The Anatomy of Naval Slang
Updated: Jan 3, 2021
I have always been fascinated by the origins of words and phrases. As a boy, I would listen to the dialects of my family of Scots, my father's friend, a Cockney from London, and, my Uncle Tommy who served in the Navy.
It was the old naval sayings that struck a chord and I was intrigued how pervasive they were in the English language. despite many at first sight not being obvious of their origins.
When I moved to California, I met a friend whose family had a long history with the Royal Navy and he helped me with the discovery and interpretation of these hidden jewels of our language.
'By and large', 'close quarters', 'groggy' referring to the Royal Navy issue Rum, 'shake a leg' showing oneself awake and ready to rise from bed, to 'touch and go' all having their origins courtesy of our naval forefathers. But then again, I thought of our history, Rule Britannia, and how for centuries, we ruled the waves, and then the reasoning made more sense to me.
Pusser’s ‘Gunpowder Proof’ is a traditional Royal Navy style rum produced at original Admiralty strength and in accordance with the Admiralty’s blending recipe last used when the Royal Navy discontinued its daily ration on 31 July 1970.
Gunpowder Proof: Prior to the invention of the hydrometer, the Royal Navy ship’s 'Pusser' which was Navy slang for Purser, shutdown claims of watering down sailors’ daily tots by dousing a bit of gunpowder in the rum and attempting to light. If the mixture ignited, the rum was 'at proof'. If it didn’t, the Pusser might find himself tossed out to sea.
'A shot across the bows', 'all at sea', 'anchors aweigh', all more obvious connections with our maritime past. 'Dead in the water', 'full to the gunwales', 'shiver my timbers', and 'walk the plank' made sense. But then, although the connection was clear, the explanation was not:
"Shipshape and Bristol fashion."
A phrase not widely used outside of the Brits, and even then less so now than in the past, so a little background may be in order.
Bristol has been an important English seaport for more than a thousand years. The city is actually several miles from the sea and stands on the estuary of the River Avon. Bristol's harbor has one of the most variable tidal flows anywhere in the world and the water level can vary by more than 30-feet between tides. Ships that were moored there were beached at each low tide. Consequently, they had to be of sturdy construction, and the goods in their holds needed to be securely stowed, and hence the expression.
Phrases like 'between the devil and the deep blue sea' describing being in an impossible situation. 'cut and run' description more obvious, as was to 'get underway'.
But what about 'fathom it out' a phrase that my own father used all the time, I simply took it as 'work it out' as was the intent and never made the connection. The word 'fathom' originated as a measure of the distance of the span between outstretched arms, from fingertip to fingertip, about 6-feet. This was then applied to the depth of the water beneath a ship using ropes and weights, or to get to the bottom of something, in this case, the ocean to ensure safe passage.
As a boy, I recall sitting in a pub in Glasgow playing with the other kids in the corner of the bar whilst my Uncle and his friends celebrated something or other. Various toasts and cheers went on into the evening but the one that caught my attention, although I didn't know what it meant at the time was:
"To wives and girlfriends, and shall they never meet!"
Back in California, to my naval friend, a colorful character with many interests including his own saloon. Self-built in his home, resembling a ship's captains cabin complete with its open fireplace, generous stock of mostly Scottish whisky (note, not whiskey) and rum, and various naval antiquities including his very own cannon.
"Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey."
He introduced me to the controversy and mystery around the meaning of the term. One commonly thought explanation is that it refers to the stacking of cannonballs on to a 'brass monkey' and how legend has it that in cold conditions the metal contracts and the cannonballs fall off. This 'old wives tale' has long been debunked, and the actual temperature change needed would be so massive that the reality of the story is one of fantasy, not fact.
Another explanation is that the saying refers to the brass statues of the Three Wise Monkeys but the reality is that brass monkeys have been used in may references over the years including: 'hasn't got as much brains as a brass monkey, (1868), 'less bashful than...' (1867), 'scald the throat of...' (1870), 'talk the leg off...' (1872), 'as cheeky as...' (1873), 'burn the ears off...' (1876), 'had touched the heart of...' (1878), 'singe the hair on a brass monkey' (1879).
So, why is 'brass monkey' the subject of these various phrases?
The first thing known to have been called a brass monkey was an ancient form of cannon, also called a 'drake', or 'dog'. These references were recorded in an inventory published as far back as 1650, and the cannon itself considered as a major advantage over enemies of 'The Crown' at the time and considered with great adoration, and many references across the English language of the day.
The thing is that many of these phrases come from deep in history, and often in far off oceans or lands, coming back to be over time integrated into our vernacular with origins long past, forgotten, or even lost forever.
'Broad in the beam', 'by and large', 'chock-a-block'. Then 'to give a wide berth', 'hand over fist' and 'high and dry'. What about 'know the ropes', 'push the boat out', 'keel over', or 'plain sailing'?
'Slush Fund' was another that caught my eye as I have often been in need of one over the years. Apparently 'slush', or 'slosh', was the fat or grease obtained from meat boiled on board ship. Despite it not being the apex of culinary delight it was considered a perk for ships' cooks and crew and they sold the fat that they gathered from cooking meat whenever they reached port. Therefore, this became known as a 'slush fund' and the term joins the numerous English phrases that first saw the light of day at sea.
Then, although strictly speaking not a Royal Navy term, today we commonly use the word 'Posh', but where does it come from?
The story goes that the more well-to-do passengers on ships traveling between England and India used to have P.O.S.H written against their bookings, standing for 'Port Out, Starboard Home' indicating the more desirable cabins, and on the shady side of the ship.
I am in early progress with my sixth novel, SS Indigo, a luxury steam cruiser with an eclectic group of guests, strangers, with one thing in common, the lust for power and greed.
As with the numerous words and terms, there are various songs and toasts that came from our seafaring past, including this one which will always be close to my heart, and one that I will always remember:
"There are good ships, there are wood ships, there are ships that sail the sea. But the best ships are friendships, and may they ever be!"
Willy Mitchell is an indie author, writer, and storyteller. His first title was Operation ARGUS, and then the sequel Bikini BRAVO where a group of former Special Air Service operatives enter the dark and murky world of maskirovka and discover the lengths that some people will go for power and greed. Cold COURAGE tells the epic tale of Shackletons 1914 Trans-Antarctic Expedition and all that was happening in those extraordinary times. Book four, Northern ECHO is about to be released and tells the story of two boys growing up during the punk rock revolution in the north of England, and how a dark secret keeps them apart until the end. Mitchell's latest installment, about to be released at the end of 2020, is Gipsy MOTH about his Aunt Nikki, her friend and fellow Aviatrix, Amy Johnson, and Amelia Earhart on the other side of the pond.
All of Mitchell's books so far are novels, works of fiction, blended with real events. For further information or how to buy his books, visit his author website: