One of the things that makes our beloved series so rich and fascinating is Patrick O’Brian’s flawless use of many colorful nautical expressions. They help bring the world of Jack and Stephen to life, and give dimension to even the most minor characters. This is a short list of some common naval expressions, most of which Jack at least must surely be familiar with. A few are of a slightly later origin but are still interesting.
For ease of arrangement the expressions given in this chapter are listed alphabetically. In compiling of such a section, it is difficult to decide what to include and what to omit; these are considered to be the most common of naval expressions that require explanation.
Andrew Miller or The Andrew: Either means the Royal Navy. The antecedent was a press-gang officer who was so efficient, ruthless and zealous in recruiting seamen that it was alleged he owned the navy.
Banyan party: Until about 1880 Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays were meatless days. This practice probably was carried out as a food conservation measure. In times when food at sea became plentiful and wholesome banyan days were occasions of feasting. The term still relates to feasting in the sense of a picnic or beach party.
Bitter end: The inboard end of a ship’s hempen anchor cable was less often used than the outboard end, and so was known as the better end, later pronounced bitter end, and meaning the very end or the extreme end.
Bloody: Is said to be a contraction of ‘By Our Lady’ (the Virgin Mary) but more than likely is just a seaman’s colourful epithet having the same force and origin as flaming.
Bum-boat: the small craft used by local tradesmen in ports throughout the world. Probably the original term was boom-boat, i.e. permitted by the executive officer to secure to the ship’s lower boom in order to conduct business. It has never been considered advisable to allow civilian tradesmen onboard.
Capstan drill: A former custom was for older hands to take the boys and young ordinary seamen to this form of drill, to deepen their high-pitched voices by jumping off the barrel of a capstan while keeping their legs straight.
Clear one’s yardarm: In communications parlance this means no signals, i.e. flag hoists remain unexecuted. In normal usage it suggests that more than reasonable steps have been taken to avoid embarrassing mistakes or omissions.
Cock of the walk: Used in naval and civilian circ1es alike, though in the navy with the special connotation of winner, as in a regatta (common oar powered boat races while in port), sports meet, or combination of these events. The expression cock of the barracks is more commonly used in shore establishments. The winning ship hoists at her yardarm a large, brightly painted galvanised iron silhouette of a “male domestic fowl” (Oxford Dictionary). It is a common practice, if the winning ship has won every single event as well, to hoist a broom at her masthead commemorating a clean sweep of the seas. By the bye, the winner in the regattas took all the money bet by each of the participating ships.
Conning: Derived from cunning, in reference to the skill of the master in manoeuvring his ship, especially in action. Thus we say, “You have the con,” when we exchange Officers of the Watch.
Crowsnest: The foremast lookout position now replaces a cage in which were carried ravens as an early type of direction finder. When out of sight of land a bird would be released, and as it headed for the nearest land the ship would follow the direction of its flight.
Crushers: Regulating petty officers, the descendants of the ship’ corporals and if heard, not of our period.
Devil to pay: Trouble’s ahead. The devil in wooden ships is the longest seam in the hull and is the most difficult to caulk or pay. The same term appears in the old expression “Between the devil and the deep blue sea”, which is the hazardous position assumed by a man who is paying the devil seam.
Dog watch: There are various ideas about this common term: a corruption of docked or dodge perhaps. The name probably comes for DODGE WATCH: by making in this way a total of seven watches to the day, men would be enabled not to keep the same watch each day. A dog watch being two hours long while all other watches are of four hours’ duration gives rise to the common naval expression of derision to a junior: “You’ve only been in the Navy a dog watch”. In the Royal Navy, the two Dog Watches are the “First” and the “Last” not the “First” and the “Second”. (Captain’s note: Lies! We all know it’s called a dog watch because it’s cur-tailed!)
Dutch courage: The uninhibited courage shown by a man who has had one too many. This refers to the old Dutch custom of issuing tots of schnapps before battle. The Dutch had every right to base similar sardonic remarks on the British rum issue.
Dutchman’s pendant and Irish pendant. These two are included only to differentiate, as many seamen use them synonymously. While the former refers to a gash rope’s end not secured in a seamanlike manner — a dig at the Dutch — the latter refers to the frays and tatters of bunting that develop in the fly of an ensign or flag that is exposed to strong winds for any length of time. The reference is to untidiness born of a carefree nature in the Irish.
Jacob’s ladder: The name for a boat ladder, taken of course from Jacob’s dream in the Old Testament of a ladder which rose from earth to heaven; to the uninitiated the length of both would appear to be similar.
Jaunty (master-at-arms): A corruption of the French gendarme policeman through the old R.N. term John Damme, to its present form.
Joint: In reference to a meat dish, refers to the old practice of serving whole portions of meat, bone and all, which the diner held in both hands.
Make and mend: Before the times when uniforms were issued the men made their own. When hands could be spared from work about the ship the pipe was make “hands to make and mend clothes”. Later it was the practice for two or three men, more expert tailors than their fellows, to obtain permission to form in partnership what was called a jewing firm, in the figurative sense of unscrupulous dealers. The expression make and mend today bears little relation to its original use. Now it means a half-holiday granted in harbour; at sea a pipe down is used instead. Makers is the usual slang abbreviation.
Mess: A word that causes considerable doubt in many ships. Some cynics think it refers to the normal state of the messdecks. Actually it is the anglicised form of the Spanish word for table, mesa. Mass has the same derivation. Until the last century a seamen’s mess was nothing more than a table; even benches were not provided until the 19th century.
King’s hard bargain: Originally a British army term, found in use during our period, now rarely heard in the R.N. It is customary in law to give consideration to make a contract legal and binding. So it was that the old-type recruiting officer used to give a new recruit a shilling on enrolment. To refer later to the same man as a King’s hard bargain, because of laziness or incompetence, meant in effect that the sovereign had lost on the transaction.
Room to swing a cat: Referring to the foul berth of a ship at anchor it means that there is no room to swing even a cat-o’-nine-tails. (The feline mammal has never been a favoured pet at sea, except in the merchant service; whenever a cat is mentioned in this or any book about the navy almost invariably the reference is to the instrument of punishment.)
She and He (in reference to a ship): The weight of evidence seems to be in favour of calling a ship she though there are examples of the masculine being used: merchantman, men-o’-war. In the navy officers in particular are apt to call a naval vessel he because of the practice of referring to the commanding officer by the name of his ship. An example of this is the answer to a boat hail given by the coxswain of a boat carrying the captain of a ship, the name of his ship being shouted in reply.
Ship’s people: Ship’s company. Evidence of this term used in calling the ship’s company to attention at divisions. A more usual custom is to call them by the name of the ship, e.g. Richmond’s. On the same subject, it is quite usual for a captain to refer to “my people“, “my ship“, “my boats“, etc. These phrases no doubt brought about the jocular term for the captain, The Owner. Until recent times captains assumed that every article brought on board was their personal property.
Snotty: A midshipman. At the time when midshipmen joined their first ships as boys of twelve or thirteen, and often too poor to afford handkerchiefs, it is said that they would dry their tears of homesickness and wipe their noses on their sleeves, and to curtail this practice three large brass buttons were sewn on the cuff of each sleeve. It was after l857 that this became the rank insignia for chief petty officers. It is because of the youthful age at which midshipmen joined the navy that the officer appointed in charge of them has always been known as the Snotties’ Nurse.
Son of a gun: A uncomplimentary expression dating from the times when women were allowed onboard and between decks.
South wind: The correct response to “how’s your glass?” might be “there’s a south wind in it” meaning it is empty. A nor’wester is half spirit and half water, while a north wind is neat spirit (a bitter wind).
Spitkid. A kid is a small tub, usually of wood, or any small container. The naval expression “as handy as a cow in a Spitkid” is adequately descriptive of clumsiness.
Sun is over the foreyardarm: A phrase meaning it is late in the forenoon. At a time when naval officers indulged in heavy drinking, the Admiralty directed that no officer was to partake of liquor until the sun was over the foreyardarm.
Swallow the anchor: A very old phrase meaning to retire from sea service. The idea seems to be that once swallowed it is of no further use.
Two hands for the King: The normal practice of a man aloft in a ship’s rigging is to hold on with one hand and work with the other : “a hand for the navy and one for myself”. A man completely dedicated to naval service is alleged to work with both hands at all times.
Very good: Is said by a senior, normally an officer, when a report is made by a junior. “Very good sir” in lieu of “Aye aye sir” is not used in the navy although proper usage in the army.
Winger: An uncomplimentary term in its original sense, as a boy or young seaman befriended by an older man.
Courtesy of Craig V. Fisher (with LTCMD A.D. Taylor, C.D., R.C.N.) and HMS Richmond.