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NAVAL TERMS AND EXPRESSIONS

Throughout our lives, each of us are influenced to a certain extent by traditions, ceremonies and customs. This is particularly true in such professions as the military.

Because American Sailors of the past 200 years had numerous contacts with foreign people, it was only natural that the language associated with nautical subjects would have adopted unique words and expressions. One of the fascinating aspects of Sailor speak is the large number of nautical idioms that have not only become common throughout the Navy, but have also been borrowed by landsmen and are now understood by most everyone.

As you read of some of these terms and their origins, you will begin to understand how they were used and why they were passed down through generations, both ashore and at sea.

Admiral

An admiral is a senior ranking officer in the U.S. Navy, but his title comes from the name given the senior ranking officer in the Moorish army of many years ago. A Moorish chief was an "emir," and the chief of all chiefs was "emiral."

Bamboozle

In today's Navy, when you intentionally deceive someone, usually as a joke, you are said to have bamboozled them. The word also was used in the days of sail, but the intent wasn't hilarity. Bamboozle meant to deceive a passing vessel as to your ship's origin or nationality by flying an ensign other than your own - a common practice by pirates.

Binnacle List

Many novice Sailors, confusing words "binnacle" and "barnacle" have wondered what their illness had to do with crusty growths found on the hull of a ship. Their confusion is understandable. Binnacle is defined as the stand or housing for the ship's compass located on the bridge. The term binnacle list, in lieu of sick list, originated years ago when ship's corpsmen used to place list of the sick on the binnacle each morning to inform the captain about the crew's health.

Bitter End

As any able-bodied seaman can tell you, a turn of a line around a bitt, those wooden or iron posts sticking through a ship's deck, is called a bitter end. The landlubbing phrase "stick it to the bitter end" and "faithful to the bitter end" are derivations of the nautical term and refer to anyone who insists in adhering to a course of action without regard to consequences.

Carry On

In the days of sail, the officer of the deck kept a weather eye constantly on the slightest change in the wind so sail could be reefed or added as necessary to ensure the fastest headway. Whenever a good breeze came along, the order to "carry on" would be given. It meant to hoist every bit of canvas the yards could carry. Pity the poor Sailor whose weather eye failed him and the ship was caught partially reefed when a good breeze arrived. Through the centuries the term's connotation has changed somewhat. Today, the Bluejackets Manual defines "carry on" as an order to resume work; work presumably not so grueling as two centuries ago.

Dog Watch

Dog Watch is the name given to the 1600-1800 and 1800-2000 watches aboard ship. The 1600-2000, four-hour watch was originally split to prevent men from always having to stand the same watches daily. As a result, Sailors dodge the same daily routine, hence they are dodging the watch or standing the dodge watch.

In its corrupted form, dodge became dog, and the procedure is referred to as "dogging the watch," or standing the dog watch.

Dungarees

Websters Dictionary defines dungaree as a course kind of fabric worn by the proper class of people and also used for tents and sails. We find it hard to picture our favorite part of dungarees flying from the mast of a sailing ship, but in the old days Sailors often made both their working clothes and hammocks out of discarded sail cloth. The cloth used then wasn't as well woven nor was it dyed blue. However, it served the purpose.

Dungarees worn by Sailors of the Continental Navy were cut directly from old sails and remained tan in color, just as they had been when filled with wind. After battles, it was the practice in both the American and British navies for captains to report more sail lost in battle than actually was the case so the crew would have cloth to mend their hammocks and make new clothes.

Ensign

The name given the Navy's junior-most officers dates back to medieval times. Lords honored their squires by allowing them to carry the ensign (banner) into battle. Later, these squires became known by the name of the banner itself. In the U.S. Army, the lowest ranking officer was originally called "ensign" because he, like the squire of old, would one day lead the troops into battle and was trained to that end. It is still the lowest commissioned rank in the British Army today. When the U.S. navy was established, the Americans carried on the tradition and adopted the rank of ensign as the title for its junior commissioned officer.

Fathom

Fathom was originally a land measuring term derived from the Anglo Saxon word "faetm" meaning literally the embracing arms or to embrace. In those days, most measurements were based on average sixes of parts of the body such as the hand or foot, or were derived from average lengths between two points on the body.

A fathom is the average distance from fingertip to fingertip of the outstretched arms of a man, about six feet. Even today, in our nuclear Navy, Sailors can be seen "guess-timating" the length of line by using the Anglo-Saxon fingertip method.

Geedunk

To most Sailors, the word geedunk means ice cream, candy, potato chips and other assorted snacks, or even the place where they can be purchased.

"Geedunk" is the sound made by a vending machine when it disposes a soft drink in the cup.

Gundecking

In the modern Navy, falsifying documents reports, records and the like is often referred to as gundecking. The origin of the term is somewhat obscure, but at the risk of gundecking, here are two plausible explanations for its modern usage.

The deck below the upper deck on British sailing ships-of-war was called the gundeck, although it carried no guns. This false deck may have been constructed to deceive enemies as to the amount of armament carried. Thus the gundeck was a falsification.

A more plausible explanation may stem from shortcuts taken by early midshipmen when doing their navigational lessons. Each man was supposed to take sun lines at noon and star sights at night, and then go below to the gundeck, work out their calculations and show them to the navigator.

Some of these young men, however, had a special formula for getting the correct answers. They would note the noon or last position on the quarterdeck traverse board and determine the approximate current position by dead reckoning plotting. Armed with the information, they proceeded to the gundeck to "gundeck" their navigation homework by simply working backwards from the dead reckoning station.

Log Book

Today, any bound record kept on a daily basis aboard ship is called a "log." Originally, records were kept on the sailing ships by inscribing information into shingles cut from logs and hinged so they opened like books.When paper became more readily available, log books were manufactured from paper and bound. Shingles were relegated to naval museums, but the slang word stuck.

Knot

The term knot or nautical mile, is used world-wide to denote one's speed through the water. Today, we measure knots with electronic devices, but 200 years ago, such devices were unknown. Ingenious mariners devised a speed-measuring device both easy to use and reliable, the "log line."

From this method, we get the term "knot." The log line was a length of twine marked at 47.33 foot intervals by colored knots. At one end a log chip was fastened; it was shaped like the sector of a circle and weighted at the rounded end with lead. When thrown over the stern, it would float pointing upward and would remain relatively stationary. The log line was allowed to run free over the side for 28 seconds and then hauled on board.

Knots which had passed over the side were counted. In this way, the ship's speed was measured.

Master at Arms

The Master at Arms (MA) rating is by no means a modern innovation. Naval records show that these sheriffs of the sea were keeping order as early as the reign of Charles I of England. At that time, they were charged with keeping the swords, pistols, carbines and muskets in good working order, as well as ensuring that the bandoliers were filled with fresh powder before combat.

Besides being chiefs of police at sea, the sea corporals, as they were called in the British navy had to be qualified in close order fighting under arms and able to train seamen in hand-to-hand combat.

In the days of the sail, the MAAs were truly "masters at arms," serving another naval tradition.

Jirka Wagner

 

 


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