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Sailors Have A Word For It! (1943 Rare)








THE Royal Navy has a language of its own. It is a lingo as mysterious as the Language of Flowers and as fascinating as the Language of Stamps. But it is a closed book to the most erudite civilian and double Dutch even to the most expert lexicographer. In this little work I have endeavoured, not merely to explain the meaning of each term, but also to show how it found its way into the Navy.


October, 1943.




PURELY and simply this little book is a compendium of lower deck lingo, giving every term from A to Z, together with its origin, history and meaning. If you look for “splice the main brace ” or “ three sheets in the wind ” you will not find them, because these anachronistic terms are strongly disliked by the Navy of to-day. Indeed, they were not used even in 1900, simply because they portray “Jack” as an amateur, histrionic sort of H.M.S. Pinafore tar instead of an intelligent human being.


The modem naval man never says “tar,” “grog,” “seadog,” “bully beef,” or “Davy Jones.” He would be laughed or sneered at if he gave expression to such obsolete terms. Indeed, except that he is “run out to a clinch ” when bankrupt, that he gets “to windward” when circumstances' favour him and, conversely, “to leeward” when unfortunate, your naval rating seldom expresses himself nautically.


His dialect savours more of the Percy Wooster uncon­ventionality than that of the anachronistic Maryatt. He “parks” instead of “dropping anchor,” he “beats it” instead of “getting under way.” His friend is never his mate but his “oppo” (opposite number), he can be put wise with­out an appeal to keep his “weather-eye open,” and again, financial embarrassment may find him “ run out to a clinch,” “scun to the wide,” “in copper street,” but never on his “beam ends.”


A passage from a story by a well-known author runs: “The sailor drained his glass, jumped to his feet and hitched up his trousers.  That is enough! he exclaimed, I’m going to weigh anchor!"


Utterly ridiculous!


“My name’s Walker!” would have been more like the modern naval man and why should he hitch up his trousers when he has been wearing comfortable braces for the past nineteen years?


No, Jack doesn’t “splice the main brace” today, but he will have a “ wet,” “tonic,” ‘‘spot,” “splash,” “livener,” “guager,” “half-a-guager,” “nip” or “gargle” the same as any other civilised individual; and remember if he should happen to have “one over the eight” he is “tinhats,” “scats,” “half rats,” “shot away,” “ blitzed,” “ canned,” “ oiled,” “ screwed,” “ pickled,” “ shot to the wide,” or “ back teeth awash ”, but he is never “ three sheets in the wind,” or “ half seas over.”


Some of the lingo of Nelson’s day may still be heard in our great steel fighting ships but not a very great deal. Time, and what might be termed the emancipation of the matloe from serfdom, has revolutionized his thinking and expanded his vocabulary, We seldom hear to-day “ all ataunto,” “capful of wind.” “ tucking n strand.” “yard-arm to yard-arm,” “backing and tilling," or “plenty of purchase.” Yet such die-hards as “getting to windward." “Hogging the cat,”  “pennants flying” “sail close to the wind,” “show a leg.” and “clew up” still gallantly survive.


Since the eighties (1880) however, when Jack was allotted a greater measure of freedom and became more cognizant of civil life, a fair proportion of our lower deck vernacular has been recruited from the Army and the “beach." Some of the terms linger, many survive a pensionable age. others gradually wilt and die out. “Jago” has come to stay. "in the Derby” enjoys a robust longevity, “Beaver" vanished over-night. It could never compete with such hardened veterans as “scurs” and “ Bug-whiskers.”


There is a regrettable tendency amongst younger naval ratings today to invest their vocabulary with idioms of American origin, though here and there the old lingo battles ruggedly for survival. The old imperative “You shove west” may now be interpreted “You quit” or “beat it !i” the culprit who was once “brought to his bearings” is to-day told “where to get off”; the delinquent with whom we once “parted brass-rags” is to-day “given the air” and even the good old “aye aye, sir” is brazenly replaced by the less convincing “O.K.” Again the veteran whom we once hailed familiarly as “Old Shell” (Shellback) is now “Pop,” and also, when he dies he doesn’t “slip his cable,” but “conks out.”


Again, Jack’s slang and that of his superior officer very often differ. Officers call the navigating officer “the pilot,” lower deckmen refer to him as “ Navvie the wardroom calls a midshipman a “snotty,” matloes use the more euphonious “middy”; officers call the first lieutenant “Number One,” but with the “troops” he is always “Jimmy” or “Jimmy the One" in the wardroom, Admiral of the Fleet Sir William Boyle is “Ginger Boyle,” but with the “troops” he has always been “Paddy.”


That is the sailor’s language. In his care-free way he cleaves unto the unconventional and eschews religiously the all too obvious pseudo-nautical. He recognises to-day that anachronisms are greeted with scathing contempt; if he acted and spoke as some naval authors portray Him, he would be regarded as a very ignorant, illiterate oaf and if, like the rollicking stage bluejacket, he were to hail a comrade with a “Ship ahoy!” he would be assessed as a first-rate lunatic.


If I am accused at all of omitting certain terms which have achieved currency in our vernacular, I, as an old matloe, question their durability. How long are they likely to last? Who can guarantee they will survive? Unless an idiom becomes sufficiently popular to justify a long period, of service it has no claim to inclusion in our grand old glossary. Some idioms, like old-time ballads (as I stated) last many generations, others are hopelessly short-lived, not a few are strangled at birth. As in “civvy street”, the cant “Ho-de-ho! ” with its antecedent salutation “Hi-da-hi! ” promised to be very popular, but ultimately lapsed into oblivion, so, in the Navy, many very likely colloquialisms prove to be merely ephemeral. Again certain idioms from the Western wing of the Service (Devonport) may be quite unknown at the Eastern end (Portsmouth) and vice versa. “Jago,” the most famous term from Devonport is not accepted either by Portsmouth or Chatham.


Spinning dits in the Mesddeck at sea - HMAS Junee December 1956,




A sailor after a gorge of rum, quite unconscious of what he was doing, wrote the following to his sweetheart: —


Three times I read your epistle, my little doughbash Win.

And then went round the buoy inside the ’mick'

You can’t half get a weed on when you open up a tin

Or spin a bender when you’re up the stick.

Still I flog the cat like blazes when you sink me to the wide;

When you specialize in doing a drip at me;

For your weather eye, my honey, once I get beneath your hide,

Sends me scouting like a bloomin’ lost P.Y.

You hollered out so loudly when you opened up your trap

That I thought you called away, the seaboat's crew,

When you dumped your bloomin’ locker on the top of my poor lap

And the settee slipped its cable right in two.

Then you donned the old green jacket without giving me the tip

When our poppa started dripping out the flan.,

And you shunted like a crusher with a rabbit at the dip

Leaving poor old Juggs behind to list the can.

You’re as sweet as our old jaunty and you've got his lovely smile —

That old basket all the troops would like to lynch —

When you ship the rind to ask me to put in for Friday while

And I’m absolutely run out to a clinch.

Oh I’m chocker to the eyelids, disillusioned, so to speak ;

On my slop-chit always doomed to list the can ;

Bumping into two north-easters on the top of dummy week

Then you bottle me for coming the tin man.

I’ve been beating up since morning just to have a dicky run

But my oppos. are all sculling on the mooch ;

May I tap you for a rubber if you’re not already scun?

Perhaps you've got a few gash shekels in your pouch.

O swing it, little doughbash I've bumped into Knocker White

As I shinnied to the upper for a burn:

He let me have a rubber so I’m on the bust tonight

When the fields are white with daisies I’ll return.


Now a naval man could digest all the above without blinking an eyelid, but what about the poor young lady to whom it was sent? She could not make head or tail of it, hence the value of the glossary of lower deck lingo in the following pages.


In the pages that follow will be found the most complete glossary of  Naval slang yet published. The abbreviations used are the same as those usually found in any English dictionary. Thus: adj., adjective ; v.t., verb transitive; v.i., verb intransitive; nomen (nomenclature) signifies a nick­name ; etmy, etomology, and fig., figurative. Figures of speech between inverted commas show how the terms are expressed.