Terms, Traditions and Customs
of the Naval Services

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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.
Ahoy.  A 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 "Blackshoes."
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.
Aweigh. 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." 
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Barge.  An admiral's boat. 
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 leave. 
Beam.  The width of a ship at the widest point from side to side.
Belay [1]Stop an action. "Belay the whistling! You're no boatswain." [2] Make fast. "Belay the line here." The use of a belaying pin in days of sail most likely is responsible for coining the term. [3] 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." 
  Fail an examination.  "Jones bilged her dc quals (damage control qualifications)."  Also, refers to denting the side of a ship.
Binnacle List. 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 lost.
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 person. 
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.
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 shackle.   
Boxing the Compass.  Calling the names of the 32 points of the compass in order.
Bug juice.  An artificially flavored drink similar to Kool-Aide.  Insect repellant.
Bulkhead.  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. 
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Cannon Cocker.  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 flogging.
Chaplain.  Tradition 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." 
Charlie Noble.  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 in 1973.
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.
Colors.   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 officer. 
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 the deep."
    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).
Cumshaw. 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. 
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Davy Jones' 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.    
Dreadnaught.  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.
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Eight O'clock 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 reports!
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 black gang.    
Ensign.  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 addition, "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.
Ex  Short for exercise.  FLEETEX for Fleet Exercise.  Often used in combination with words to describe fouled up evolutions;  MOBEX, GROPEX, BOREX. 
Shortened title for Executive Officer, second in command on a naval unit.  Also, XO.
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Fathom. 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.
Field Day.  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 squared away."
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 three times. 
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."
Flotilla.  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. 
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Gig.  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 "gig."    
Galley. The ship's kitchen or food preparation area.  See Mess and Mess deck.
Gangway.  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."
Geedunk.  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.
Gunboat.  Light patrol vessel unarmored for use in shallow coastal waters.
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. 
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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. 
    Hollywood shower.
  A long shower deemed to waste water.
    Hollywood Marine.  A Marine who attended recruit training in San Diego vice Paris Island.
Holystone.  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 religious terms.
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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." 
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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.
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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 punishment.   
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.
Knee-knocker.  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.  
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Landlubber.  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 the wind.
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.
      Liberty hound. 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, your 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 Hong Kong."
      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 stern. 
     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 sailor's wife."
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Mail Buoy 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.
Make Way. 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.
Captain's Mast.  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." 
Mate. 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.
     Messcook. 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.
Mustang. 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."
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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.  
Nav.  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.
Navigator. Officer responsible to the captain for planning the ship's course and the safe navigation of the ship. Also know as the "Naviguesser."
Navy Shower.   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.
Nonrate.  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.
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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.
Old Man.  Slang term for the Commanding Officer.  The term for an Admiral is "the old gentleman."
Oil King.  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.
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Port.  Larboard 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.
Peacoat.  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 "Reefer."
Pipe. Boatswain's pipe. The pipe calls signaling shipboard administrative evolutions.  Hear calls here.
     Pipe aboard. The pipe call to signify the arrival of the commanding officer or a senior officer.
     Pipe down. Originally, the call to send the men below deck.  Now commonly used to keep quiet.
     Piping hot.  Originally from the the bosun's chow call.
Plank Owner.  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.
Letter USN 1913 USN 1927 USN 1940 USN 1945 NATO c1955
A Able Affirmative Affirmative Able Alpha
B Boy Baker Baker Baker Bravo
C Cast Cast Cast Charlie Charlie
D Dog Dog Dog Dog Delta
E Easy Easy Easy Easy Echo
F Fox Fox Fox Fox Foxtrot
G George George George George Golf
H Have Hype Hypo How Hotel
I Item Interrogatory Interrogatory Item India
J Jig Jig Jig Jig Juliet
K King King King King Kilo
L Love Love Love Love Lima
M Mike Mike Mike Mike Mike
N Nan Negative Negative Nan November
O Oboe Option Option Oboe Oscar
P Pup Preparatory Preparatory Peter Papa
Q Quack Quack Queen Queen Quebec
R Rush Roger Roger Roger Romeo
S Sail Sail Sail Sugar Sierra
T Tare Tare Tare Tare Tango
Unit Unit Unit Unit Unit Uniform
V Vice Vice Victor Victor Victor
W Watch William William William Whiskey
X Xray Xray Xray Xray Xray
Y Yoke Yoke Yoke Yoke Yankee
Z Zed Zed Zed Zed Zulu
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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 area.
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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." 
     Roger Wilco.   "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.
Rudder. 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.
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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.
     Salute the 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 royal commendation.
    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 spreads.
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.  
Sea Legs.  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 goofing off.
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, Field Day.
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. Squared-Away."
Starboard.  From the Viking "steer board" or rudder that was placed on the right side of the ship.
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 hamburgers). 
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 yesterday."
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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.
Twidget.  Slang name for one working in the electronics technician rating.
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Unauthorized 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 Ship
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"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."
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Wake. The trail of agitated water left behind a ship in motion.
Way.  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 wind blows.


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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..."
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Zero Dark Thirty.  Very early in the morning or late at night. "Why are we getting under way at zero dark thirty."  Also known as "Oh Dark Thirty."

Zulu Time.  Twenty-four hour clock.  Also known as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and now Coordinated Universal Time (UTC)

Leland P. Lovette, Naval Customs Traditions and Usage, Annapolis MD, Naval Institute Press, 1934 [Current Edition]
H.C. Hogan, The Coast Guardsman's Manual, Annapolis MD, Naval Institute Press, 1952 [Current Edition]
Ridley McLean, The Bluejacket's Manual, Annapolis MD, Naval Institute Press, 1902 [Current Edition]
C. C. Soule, Naval Terms and Definitions, 2nd Ed., New York NY, D. Van Nostrand Company, 1922
John V. Noel, Jr. and Ted J. Bush, Naval Terms Dictionary, 2nd Ed., Annapolis MD, Naval Institute, 1966 [Current Edition]