Nautical Terms and Phrases

Before the mast - Literally, the position of the crew whose living quarters on board a ship were in the forecastle (the section of a ship forward of the foremast). The term is also used more generally to describe seamen as compared with officers, in phrases such as “he sailed before the mast.”
Binnacle List - A ship’s sick-list. A binnacle was the stand on which the ship’s compass was mounted in the eighteenth century and probably before, a list was given to the officer or mate of the watch, containing the names of men unable to report for duty. The list was kept at the binnacle.
Boot Camp - During the Spanish-American War, sailors wore leggings called boots, which came to mean a Navy (or Marine) recruit. These recruits trained in “boot” camps.
Brightwork - Brightwork originally referred to polished metal objects, and bright woodwork to wood which was kept scraped and scrubbed, especially topside. Bright it should be and work it is.
Charlie Noble - Charlie Noble is an “it,” not a “he.” A British merchant service captain, Charles Noble, is said to be responsible for the origin, about 1850, of this nickname for the galley smokestack It seems that Captain Noble, discovering that the stack of his ship’s galley was made of copper, ordered that it be kept bright. The ship’s crew then started referring to the stack as the “Charley Noble.”
Clean Bill of Health - This widely used term has its origins in the document issued to a ship showing that the port it sailed from suffered from no epidemic or infection at the time of departure.
Coxswain - A coxswain or cockswain was at first the swain (boy servant) in charge of a small cock or cockboat that was kept aboard for the ship’s captain and which was used to row him to and from the ship.
Dogwatch - A dogwatch at sea is the period between 4 and 6 p.m., the first dogwatch, or the period between 6 and 8 p.m., the second dogwatch. The watches aboard ships are:
Noon to 4:00 p.m. - Afternoon dogwatch
4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. - First dogwatch
6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. - Second dogwatch
8:00 p.m. to midnight - 1st night watch
Midnight to 4:00 a.m. - Middle watch, or mid watch
4:00 8:00 a.m. - Morning watch
8:00 a.m. to noon - Forenoon watch

The dogwatches are only two hours each so the same sailors are not always on duty at the same time each afternoon. Some experts say dogwatch is a corruption of dodge watch and other associate dogwatch with the fitful sleep of sailors called dog sleep, because it is a stressful watch. No one really knows the origin of the term, which was in use at least back to the 1700’s.
Down the hatch - This is a drinking expression that seems to have its origins in sea freight, where cargoes are lowered into the hatch. Down the hatch as an expression appears to have been used by seamen. It has only been traced back to the turn of the century.
Duffle - A name given to a sailor’s personal effects. Also spelled duffel. The word duffel and or duffel refers to a seamen’s personal clothing as well as the seabag in which he carried his possessions, and or stored them in. The term comes from the Flemish town of Duffel near Antwerp, and denotes a rough woolen cloth that is made there.
Dungarees - The modern sailor’s work clothes. The term is not modern, however, but dates to the 18th century and comes from the Hindi work meaning dungri, for a type of Indian cotton cloth.
Fathom - Although a fathom is now a nautical unit of length equal to six feet. It was once defined by an act of Parliament as “the length of a man’s arms around the object of his affections.” The word derives from the Old English word Faethm, which means “embracing arms.”
Flying Dutchman - One superstition has it that any mariner who sees the ghost ship called the Flying Dutchman will die within one day. The tale of the Flying Dutchman trying to round the Cape of Good Hope against strong winds and never succeeding, then trying to make Cape Horn and failing there too, has been the most famous of maritime ghost stories for more 300 years. The cursed spectral ship sailing back and forth on its endless voyage, its ancient white-hair crew crying for help while hauling her sail, inspired Samuel Taylor Coleride to write his classic “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” to name but one famous literary work. The real Flying Dutchman is supposed to have set sail in 1660.
Fouled anchor - The fouled (rope-or chain-entwined) anchor so prevalent in our Navy’s designs and insignia is a symbol at least 500 years old. It has its origins in the British traditions adopted by our naval service.
The fouled anchor was adopted as the official seal of Lord High Admiral Charles Lord Howard of Effingham during the late 1500’s. A variation of the seal has been used by the Lord High Admiral of Scotland about a century earlier.
The anchor (both with and without the entwined rope) is a traditional heraldic device used in ancient British Coats of Arms. As a heraldic device, it is a stylized representation used merely for its decorative effect.
Holystone - Soft sandstone, often used to scrub the decks of ships. Sailors had to kneel as if in prayer when scrubbing the decks. Holystone was often called so because it is full of holes.
Keel hauling - A naval punishment on board ships said to have originated with the Dutch but adopted by other navies during the 15th and 16th centuries. A rope was rigged from yardarm to yardarm, passing under the bottom of the ship, and the unfortunate delinquent secured to it, sometimes with lead or iron weights attached to his legs.
He was hoisted up to one yardarm and then dropped suddenly into the sea, hauled underneath the ship, and hoisted up to the opposite yardarm. The punishment was repeated after he had, had time to recover his breath. While he was under water, a “great gun” was fired, “which is done as well to astonish him so much more with the thunder of the shot, as to give warning until all others of the fleet to look out and be wary of his harms” (from Nathaniel Boteler, A Dialogicall Discourse,1634). The U.S. Navy never practiced keel hauling.
Mayday - The distress call for voice radio, for vessels and people in serious trouble at sea. The term was made official by an international telecommunications conference in 1948, and is an anglicizing of the French word, and or phrase - “m’aidez,” (help me)
Piping - Boatswains have been in charge of the deck force since the days of sail. Setting sails, heaving lines, and hosting anchors required coordinated team effort and boatswains used whistle signals to order the coordinated actions. When visitors were hoisted aboard or over the side, the pipe was used to order “Hoist Away” or “Avast heaving.” In time, piping became a naval honor on shore as well as at sea.
Port and starboard - Port and starboard are shipboard terms for left and right, respectively. Confusing those two could cause a ship wreck. In Old England, the starboard was the steering paddle or rudder, and ships were always steered from the right side of the back of the vessel. Larboard referred to the left side, the side on which the ship was loaded.
So how did larboard become port? Shouted over the noise of the wind and the waves, larboard and starboard sounded too much alike. The word port means the opening in the “left” side of the ship from which cargo was unloaded. Sailor eventually started using the term to refer to the side of the ship. Use of the term “port” was officially adopted by the U.S. Navy by General Order, 18 February 1846.
Radar - An acronym standing for “radio detecting and ranging.”
Scuba - An acronym standing for “Self-contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.”
Scuttlebutt - The cask of drinking water on ships was called a scuttlebutt and since sailors exchanged gossip when they gathered at the scuttlebutt for a drink of water, scuttlebutt became U.S. Navy slang for gossip or rumors. A butt was a wooden cask which held water or other liquids, to scuttle is to drill a hole, as for tapping a cask.
Shows his true colors - Early warships often carried flags from many nations on board in order to elude or deceive the enemy. The rules of civilized warfare called for all ships to hoist their true national ensigns before firing a shot. Someone who finally “shows his true colors” is acting like a man-of-war which hailed another ship flying one flag, but then hoisted their own when they got within firing range.
Side Boys - Tending the side with side boys, as we know it in modern practice, originated a long time ago. It was customary in the days of sailing to hold conferences on the flagships both when at sea and in open roadstead; also, officers were invited to dinner on other ships while at sea, weather permitting.
Sometimes the sea was such, that visitors were hoisted aboard in boatswain’s chairs. Member of the crew did the hoisting, and it is from the aid they rendered in tending the side that the custom originated of having a certain number of men in attendance. Some have reported the higher the rank, the heavier the individual therefore, more side boys were utilized.
Smoking lamp - The exact date and origin of the smoking lamp has been lost. However, it probably came into use during the 16th century when seamen began smoking on board vessels. The smoking lamp was a safety measure. It was devised mainly to keep the fire hazard away from high combustible woodwork and gunpowder. Usually, the lamp was located in the forecastle, or the area directly surrounding the galley, indicating that smoking was permitted in this area.
Even after the invention of matches in the 1830’s, the lamp was an item of convenience to the smoker. When particularly hazardous operations or work required that smoking be curtailed, the unlighted lamp relayed the message. “The smoking lamp is lighted” or “the smoking lamp is out” were the expressions indicating that smoking was permitted or forbidden. The smoking lamp has survived only as a figure of speech. When the officer of the deck says “the smoking lamp is out” before drills, refueling, or taking ammunition, that is the Navy’s way of saying “cease smoking.”
Sonar - Sound Navigation Ranging. An acronym for underwater echo-ranging equipment, originally for detecting submarines by small warships.
Suit - Nautical term, dating from at least the early 1600’s, meaning the outfit of sails used by a ship. The term was revived after World War II, when a Navy ship’s complement of electronics could be referred to as its electronics suit, and its total armament might be called its weapons suit. The word is sometimes incorrectly spelled “suite.”
Tar, Jack, Tar - Tar, slang term for a sailor, has been in use since at least 1676. The term “Jack tar” was used by the 1780’s. Early sailors were overalls and broad-brimmed hats made of tar-impregnated fabric called tarpaulin cloth. The hats, and the sailors who wore them, were called tarpaulins, which may have been shortened to tars.
Toe the line - The space between each par of deck planks was filled with a packing material called “oakum” and then sealed with a mixture of pitch and tar. The result, from afar, was a series of parallel lines in a half-foot or so apart, running the length of the deck.. Once a week, as a rule, usually on Sunday, a warships crew was ordered to fall in at quarters - - that is, each group of men into which the crew was divided would line up in formation in a given area of the deck. To insure a neat alignment of each row, the sailors were directed to stand with their toes just touching a particular seam.
Another use for these seams was punitive. The youngsters in a ship, be they ship’s boys or student officers, might be required to stand with the toes just touching a designated seam for a length of time as punishment for some minor infraction of discipline, such as talking or fidgeting at the wrong time. A tough captain might require the miscreant to stand there, not conduct himself in the required manner rather than suffer the punishment. From these two uses of deck seams comes out customary word to obstreperous youngsters to “toe the line.”
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Nautical Terms and Phrases
Washington DC 20374-5060

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