is the manipulation of naval forces for the control
of sea lanes and the denial of these lanes to the enemy.
Tactics is the art of disposing and handling forces in contact with the
TO TEAR OFF A STRIP
Naval slang expression for the giving of a reprimand. Possibly derived from
the raucous sound made by tearing a strip of calico.
A bucketful of strong soda water, used for cleaning paintwork, etc. Usually
referred to as a drop of strongers.
An old naval expression used to mean a good hand in the mess or in a public
house, but of little use at his work.
Slang for Obstreperous.
TO SUCK THE MONKEY
According to Captain Marryat ("Peter Simple"), working parties of naval men
on shore in Jamaica used to buy coconuts from the local inhabitants and suck
the milk there from to refresh themselves. The real coconut milk had however
already been extracted by the natives and rum inserted in its place. The
officer in charge of the working party was puzzled to find his men so
affected by coconut milk!
From the XIV century to the middle of the XIX century, Supply officers in
H.M. Ships were called PURSERS (as they still are in the merchant navy).
Originally they drew no official pay but feathered their nests out of their
office; on certain commodities they were allowed to claim one eight (thus a
"passer's pound" was 14 ounces only, and hence the old nick-name of "Mr.
Nipcheese"). No examination as to qualifications was required before 1813 but
a surety had to be lodged - as much as -1200 for a big ship.
Pursers were Warrant Officers till the latter part of the XVIII century; in
1814 their status was fixed as "with but after" Lieutenants. Until 1824, the
pay of a Purser depended on the class of his ship, but from 1824 to 1852 all
pursers drew -7 per month.
The rank-title of Paymaster was introduced in 1852.
The man responsible for the cleanliness of a compartment - not solely with
the aid of a brown. His nickname is "Dodger."
Slang naval expression meaning "Don't worry about it", "postpone" or
SWING THE LEAD
Naval slang for to Malinger.. Derived from the leadsman in the chains going
through the motions of taking soundings without actually sounding.
Repair to the Site Map page | Repair to the Naval Terms and Slang page