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Posts: 335
(5/26/01 2:10:08 pm)
United States Navy ..... Origins of Navy Terminology

Every profession has its own jargon and the Navy is no exception. For the
Navy, it's bulkhead, deck and overhead and not wall, floor, and ceiling. Some
nautical terminology has found its way into every day use, and you will find
the origins of this and Navy terminology below. More terminology will be
added from time to time.

Ahoy! • Between the Devil and the Deep • Chewing the Fat • Crow's Nest •
Cup of Joe • Devil to Pay
Eight Bells • Fathom • Forecastle • Galley • Gun Salutes • Head • He Knows
the Ropes • Holystone
Log Book • Mayday • Pea Coat • Port Holes • Scuttlebutt • S.O.S. • Splice
the Mainbrace • Starboard
Taken Aback • Three-Mile Limit • Took the Wind Out of His Sails • Watches

This old traditional greeting for hailing other vessels was originally a
Viking battle cry.


Between the Devil and the Deep
In wooden ships, the "devil" was the longest seam of the ship. It ran from
the bow to the stern. When at sea and the "devil" had to be caulked, the
sailor sat in a bo'sun's chair to do so. He was suspended between the "devil"
and the sea â€" the "deep" â€" a very precarious position, especially when the
ship was underway.


Chewing the Fat
"God made the vittles but the devil made the cook," was a popular saying used
by seafaring men in the 19th century when salted beef was staple diet aboard

This tough cured beef, suitable only for long voyages when nothing else was
cheap or would keep as well (remember, there was no refrigeration), required
prolonged chewing to make it edible. Men often chewed one chunk for hours,
just as it were chewing gum and referred to this practice as "chewing the


Crow's Nest
The raven, or crow, was an essential part of the Vikings' navigation
equipment. These land-lubbing birds were carried on aboard to help the ship's
navigator determine where the closest land lay when weather prevented
sighting the shore. In cases of poor visibility, a crow was released and the
navigator plotted a course corresponding to the bird's flight path because
the crow invariably headed towards land.

The Norsemen carried the birds in a cage secured to the top of the mast.
Later on, as ships grew and the lookout stood his watch in a tub located high
on the main mast, the name "crow's nest" was given to this tub. While today's
Navy still uses lookouts in addition to radars, etc., the crow's nest is a
thing of the past.


Cup of Joe
Josephus Daniels [18 May 1862-15 January 1948] was appointed Secretary of the
Navy by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Among his reforms of the Navy were
inaugurating the practice of making 100 Sailors from the Fleet eligible for
entrance into the Naval Academy, the introduction of women into the service,
and the abolishment of the officers' wine mess. From that time on, the
strongest drink aboard Navy ships could only be coffee and over the years, a
cup of coffee became known as "a cup of Joe".


Devil to Pay

Today the expression "devil to pay" is used primarily to describe having an
unpleasant result from some action that has been taken, as in someone has
done something they shouldn't have and, as a result, "there will be the devil
to pay." Originally, this expression described one of the unpleasant tasks
aboard a wooden ship.

The "devil" was the wooden ship's longest seam in the hull. Caulking was done
with "pay" or pitch (a kind of tar). The task of "paying the devil" (caulking
the longest seam) by squatting in the bilges was despised by every seaman.

Eight Bells
Aboard Navy ships, bells are struck to designate the hours of being on watch.
Each watch is four hours in length. One bell is struck after the first
half-hour has passed, two bells after one hour has passed, three bells after
an hour and a half, four bells after two hours, and so forth up to eight
bells are struck at the completion of the four hours. Completing a watch with
no incidents to report was "Eight bells and all is well."
The practice of using bells stems from the days of the sailing ships. Sailors
couldn't afford to have their own time pieces and relied on the ship's bells
to tell time. The ship's boy kept time by using a half-hour glass. Each time
the sand ran out, he would turn the glass over and ring the appropriate
number of bells.


Fathom was originally a land measuring term derived from the Ango-Saxon word
"faetm" meaning to embrace. In those days, most measurements were based on
average size of parts of the body, such as the hand (horses are still
measured this way) or the foot (that's why 12 inches are so named). A fathom
is the average distance from fingertip to fingertip of the outstretched arms
of a man â€" about six feet. Since a man stretches out his arms to embrace his
sweetheart, Britain's Parliament declared that distance be called a "fathom"
and it be a unit of measure. A fathom remains six feet. The word was also
used to describe taking the measure or "to fathom" something. Today, of
course, when one is trying to figure something out, they are trying to
"fathom" it.


The appropriate pronunciation for this word is fo'ksul. The forecastle is the
forward part of the main deck. It derives its name from the days of Viking
galleys when wooden castles were built on the forward and after parts the
main deck from which archers and other fighting men could shoot arrows and
throw spears, rocks, etc.


The galley is the kitchen of the ship. The best explanation as to its origin
is that it is a corruption of "gallery". Ancient sailors cooked their meals
on a brick or stone gallery laid amidships.


Gun Salutes
Gun salutes were first fired as an act of good faith. In the days when it
took so long to reload a gun, it was a proof of friendly intention when the
ship's cannon were discharged upon entering port.

The "head" aboard a Navy ship is the bathroom. The term comes from the days
of sailing ships when the place for the crew to relieve themselves was all
the way forward on either side of the bowsprit, the integral part of the hull
to which the figurehead was fastened.


He Knows the Ropes
In the very early days, this phrase was written on a seaman's discharge to
indicate that he was still a novice. All he knew about being a sailor was
just the names and uses of the principal ropes (lines). Today, this same
phrase means the opposite â€" that the person fully knows and understands the
operation (usually of the organization).


The last Navy ships with teak decks were the battleships, now since
decommissioned. Teak, and other wooden decks, were scrubbed with a piece of
sandstone, nicknamed at one time by an anonymous witty sailor as the
"holystone." It was so named because since its use always brought a man to
his knees, it must be holy!

Log Book
In the early days of sailing ships, the ship's records were written on
shingles cut from logs. These shingles were hinged and opened like a book.
The record was called the "log book." Later on, when paper was readily
available and bound into books, the record maintained it name.

"Mayday" is the internationally recognized voice radio signal for ships and
people in serious trouble at sea. Made official in 1948, it is an anglicizing
of the French m'aidez, "help me".


Pea Coat
Sailors who have to endure pea-soup weather often don their pea coats but the
coat's name isn't derived from the weather. The heavy topcoat worn in cold,
miserable weather by seafaring men was once tailored from pilot cloth â€" a
heavy, course, stout kind of twilled blue cloth with the nap on one side. The
cloth was sometimes called P-cloth for the initial letter of "pilot" and the
garment made from it was called a p-jacket â€" later, a pea coat. The term has
been used since 1723 to denote coats made from that cloth.


Port holes
The word "port hole" originated during the reign of Henry VI of England
(1485). King Henry insisted on mounting guns too large for his ship and the
traditional methods of securing these weapons on the forecastle and aftcastle
could not be used.
A French shipbuilder named James Baker was commissioned to solve the problem.
He put small doors in the side of the ship and mounted the cannon inside the
ship. These doors protected the cannon from weather and were opened when the
cannon were to be used. The French word for "door" is "porte" which was later
Anglicized to "port" and later went on to mean any opening in the ship's
side, whether for cannon or not.

The origin of the word "scuttlebutt," which is nautical parlance for a
rumor, comes from a combination of "scuttle" â€" to make a hole in the ship's
hull and thereby causing her to sink â€"- and "butt" â€" a cask or hogshead used
in the days of wooden ships to hold drinking water. The cask from which the
ship's crew took their drinking water â€" like a water fountain â€" was the
"scuttlebutt". Even in today's Navy a drinking fountain is referred to as
such. But, since the crew used to congregate around the "scuttlebutt", that
is where the rumors about the ship or voyage would begin. Thus, then and now,
rumors are talk from the "scuttlebutt" or just "scuttlebutt".



Contrary to popular notion, the letters S.O.S. do not stand for "Save Our
Ship" or "Save Our Souls". They were selected to indicate a distress because,
in Morse code, these letters and their combination create an unmistakable
sound pattern.


Splice the Main Brace
A sailing ship's rigging was a favorite target during sea battles since by
destroying the opponent's ability to maneuver or get away would put you at
obvious advantage. Therefore, the first thing tended to after a battle was to
repair broken gear, and repair sheets (sails) and braces (lines â€" improperly,
ropes â€" passing through blocks and holding up sails). It was the custom,
after the main braces were properly spliced, to serve grog to the entire
crew. Thus, today, after a hard day (or, not so hard day), the phrase has
become an invitation to have a drink.


The Vikings called the side of their ship its board, and they placed the
steering oar, the "star" on the right side of the ship, thus that side became
known as the "star board." It's been that way ever since. And, because the
oar was in the right side, the ship was tied to the dock at the left side.
This was known as the loading side or "larboard". Later, it was decided that
"larboard" and "starboard" were too similar, especially when trying to be
heard over the roar of a heavy sea, so the phrase became the "side at which
you tied up to in port" or the "port" side.


Taken Aback
One of the hazards faced in days of sailing ships has been incorporated into
English to describe someone who has been jolted by unpleasant news. We say
that person has been "taken aback." The person is at a momentary loss; unable
to act or even to speak. A danger faced by sailing ships was for a sudden
shift in wind to come up (from a sudden squall), blowing the sails back
against the masts, putting the ship in grave danger of having the masts break
off and rendering the ship totally helpless. The ship was taken aback.


Three Mile Limit
The original three-mile limit was the recognized distance from a nation's
shore over which that nation had jurisdiction. This border of international
waters or the "high seas" was established because, at the time this
international law was established, three miles was the longest range of any
nation's most powerful guns, and therefore, the limit from shore batteries at
which they could enforce their laws. (International law and the 1988
Territorial Sea Proclamation established the "high seas" border at the
12-mile limit.)

Took the wind out of his sails
Often we use "took the wind out of his sails" to describe getting the best of
an opponent in an argument. Originally it described a battle maneuver of
sailing ships. One ship would pass close to its adversary and on its windward
side. The ship and sails would block the wind from the second vessel, causing
it to lose headway. Losing motion meant losing maneuverability and the
ability to carry on a fight.


Traditionally, a 24-hour day is divided into seven watches. These are:
midnight to 4 a.m. {0000-0400} , the mid-watch; 4 to 8 a.m. {0400-0800} ,
morning watch; 8 a.m. to noon {0800-1200} , forenoon watch; noon to 4 p.m.
{1200-1600} , afternoon watch; 4 to 6 p.m. {1600-1800} first dog watch; 6 to 8
p.m. {1800-2000} , second dog watch; and, 8 p.m. to midnight {2000-2400} ,
evening watch. The half hours of the watch are marked by the striking the
bell an appropriate number of times.

Edited by: Indybear57 at: 5/26/01 6:00:53 pm

Posts: 181
(5/26/01 8:20:34 pm)
Here's a good source for the Origins of Navy Terminology.

Stan Lambert
St. Clair Shores, Michigan

Posts: 663
(5/27/01 10:26:31 am)
Great stuff Chief! As I had stated once before...I always thought the Navy had maintained a purposeful need to tie their history to the modern.They have all the great sayings and descriptve type wording in their jargon.

For us land lubbers it is a scratch-your-head and wonder when around a couple of mariners.Hehe!

Not only jargon but Rank and clothing also ie; 13 buttons,pea coats and I'm willing to bet ...bell bottoms.

My wife has always felt that the Naval Officer's Dress Whites were the finest of all uniforms.I have to admit...they do look sharp.

Good post,and I'll check out the site Stan.
...and two hard boiled eggs.

V.I.P. Member
Posts: 55
(5/29/01 3:45:07 pm)
The only one I knew was "Brass Monkey"

OK guys ..... what is it???????


Posts: 333
(5/29/01 5:19:43 pm)
| Del
Mith-as in "Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey"? If so, the here's the story I got. Back in the days of cannon the artillery men would stack their cannon balls in pyramids that they called "Brass Monkeys". (Don't know why.) When it got cold in the winter the iron in the cannon balls would contract and, if it was cold enough, crack. Of course when the cannon ball cracked it fell off the stack, hence the term.

Posts: 192
(5/30/01 8:22:59 am)
Another explanation:

Cold Enough to Freeze The Balls Off A Brass Monkey - This term has nothing to do with testicles or primates, and a good deal of debate remains to this day regarding the origin of the phrase. In the days of smoothbore cannon, particularly ashore, ready-use cannon balls were stored near the guns. The balls were stacked in a 'monkey,' a metal frame which was laid on the deck to help contain the bottom layer of cannon balls. Monkeys were typically made of brass. In extremely cold temperatures, the brass monkey shrank more than the iron cannon balls, and the stack of balls would collapse. The root of the debate is whether such an event is possible at all, though the phrase appears to be more a traditional exaggeration than an engineering possibility.

Taken from

Stan Lambert
St. Clair Shores, Michigan

V.I.P. Member
Posts: 57
(5/30/01 10:10:50 am)

pretty much right on guys.....

A "Brass Monkey" was the "Plate" that the balls rested on had indentations in it for the lower row or base of the stack....

it was brass..... so that the lead balls would not corrode as they did when stacked on steel or iron ..(remember the term "Rusty Scupper"??)

and you are right... when it got too cold the slight indentations would contract (or flatten out) and the balls would roll on the deck....

I had one in my room while growing up from a civil war mortor barge...... a decendent was a gunner on the barge and it stayed in the family for many years.....

now... we understand the first part of the title as "Brass" as it really was.... but why did they call it a "Monkey"????


Posts: 743
(6/1/01 5:36:15 pm)
CRACK! Flatten out! Collapse!

Homer quickly dons 2 Sports straps, 4 heavy cotton tighties and another 4 pair of wool boxers from Sunny's Surplus...before slipping on his Dungarees and Buffalo plaid shirt,the Nike sweats and the Swiss Military snow suit.

"There!,feel much better now", and waddles to the door.
...and two hard boiled eggs.
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