Traditions and Customs
of the Naval Services
A B C
D E F
G H I
J K L
N O P
R S T
U V W X
Adrift. A boat or vessel
that has broken from her moorings or object that is not secured and may be
displaced by the ship's movement.
nautical hail, once the dreaded war cry of the Vikings.
Airdale. A naval
aviator. It can also refer to any member of the naval aviation community,
officer or enlisted. "Brownshoe" also refers
to an officer or chief petty officer in the aviation branch as they are
authorized to wear brown shoes whereas mere mortals in other branches of naval
service are forever tainted as common
|All Hands. The whole ship's company. The call for
everyone, "All hands man your battle stations."
|Athwartships. Across the ship from side to side.
The moment a ship's anchor leaves the
sea bottom, the anchor is said to be
aweigh. "Weigh" from the Old English infers movement. Anchors "away" is
incorrect usage. But when a ship weighs anchor it is said to be under way even
though it may or may not be making way (powered).
Aye Aye. Aye is old
English for "yes." A bluejacket says, "Aye aye, sir," meaning, "I understand
and I will obey."
Top of page
Barge. An admiral's
|Battle Lantern. Formerly a lamp hung at each gun on naval
sailing vessels to give light in case of a night engagement. Now any emergency
lighting fixture on board ship.
|Beach. The slope between the water's edge and dry land. To
beach a sailor was to put him ashore without intention of letting him return to
the ship. Hit the Beach is a bluejacket expression for shore
The width of a ship at the
widest point from side to side.
Stop an action. "Belay
the whistling! You're no boatswain."  Make fast. "Belay the line here." The
use of a belaying pin in days of sail most likely is responsible for coining the
term.  Disregard an order. "Right full rudder. Belay my last."
|Bells. Audible sounding of ship's time: one bell for each
progressive half hour to a total of eight, commencing at half past the hours of
4, 8 and 12.
|Best Bower. The largest anchor. Formerly the anchor
carried on the starboard bow was the largest. Now both anchors are the same
size. Bow anchors are carried on the bow (pointy end) and used for anchoring.
|Bilge. The lower part of the ship
were waste water and seepage collect. "Yuk, the mess cook is making this coffee
out of bilge water."
Bildged. Fail an examination. "Jones
bilged her dc quals (damage control qualifications)." Also, refers to denting
the side of a ship.
Listing of the names of crew members excused from duty by the Medical Officer.
The binnacle supported the ship's compass. Lists posted thereon were prominent.
|Bitts. Iron posts fastened to the deck of a ship to which
a line or a cable is fastened for anchoring, mooring at a dock or towing. A
bitter is any turn of cable about the bitts. The bitter end
is the last section of rope that must be on board ship and made fast or all is
Bluejacket. The first
uniform that was ever officially sanctioned for sailors in the Royal Navy was a
short blue jacket open in the front. A generic name for enlisted
|Block. Nautical name for a pulley.
Boats. From the
Anglo-Saxon "bat" that stood for a small ship or vessel. Also slang for a
Boatswain. From the
Saxon word "swein" which meant a boy or servant. The boat refers to the ship
and not to her small boats. The ship's boatswain is a warrant officer who has
charge of the seamen, oversight of a ship's deck evolutions, work pertaining to
the boats, rigging, anchoring, mooring and unmooring.
Boatswain's Mate is a petty officer under the direction of the ship's
boatswain and/or the Deck department head, the First Lieutenant,
on ships without a warrant boatswain.
"Bosun" is the
correct pronunciation. Often the boatswain or his mates is called Boats.
At times one will also hear
less endearing terms such as "Anchor Clanker" and a
member of the Deck Department called a "Deck Ape."
Boatswain Pipe. One
of the oldest and most distinctive pieces of nautical equipment, the pipe or
flute, was used in Greece and Rome to keep the stroke of galley slaves. The
pipe was used in the Crusades to call English cross bowmen on deck for attack.
In time, the pipe came to be used as a badge of office by commanders. The
whistle was used for salutes to distinguished persons as well as to pass orders.
A 1645 publication detailing honors for an admiral, orders; "The ship's
barge to be sent to fetch the visitor having the cockson with his silver whistle
in the stern... Upon the near approach of the barge the noise of the trumpets
are to sound and so to hold on until the barge comes within less than musket
shot, at that time the trumpets are to cease and all such as carry whistles are
to whistle a welcome three several times."
Originally, a distinctive call on a boatswain’s whistle sent the crew below
decks or down below. Now to "pipe down" means to be quiet.
Meals aboard ship are announced by the boatswain pipe. Crew members who
respond immediately to the call are said to have their meals "piping hot."
The four primary parts of the boatswain pipe are the buoy, gun, keel and
Compass. Calling the names of the 32 points of the
compass in order.
|Bug juice. An artificially flavored drink similar to Kool-Aide.
Transverse or longitudinal partition separating portions of a ship. Landlubbers
call it 'a wall.'
Bumboat. A boat
selling supplies or provisions to ships. Derived from "boomboat," signifying
boats permitted to lie at the ship's booms.
Top of page
A Gunner's Mate or one associated
with the Weapon's Department.
|Cat O'Nine Tails. Also known as the Cat. The instrument
used in former times for flogging at sea. It consisted of nine pieces of cord
with three knots in each cord, the whole attached to a short thick rope as a
handle. Flogging was done on the bare back of a sailor by a ship's boatswain
mates. See page on
gives the origin of the title as from the French. The legend offers that St.
Martin divided his coat with a poor beggar on a cold wintry day outside of
Amiens. It is related that the coat was miraculously preserved and thereby
became a sacred banner for the Kings of France. This cloak or cape, French "chape,"
was preserved in a place of prayer that took the name of "chapelle," or chapel,
and the one charged with its keeping was called the "chapelain."
Chit. From the
Hindstani word "chitti" and referring to a letter, note, voucher or
receipt. "You need a chit for the supplies sailor."
The galley (ship's kitchen) smoke stack on early ships.
|Clothes stop. A small diameter cord about 12 inches long
with metal ends to keep the cord from fraying. This short cord was used to tie
laundry to a clothes line or other convenient object for drying. Also used in a
sea bag inspection to secure rolled clothing. Every recruit was issued a length
of clothes stops in boot camp instead of clothes pins. They ceased to be issued
|Combing. Raised partition around hatches or between
doorways to prevent water from entering. Also called "knee knockers" for
barking one's shins if failing to safely navigate in the dark.
The national ensign. Also the daily ceremony of raising the national ensign at
0800 and lowering of the ensign at sunset. "First call to colors" is five
minutes prior to colors. Naval ships underway fly the national ensign
continuously therefore do not hold colors ceremonies at sea.
|Companionway. Interior stairway.
|Conn. To superintend or steer the ship. "Ensign Fuzz has
the conn," whispered the boatswain mate of the watch referring to the young
officer of the deck.
|Corpsman. A Navy enlisted rating serving in the broad
spectrum of Navy medicine. First called "loblolly boys" they
prepared for battle by filling containers with water to hold amputated limbs. In
addition, duties called for maintaining the braziers of charcoal to heat the tar
which is used to stop the hemorrhaging from amputations and keeping the deck
safe for the surgeon around the operating area is a duty during battle. The
deck, slippery with blood, was treated with buckets of sand. In time they were
called "surgeon's steward", "apothecaries" and
as late as World War II, Pharmacist Mate. Today a Marine calls
his corpsman "Doc."
Coxswain. Or "cockswain"
from the combination of "cock," a small boat, and "swain," a servant. It
originally meant one who had charge of a boat and a crew in the absence of an
Crossing the Line.
The boisterous ceremonies of "crossing the line" are ancient and their
derivation is lost. It is well known that ceremonies took place long ago when
the ship crossed the thirtieth parallel, and also when going through the Straits
of Gibraltar. Early ceremonies were rough and to a great extent supposed to try
the crew to determine whether or not the novices on their first cruise could
endure the hardships of life at sea. The custom then, as at present, is
primarily a crew's party.
The Vikings were reported at an early date to carry out these ceremonies on
crossing certain parallels. It is highly probable that the present day ceremony
was passed on to the Anglo-Saxons, and Normans from the Vikings. As at earlier
times, ceremonies of propitiation are carried on to appease Neptune, the
mythological god of the seas.
One who has crossed the line (equator) is called a Shellback. The
Sons of Neptune (shellbacks) prepare the ship for King Neptune and the
Royal Party's arrival and conduct the solemn ceremonies.
Bluejackets treasure the certificate which testifies that "in Latitude
00-00 and Longitude xx-xx," and usually addressed to all Mermaids, Sea
Serpents, Whales, Sharks, Porpoises, Dolphins, Skates, Eels, Suckers, Lobsters,
Crabs, Pollywogs and other living things of the sea," __(name)__ has been
found worthy to be numbered as one of our trusty shellbacks, has been gathered
to our fold and duly initiated into the solemn mysteries of the ancient order of
Members of Neptunus Rex's party usually include Davy Jones, Neptune's
first assistant, Her Highness Amphitrite, the Royal Scribe, the
Royal Doctor, the Royal Dentist, the Royal Baby, the Royal
Navigator, the Royal Chaplain, the
Royal Judge, Attorneys, Barbers and other nefarious "dignitaries" that
suit the party. The uninitiated are lowly scum sucking pollywogs.
Golden Shellback is one who crosses the equator at the 180th
meridian (international date line).
Something procured outside official channels and without official payment. Word
derived from beggars of Amoy, China, who said "kam sia" meaning "grateful
-thanks." The term usually relates to unauthorized work done for a ship or
station usually obtained by bartering. "The shipyard welder added the brackets
in exchange for five pounds of coffee."
Cumshaw artist. One who is adapt at bartering.
Top of page
Locker. The bottom of the sea. Davy Jones being
Neptune Rex's first assistant.
Ditty Box or Ditty Bag.
A small box or bag carried by sailors in which is kept letters, small souvenirs,
and sewing supplies. Probably from the Saxon word "dite," meaning tidy. Others
suggest the name is derived from dittas cloth, an English fabric.
Divine Services at Sea.
William Murrell, in his book, Cruise of the Frigate Columbia, describes a
typical Divine Worship Service on board the USS Columbia during a round the
world cruise in 1838-1841.
"On Sunday mornings, immediately after
quarters, should the weather permit, all hands are called to muster. The
summons is instantly obeyed, by every one proceeding to the quarter-deck (the
sick alone are exempted) where the minister stands in readiness arrayed in his
clerical robes, and the capstan covered with the national flag, to answer the
purpose of a pulpit. The commodore takes his station on the weather side of the
chaplain; the lieutenants, and all other commissioned and warrant officers on
the weather side of the the deck; the forward officers at the fife-rail, and
petty officers at the fore-part of the main-mast. The bluejackets take up their
position abaft the mizzen mast, clad in white frocks with blue collars, white
trowsers, and straw hats, looking the picture of cleanliness; whilst the marines
are stationed and drawn up in rank, on the lee side of the deck, headed by their
commanding officer, all in blue uniform."
|Division Officer. The crew of a naval vessel is divided
into departments which may be sub divided into divisions. Each division is
headed by an officer or senior petty officer.
Drawing a Dead Horse.
A "dead horse" is advance payment of wages. In the British Merchant Service,
approximately a months pay was advanced when a sailor shipped. A ceremony was
held when the crew "stopped working for nothing," usually after about five weeks
at sea. The men made a horse out of canvas stuffed with waste material or out
of a cask. Permission was requested to light it and hoist it out to the end of
a boom or yard. Cheers went up as it marked the time the crew started to
accumulate wages "on the books."
|Dog. A metal fitting or handle used
to secure a water tight door (WTD), hatch and scuttle. Dogging or undogging a
single WTD may require manipulation of eight to ten separate handles, although
under normal non combat conditions a single dog may secure the WTD with other
dogs left open.
Dog Watch. A split watch between the hours of four to six and
six to eight in the afternoon. Originally, the "Dodge Watch," as it allowed
seamen to escape (or dodge) standing the same watch every day of the voyage. As
time went on, the names gradually corrupted to the present Dog Watch. Dr.
Stephen Maturin in the Patrick O'Brian novels coins the pun, "It is called the
dog watch because it is "cur tailed."
Dogging wrench is a short metal pipe used as an extension on water tight
door fittings to gain leverage.
An early battleship characterized by a single caliber big gun with a main
battery of guns of 11 inches or more, no intermediate battery, a secondary
battery from 3 to 6 inches caliber and a speed of at least 18 knots.
Top of page
Reports. On shipboard shortly before 8 P.M. (2000)
the Executive Officer, (second in command, XO) receives reports from the heads
of departments. He in turn makes "eight o'clock reports" to the Commanding
Officer. "Now lay before the mast all eight o'clock reports." Never 2000
|Engineer. The Engineering Department Head, Engineering
Officer or Chief Engineer (CHENG), on board ship is responsible
for the operation and maintenance of propulsion and auxiliary machinery aboard
ship. Those assigned to the Engineering Department are termed engineers,
or more often called snipes, bilge rats and
from the days of coal power, the
The title dates to when privileged squires carried the banners of their lords
and masters into battle. Later, these squires became known by the name of the
banner, the Ensign. The junior commissioned officer in the U. S. Navy and Coast
Guard. Also known as a "Butter Bar" for the gold rank insignia collar
device. May be addressed as "Enswine" if lacking in wardroom etiquette. In
"George" is the junior ensign, the lowest ranking person in a wardroom,
while "The Bull Ensign" is the senior ensign.
The national flag flow from the flagstaff in port and the gaff at sea.
for exercise. FLEETEX for Fleet Exercise. Often used in combination with words
to describe fouled up evolutions; MOBEX, GROPEX, BOREX.
Exec. Shortened title for Executive Officer, second in command on a naval
unit. Also, XO.
Top of page
Saint Paul relates in the New Testament that soundings were taken after a gale,
and the ship was found to be in twenty fathoms of water. The Greek word
orgina, which means to stretch or reach out with the arms. A sailor
stretches out both arms and measures from finger tip to finger tip - an
approximate fathom. More precisely, a fathom is six feet.
|Fender. Anything serving as a cushion between the side of
the ship and another object.
A day set aside to clean ship. Also, to clean or straighten. "Seaman Jones!
This compartment is a rat's nest. Field day it and report when it is
Firing Three Volleys at Military Funerals.
Best explained as a superstitious custom that was supposed to drive away evil
spirits as they escaped from the hearts of the dead. Before the advent of
firearms, the number three had mystical significance. In ancient Roman funeral
rites earth was cast three times into the grave; those present called the dead
three times by name, and on leaving the grave site mourners called farewell
|Flag. The national ensign, colors or standard.
"The flag" also refers to the commander of a fleet, task force,
or admiral of a command whose presence is noted by a flag displaying the
corresponding number of stars to the admiral's rank. A flag lieutenant
is the admiral's aide.
Fleet. From the
Anglo-Saxon "floet," or "floetan." An organization of ships, aircraft,
Marines, and shore based activities all under one commander. Even numbered
fleets are in the Atlantic area and odd numbered fleets operate in the Pacific
area. Also, a term for all naval operating forces.
|Float Test. Checking the buoyancy of unwanted shipboard
items. Also, splash test. "Jones, see if this transformer floats."
From the old Spanish "flota." An administrative or tactical organization
consisting of two or more squadrons together with a flag ship.
Foul Anchor. An
anchor that is foul of the cable or chain is a symbol found in various naval
crests. The device is on the cap of American naval officers, the distinguishing
device of a Chief Petty Officer, the collar device of midshipman, and on the cap
badges of the British naval officers. Many sailors regard the device a sign of
poor seamanship. Although, artistic to a civilian, it has been called a
sailor's disgrace by some. The badge has been traced back to 1601 and Lord
Howard of Effingham, the Lord High Admiral, who used it first as a seal of his
office, but the device was used previous even to that time.
Top of page
A captain or commander's personal boat.
Gig. A recorded fault. "Jones received a gig at personnel
inspection for his dirty hat."
Gig line. An imaginary
straight line running down the front center of the torso for uniform alignment.
Non alignment of the shirt edge, belt buckle and trouser fly results is a
The ship's kitchen or food preparation area. See Mess
and Mess deck.
From the Anglo-Saxon "gang." Meaning to go, or make a passage in or cut
through. An opening in a ship to give entrance for boarding or leaving the
ship. It may be either an opening in a bulkhead or railing.
Also, "Gangway," a command to step aside or make way.
The messcook yells, "Gangway, hot stuff." Or in a jovial mood,
"Gangway, lady with a baby."
Items from vending machines or ship's store such as candy, soda and ice
cream. Any dessert, sweets, or good deal. Also Pogey Bait.
Goat Locker. The Chief Petty Officer quarters and mess spaces.
Also called Menopause Manor in reference to the advanced age of the inhabitants.
Light patrol vessel unarmored for use in shallow
|Gundeck. Gun decking is falsifying records or logs to
avoid work or changing results to meet requirements. Also known as pencil
whipping or radioing a report.
Top of page
|Handy Billy. Any small portable gas powered pump used for
fire fighting or de-watering. The P-60 Handy Billy was a main stay of shipboard
damage control parties and later replaced by the P-250.
|Hatch. A square or rectangular hole in the deck for access
to a lower deck of a ship. However, one hears Marines refer to any door on ship
or ashore as a hatch.
|Hawser. A rope of sufficient size and strength to tow or
secure a ship.
|Head. Shipboard toilet. Shipboard toilet facilities were
originally precariously located on the bow suspended above the water.
|Holiday. Any spot missed while painting.
|Hollywood. A sailor or Marine who spends excessive time
grooming or is compulsive about appearance.
A long shower deemed to waste water.
Hollywood Marine. A Marine who attended recruit training in
San Diego vice Paris Island.
A large flat sandstone used to polish the wooden deck of a ship.
Bible or Prayer Book. A smaller piece of sandstone used to reach into
corners. The sailor on his hand and knees is in a prayerful position thus the
Top of page
|Idlers. The traditional name for members of a ship's
company who stand no regular watch. A jab at the members of non
watchstanders clerks, mess cooks and others who work on a different schedule.
|Inboard. Towards the imaginary center line of a ship.
|Irish Pennant. Any loose or
untidy end of a line. Lines dangling from a ship's rigging. Threads hanging
from a uniform. "You have an irish pennant hanging from your stern, shipmate."
Top of page
Java. Bluejacket term
for Coffee. For twenty years before "grog" was legislated out of the Navy, the
rum ration was cut back and coffee and tea were supplied as a substitute.
Congress passed a bill on 23 May 1872 that provided "an additional ration of
coffee and sugar to be served at his (the bluejacket's) first turning out."
Not a surprise to most, the United States Navy uses more coffee than any other
military organization in the world.
|Jack, originally a Royal Navy sailor. Also, Jack
Tar, from the tar used extensively on sailing ships.
Crackerjacks. The Navy enlisted dress blue uniform.
Also see, "thirteen buttons."
Jack-of-the-Dust. Jack o' the Dust. Person in
charge of breaking out provisions for the food service operation. Originates
with the British Navy. "Jack," a Royal Navy sailor, who worked in the bakery
and was covered with flour dust. Also, "Dusty."
Union Jack, is the blue flag with 50 stars flown from
the Jackstaff on the bow of all United States government ships
not underway. The Jack is flown from a yardarm on the mast when a Court Martial
is in session. The first Jack used in the US Navy was a red and white stripe
flag with a rattlesnake and the words "Don't tread on me." The Secretary of the
Navy directed the use of the rattlesnake jack in place of the union jack for the
duration of the Global War on Terrorism in 2006.
|Jolly Roger. Skull and crossbones banner, the royal
standard of His Imperial Majesty Neptunus Rex, Ruler of the Raging Main.
|JOPA. Junior Officer Protective Association. Unofficial
association of the three lowest officer ranks with an eye to commiserate,
educate, and socialize.
|Jump Ship. To leave one's ship when unauthorized to so.
Unauthorized Absence (UA) is the official term, while Absent Without
Leave (AWOL) is an older term. Deserter is used for one who
has been UA for over thirty days consecutive days and in certain other cases.
Also, in slang terms "French Leave," Over the Hill" ect. See Liberty below.
|Jury Rig. Any temporary repair or makeshift device most
often using non-standard materials or means. Also, Kludge.
Top of page
|Keel Haul. A brutal punishment inflicted on seamen
adjudged guilty of an offense in the days of sail. It usually resulted in death
as the chances of recovery were slim. The guilty party was fastened to a line
which had been passed beneath the ship's keel. He was then dragged under the
water from starboard to the port side of the ship or hauled stem to stern along
the barnacle-encrusted bottom. If the seaman survived the cuts, abrasions, and
possible drowning he was considered to have paid his sentence. Keel
hauling was not known to
have been practiced by the U.S. Navy, but was in the Dutch Navy into the 18th
century. The U.S. Navy practiced flogging and hanging as modes of
|Kiddie Cruise. An extinct recruitment program available to high
school graduates under 18 years old with an obligation to serve until their 21st
birthday. Hence instead of a four year enlistment one could theoretically serve
as little as three years.
The coaming of a watertight door or bulkhead opening. Coaming edges are raised
about one foot off the deck and strike the shins if one fails to step over them.
|Knot. A measure of speed equaling one nautical mile per
hour. Knots-per-hour is incorrect usage. Knot and naut. sound conspicuously
similar. See Log and Nautical mile.
Top of page
Seaman's term for one who does not go to sea.
Perhaps from "land lover." Also known as landsman and more derogatory, a sand
crab. "Watch those shipyard sand crabs."
|Larboard. The left side facing forward. Because of the
confusion with starboard, the left side of a vessel became known as the
port side. See Port.
|Lee, Leeward. The side of the ship or an island away from
|Liberty. Authorized absence from one's place of duty. It
may be overnight until the next work day, or a number of days usually measured
in 24 hour increments such as 48, 72 and 96 hours. "See later shipmate, I've got
a 96 and headed home.
Cinderella liberty ends at midnight.
Liberty call. Announcement on the ship's intercommunications
system of liberty granted to a portion of the crew by section.
Liberty cuffs. Embroidered patches sewn inside the cuffs of an
enlisted dress blue uniform. Non-regulation, sewn by tailors with a hidden
stitch, the cuff of a sailor's dress blues replete with dragons, mermaids, ships
or assorted beasts were rolled back in a bar to demonstrate his travels until
the Shore Patrol arrives.
One who takes advantage of every possible minute of time off.
Liberty party. Any group of personnel authorized liberty and
going ashore. In past time the liberty party stood uniform inspection before
leaving the ship. Today they will be checked for inappropriate attire. "Smuckatelli,
T-shirt is obscene go below and change."
Liberty risk. One deemed unreliable and not granted liberty in
certain situations. "Jones is a liberty risk. He won't go ashore in
Liberty section. A ship's crew is usually divided in three or
four sections with a minimum of one section always on board - the "duty
section." "Now hear this, liberty is granted to sections 2, 3, and 4 to expire
on board at 0730, Friday 16 May 2001."
Port and starboard liberty. Liberty after normal work hours
every other day. Unusual, but not unheard of practice.
Port hole liberty. Viewing an exotic port of call while at
anchor or underway and knowing you are not going to see it up close. "Join the
Navy and see the world - through a port hole."
|Line. What landlubbers call rope, the sailor calls line.
Small line is called by the number of threads in it’s make up. "Get a piece of
nine thread from the bosun locker, chop chop." Larger line is sized by
circumference not diameter. Supply Department buys rope, but as soon as a piece
is cut off of the spool, it is called line. However, if it is made of wire it
is called wire rope and not wire line.
The Line. The
equator. "That old salt has crossed the line at least ten times." See
Crossing the Line.
Lubber's Line. The vertical
mark on a bowl compass that marks the ship's heading.
Fathom line. Line on a nautical chart with similar depths.
Also, fathom curve.
|Locker. Place for storage of personal effects, or a
specific storage area such as the ship's "paint locker." In slang, a place of
accumulation. "Keep it up Jones and you're going to be in the "hurt locker."
|Log. The device formerly used to determine the speed of a
vessel through the water consisting of a board weighted and arranged so that it
would remain stationary, flat side toward the ship and cause the log line to run
out from a reel during a 30 second period of time as measured by a sand glass.
The length of line calibrated with a knot every 47' 3" The ships speed in
nautical miles per hour was equal to the number of knots that crossed the
Ships log. The official record of events
journaling the daily life of a naval vessel.
Log Room. The Engineering Department office.
Lucky Bag. A
compartment or locker where masters-at-arms stow articles of clothing, bedding,
and other items left adrift. Originally, articles were placed in a bag called
the "lucky bag" which was in the custody of the master-at-arms. In a narrative
of a cruise in the USS Columbia in 1838, the writer relates that the bag was
brought to the mainmast once a month, and the owners of the articles "if
their names are on them, get them again, with a few lashes for their
carelessness in leaving them about the deck." The term "lucky" in this case
is a bluejacket's twisted humor. One wag suggested another definition as "a
Top of page
Watch. A practical joke pulled on inexperienced
crewmembers and midshipmen which revolves around convincing the victim that mail
is delivered to a ship at sea via a buoy. The more gullible victims are dressed
in outlandish garb (lifejacket, helmet) and with a boat hook and sound powered
telephone directed to stand watch for the buoy and retrieve the mail.
|Make Fast. Tie a line securely.
When a vessel is moving under it's own power. Also, a command to move
out of the way. "Make way shipmate, I'm coming though."
|Mast. A spar or structure rising above the hull and upper
portions of a ship to hold sails, spars, or rigging. Now any upright support
structure holding antenna or equipment.
Originally naval justice was dispensed on the weather deck near ship's mainmast
by the Captain after hearing all included parties. Currently, "mast" is a
nonjudicial hearing over which the commanding officer presides and where he may
mete out minor punishment for non court martial offenses. "Ya hear? Jones, is
going to mast for missing muster this morning. I bet he gets restricted to the
ship this time."
A companion. Mate appears as early as the 13th century, as a corruption of the
Dutch word "mattenoot." Loosely translated it means companion, or the person
with whom you shared your hammock (one being on duty while the other slept in
it. Hot bunking is not new!). In some trades, like that of stevedores, the
French word "matelot" is used in the same sense as the English word mate. That
being the person with whom you lift sacks which are too heavy to be lifted by
one man alone.
Tie mate. In the days of sail a seaman's pride was his long
pigtail or "tie." A tie mate braided his mate's hair.
|MCPOC. Abbreviation for Master Chief Petty Officer Of the
Command. Pronounced "mickpock." The senior master chief assigned to a unit.
Submariners use COB, or Chief of the Boat.
Mess. From the Latin
term "mensa" meaning tables. "Mesa" is Spanish for table and "mes" in old
Gothic means a dish. The English word originally meant four, and at large meal
gatherings diners were seated in fours. Shakespeare wrote of Henry's four sons
as his "mess of sons." The word "mess" that suggests confusion comes
from the German "mischen," meaning to mix.
Junior personnel detailed for a block of weeks from various departments of a
ship to perform the menial chores of cleaning, serving and assisting the cooks
in a shipboard food service division. Also, heard as messcrank
or simply crank. Akin to the old army kitchen police, KP.
Messmates. Those who eat together. Smythe's, Sailors' Word
Book, yields the ditty, "Messmate before shipmate, shipmate before stranger,
stranger before a dog."
Mess deck. Eating area for the ship's crew.
An enlisted person who continues
through the ranks to officer status other than warrant officer. "You can't fool
Mr. Roberts with that story. He's a mustang." A mustang might also be
described as commissioned "through the hawse pipe."
Top of page
|Nautical mile. 6080.2 feet as opposed to a land mile of
5280 feet or 1.852 kilometer. The nautical mile is approximately one minute of
arc along any meridian. Of interest, the nautical mile varied in definition by
county until 1929.
Short for Navy, navigation or navigator. "How long you been in the Nav newby?"
|Naval Apprentice. A boy enlisted in the Navy for the
purpose of instruction in seamanship and naval duties. Through the years the US
Navy used apprenticeship training programs to encourage young men to sea
service. The last official program ran from 1875 to December 1904 and accepted
boys from age 15.
Officer responsible to the captain for planning the ship's course and the safe
navigation of the ship. Also know as the "Naviguesser."
Fresh water economy aboard ship may dictate using as little water as possible.
Hence, the navy shower; wet down, turn off the water, soap up, turn the shower
on to rinse off. If a ship's evaporators (evaps) have problems distilling fresh
water from salt water, a ship may experience "water hours" in
which no showers are allowed except at select times. Generally, the smaller the
ship the more experience the crew has with water conservation.
Navy or Coast Guard enlisted personnel in the first three pay grades who are not
petty officers. Pay grades E1, E2 and E3 are nonrates. A nonrate may be a "striker,"
performing authorized on-the-job training to qualify for a specific petty
officer specialty. Or, a nonrate may be "designated" in that
they have met the training qualifications but not promoted to petty officer.
"Electronic Technician Seaman Joan Pauline Jones has completed ET School and
should be soon promoted to Electronic Technician Third Class." See
Navy Rating Structure.
|Nuke. Any nuclear powered ship. A sailor whose rating is
associated with nuclear power. Use a microwave oven. A really big bomb.
Top of page
|Officer of the
Deck. OOD. The officer in charge of the ship and
on deck as the Captain's representative. "Lieutenant Hazard has the deck,"
notes that Lt. Hazard is the OOD and his orders are to be obeyed.
Slang term for the Commanding Officer. The term for an Admiral is "the old
Petty Officer who maintains fuel oil records aboard ship.
|Oscar. The letter 15th letter in the phonetic alphabet (O).
If a ship has a person fall overboard, or is conducting man overboard drill the
international signal Oscar flag is hoisted. Hence, the dummy used in man
overboard drills is called Oscar.
|Outboard. Away from the imaginary centerline of a ship.
Top of page
signified the left side of ships in the United States sea services until about
1846. It is recorded that in that year the word was passed on board an American
man-of-war cruising off the coast of Africa: "Do you hear there fore and
aft? The word "larboard" is to be forever dropped in the United States Navy,
and the word "port" is substituted. Any man using the word 'larboard' will be
punished." Pronunciation of larboard and starboard were
prone to confusion.
The word "port" came via the British Navy from the orders of the Portuguese
Tagus River pilots.
Short heavy topcoat worn by seafarers in cold weather. Originally made of a
material called "pilot cloth." Name was probably pilot-cloth coat, pilot coat,
P-coat, and finally peacoat. In the old Navy the topcoat was also called a
|Pipe. Boatswain's pipe. The pipe calls signaling shipboard
administrative evolutions. Hear calls
Pipe aboard. The pipe call to signify the arrival of the
commanding officer or a senior officer.
Originally, the call to send the men below deck. Now commonly used to keep
Piping hot. Originally from the the bosun's
A member of the original commissioning crew of a ship. In the days of wooden
ships plank owners upon transfer or retirement were awarded a piece of wood from
the ship. With metal ships a commemorative plaque or certificate is given to
the commissioning crew members. In austere commands a plaque is received only
if one purchases it for themselves.
|Pooped. Hit by a wave over the stern or rear of the ship.
|Phonetic Alphabet. Dedicated words substituted for letters
to insure clarity in communication. "November Romeo Delta Lima this is November
Mike November over.
Top of page
|Quarters. A muster to account for personnel, pass
information or special purpose.
General Quarters is
the state of readiness for immediate battle with each crew member reporting to a
specific location for duty and the ship tightly closed to contain the possible
spread damage due to flooding or fire.
|Quarterdeck. A raised deck behind the main mast of a
sailing ship from where the captain commanded his vessel and where the ship's
colors were kept. This led to its use as the main ceremonial and reception area
on board. In general terms refers to an officially designated reception
Top of page
|Rating. A Navy or Coast Guard enlisted occupation that
consists of specific skills and abilities. Each rating has its own specialty
badge which is worn on the left sleeve by all qualified men and women in that
field. In the Navy and Coast Guard, pay grades E-4 through E-9 fall within a
rating and reflect a distinct level of achievement within the promotion pyramid.
Rate, such as First Class Petty Officer, describes the
enlisted pay grade E-6. Officers do not have rates but are said to have rank.
Lieutenant (rank) describes a Naval officer of pay grade O-3. See
Navy Ratings for a
fuller discussion and a list of historic ratings.
|Roach coach. A catering truck.
|Roger. Informal response used to signify understanding.
"Roger that, shipmate." Whereas the formal,
"Aye aye, sir,"
means, "I understand and I will obey."
"I understand and Will Comply;" not a western movie cowboy hero.
|Rope Yarn Sunday. One afternoon per week at sea was
reserved for mending clothing. In that it was an afternoon of rest it became
"rope yarn Sunday" even though it was usually midweek. The custom was
intermittent by the 1960's and was discontinued in all but the most traditional
ships. The web bosun's first ship honored rope yard Sunday on Wednesday
afternoon, but also had Saturday morning personnel, sea bag or ship's material
inspection weekly at sea AND in port.
Derived from the old Anglo-Saxon "rother," that
which guides. The Viking "steer board" was on the starboard side of the ship.
The sternpost rudder didn't come into use until the 12th century.
Top of page
|Salt. NaCl. Seasoned sailor. Also
salty, and may refer to a sailor or their raw language.
Salute. Originally, the one
who saluted first rendered himself or his ship powerless for the time it took to
"render honors." In Henry VII's period the average time to
fire a gun was twice in an hour. Under sail, passing ships lowered topsails.
The British palm forward hand salute was intended to show that the hand was
empty. The salute executed today by "present arms" originally
meant to present for taking.
Quarterdeck. Some hold that the salute to
the quarterdeck is derived from the very early seagoing custom of the respect
paid to the pagan altar on board ship, and later to the crucifix and shrine.
Others hold that the custom comes from the early days of the British Navy when
all officers who were present on the quarterdeck returned the salute of an
individual by uncovering (removing the hat). The original salute consisted of
uncovering. The salute, touching the hat, to the seat of authority,
the quarterdeck, the place nearest the colors, is an old an tradition.
Hand Salute. The hand salute in
the American sea services came by way of the British Navy. It is generally
agreed that the salute is the first part of the movements of uncovering. That
there was nothing in the hand is a possible explanation of the British salute
with the palm turned out. From the earliest days of organized military units,
the junior has uncovered in addressing or meeting the senior. Lord St. Vincent,
in 1796, promulgated an order to the effect that all officers were to take off
their hats when receiving orders from superiors.
Sketches of Naval Life, written on board
the USS Constitution, in 1826, gives an account of a Sunday inspection on board
that describes the salute of the day. "The Captain and First Lieutenant, Mr.
Vallette, are now on the deck; they pass around and examine every part of it,
each man lifting his hat as they pass, or in default of one, catching hold of a
lock of hair."
And in 1849, an officer records: "Some very good officers to show a
marked distinction between the petty officers and other part of the crew, have
given instructions that on those occasions on which the seamen generally pull
off their hats as a mark of respect, such as divisions, muster by the open list,
etc., that the petty officers shall then only touch their caps."
In 1890, the hand salute only was decreed by Queen Victoria because of her
displeasure at seeing officers and men stand uncovered when they appeared for
In the Navy and Coast Guard, officers in the open uncover only for divine
services. Men uncover when at "mast" for reports and requests, and in officers'
country unless under arms or wearing a watch belt.
Sword Salute. Generally thought to be
derived from the oriental custom of the junior raising the sword and shading his
eyes from the "magnificence" of the superior. The point of
the sword on the ground at the finish of the sword salute
rendered the one who salutes powerless for the time being.
|Scuttle-butt. Originally a cask of fresh water for drinking purposes used by the crew. Now
refers to any drinking fountain. Also, any ship board rumor or gossip.
"Taking a long slow drink, the sailor announced to anyone who would listen,
'We're headed for Hong Kong. I heard it from the mess cook.'" Scuttle-butt
passes through the ship rapidly, embellished and gaining in creditability as it
|Sea Lawyer. A member of the crew who is forever arguing
about anything and everything aboard ship, with a view to getting out of trouble
and/or out of work. A sailor who is extensively versed in and vociferous in the
assertion of his or her rights.
Adapt to the motion of the ship. "The new man has his sea legs."
|Shake a Leg. Move faster. "Shake a leg Smitty, I can't
hold this forever." Also, Look Alive, or get moving.
|Shakedown. The training and testing of a new crew to
develop efficiency and ensure safety. While a Shakedown Cruise
is the testing of a newly commissioned or overhauled ship to check equipment.
|Ship of the Line.
Naval warfare tactics from the age of sail
concentrated the effectiveness of ships in battle by placing them in a line.
This line of ships became known as the "line of battle." A
ship powerful enough to stand in the line of battle came to be known as a "ship
of the line" of battle or a "line of battle" ship
which shortened to become "battleship". The line is most
effective when moving perpendicular to the axis of movement of the enemy fleet,
known as "crossing the T" or by breaking the enemy line and
moving through it. The development of accurate long range naval guns and naval
aviation brought close quarters battle to an end.
|Ship Over. To reenlist by signing a legal contract to
serve for a specified additional period of time, usually four or six
years. Reenlistment bonuses vary by the number of years and may also be
substantial for critical ratings. After reenlisting the first time one
gains the title "lifer." A sailor or Marine may also
extend their enlistment contract by a number of months.
|Shipshape. Neat, clean, taut, in fine shape. Originally,
"ship shapen." Heard as "shipshape and Bristol fashion" in the days of sail
with tribute to the leading English seaport of the times.
|Show a Leg.
Awaking the crew at reveille, the call "show a leg"
is heard. It originated in the days of sail when women often lived aboard ship.
At reveille, a woman in her hammock would display a leg and thereby was not
required to "turn out and turn to" (get up and go to work).
Skipper. Derived from
the Scandinavian word "schiffe," meaning ships, or the Dutch word "schipper,"
meaning captain. The captain of the ship is not called skipper to his
face. A Marine offiicer in the rank of captain is nicknamed skipper even though
he may not be a commanding officer.
|Skivvies. Slang for underwear. Skivvy Waver
is slang for a signalman wagging his signal flags.
|Skylark. First used to express the fun enjoyed by the
young midshipmen who would scramble to the fighting-tops of sailing ships and
descend to the decks by sliding down the backstays. Now any horse play or
Son of a Gun. In the
early days, sailors were permitted to keep their "wives" on board ship. The
term was used to refer to children born alongside the guns of the broadsides.
The expression questioned the legitimacy of a person.
The old definition of a
man-o'-war was: "Begotten in the galley and born under a gun. Every hair a
rope yarn, every tooth a marline spike; every finger a fish hook and in his
blood right good Stockholm tar."
A British officer commanding a brig off the Spanish coast in 1835 wrote in
his diary. "This day the surgeon informed me that a woman on board had been
laboring in child for twelve hours, and if I could see my way to permit the
firing of a broadside to leeward, nature would be assisted by the shock. I
complied with the request and she was delivered of a fine male child."
Gunners Mate's to the rescue!
|Splash test. Drop unwanted material over the side of a
ship. "Yeaton, splash test these old transformers." Also, "float test."
|Square Away. Once the phrase to
describe a square-rigged ship bracing her yards to run away before the wind.
Now to make tidy, neat, clean and secure is to square away. "Jones, there is
gear adrift in the storeroom. Square away for sea." See also,
Individuals are directed to "square away" when their actions or uniform are
other than military.. A sharp sailor or Marine is referred to as, "A. J.
From the Viking "steer board" or rudder that was placed on the right side of the
|Station. An individual's place of duty; also, position of
a ship in formation; or, location of persons and equipment having a specific
purpose, as gun control station; and an order to assume station, as "Station the
special sea and anchor detail."
|Steel Beach Picnic. A meal served on a ship's flight deck
or open area with a picnic menu of grilled "rollers and sliders" (hot dogs and
|Stem. The extreme forward, bow or prow of a ship.
|Stern. The extreme rear of a ship.
|Stow. To securely fill or load supplies. The chief
barked, "I want everything shipshape properly stowed for sea from stem to stern
Top of page
Taps. The word "taps"
is derived from the Dutch word taptoe, or time to close up all the taps
and taverns in the garrisoned towns. In a volume entitled, The Military
Guide to Young Officers, by Thomas Simes, reprinted in Philadelphia, in 1776
there are instruction for the officer of the guard. "The tat-too is
generally best at nine o'clock at night in the summer and eight in the winter.
It is performed by the Drum Major, and all the drummers and fifers of that
regiment which gave a captain of the main guard that day. The tat-too is the
signal given for the soldiers to retire to their barracks or quarters, to put
out their fire and candle and go to bed. The public houses are at the same
time, to shut their doors, and sell no more liquor that night."
A British military dictionary published in 1876 states,
"The term Post is given to the bulging which precedes the tattoo. This is
the first part, the last part that follows it is the last Post." The last
post is sounded on the trumpet or bugle at British military funerals.
When the American military adopted the custom of sounding taps at funerals
seems to be unknown. Accounts of military funerals on board the Constitution
in 1846 record the "Dead March from Saul" as the only music at a burial
at sea. Muffled drums are mentioned in addition to the "Dead March" at
the burial of Commodore Claxton at Valparaiso in 1841.
A letter to the New York Times suggested that the world famous bugle
call was composed by General Daniel Butterfield, commander of a brigade in the
Army of the Potomac, and that it was first sounded by the writer's father,
Oliver W. Norton, brigade bugler, in July 1862, at Harrison's Landing on the
lower James River in Virginia. The General reportedly wrote the notes on the
back of an old envelope and summoned Bugler Norton and directed him to sound the
notes. After a few changes, the call was finally arranged to please General
Butterfield and ordered substituted that night for regulation "taps" or
extinguish lights, which up to that time have been used by the US Army.
Tending the Side.
Piping as a ceremony with side boys is a custom evolving from the days when
visitors were hoisted aboard by use of the boatswain's chair. The pipe was used
for the commands "hoist away" and "avast heaving." Members of the crew of the
host ship did the hoisting. It is from the aid they rendered in tending the
side that the custom originated of having a certain number of men, ("side
boys,") present. In time it became a courtesy for high ranking officers and
diplomatic officials to honored by sideboys and piping ceremony.
|Thirteen buttons. Enlisted men's dress blue trousers
with a flap in front secured by thirteen buttons. The number of buttons
does not represent the original American colonies. Prior to 1894 the
trousers used seven buttons and before the 1800's fifteen buttons. Most sailors
give thanks to the inventor of the zipper fly.
|Tin can. Any U.S. Navy destroyer.
Tin can sailor. One serving aboard a destroyer.
Slang name for one working in the electronics
Top of page
Absentee. Used to describe a person absent from
their command or place of duty without authority. Often spoken as an
abbreviation. "Seaman Jones is UA this morning." Unauthorized absentee
replaces the older terms, straggler, absentee, and absent without leave (AWOL).
Also in slang terms, Over the Hill, French Leave and others. See Jump
Top of page
|"Very Good," "Very Well." The
response given by a senior to the report of a junior. The helmsman reports,
"Rudder is amidship sir." The Officer of the Deck responds, "Very well."
Top of page
|Wake. The trail of agitated water left behind a ship in
Ship's movement through the water. "The ship has way on." "Sir, we are making
way." "The only time the chief smiles is when we're underway."
|Weigh Anchor. Weigh
here is from the Old English meaning to move or to carry. To "weigh anchor" is
to hoist the anchor off the bottom.
|Windward. Toward the wind, to the direction from which the
Top of page
|Yarn & Sea
Story. Sailors "spin yarns" or tell "sea stories"
which may contain marginal truth. They differ from landlubber fairy tales in
that whereas a fairy tale begins, "Once upon a time," the sea story begins with
an assertion of truthfulness, "This is no s..."
Top of page
Thirty. Very early in the morning or late at
night. "Why are we getting under way at zero dark thirty." Also known as "Oh
Zulu Time. Twenty-four hour clock. Also known as
Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and now Coordinated Universal Time (UTC)