I have family connections to the British Royal Navy and spent several years volunteering for a youth organisation based on a naval ethos. It didn’t take me long to discover that British sailors have a language all of their own, based on centuries of tradition.
Royal Navy sailors were known as Jack Tars.
They often had long hair which they kept tied back in a pigtail. They smothered the pigtail in tar - a substance which had multiple uses on a ship so was readily available - to form a stiff queue and to stop their hair getting in their eyes during high winds and battles. They also sometimes covered their clothes with tar to help waterproof them and make them last longer.
The Union Flag, when flown by a Royal Naval vessel at sea, is called the Union Jack and is flown from a pole called the jackstaff on the front of the ship.
So, the British sailor became known as a Jolly Jack Tar or Jack for short
The Naval slang that developed over the centuries is known as Jack Speak.
Fascinated by the idea of Jack Speak, I did some digging and discovered that many colourful phrases used in everyday life on land had naval origins.
1. Three square meals a day/ square meals
If you’re on three square meals a day, you’re probably eating pretty well these days.
The Navy served its men set rations three times a day. In good times, the rations would have included fresh fruit, vegetables and meat. During a long sea voyage, fresh food had to be used up before it spoiled, so the men were reduced to eating salt pork and hard biscuit sometimes infested with weevils — but, hey, extra protein, right? Unless you choose the lesser of two weevils.
Sailors were served their meals on square wooden plates or trays, hence the saying three square meals a day.
2. On the fiddle
These square plates had a lip around them called the fiddle to stop your food from sliding off during rough weather.
If a sailor slopped too much food from the communal pot onto his plate and it leaked over this lip, he was said to ‘be on the fiddle’ which was a flogging offence.
Today, we use it to mean anyone taking a share of something they aren’t entitled to.
3. Let the cat out of the bag
Floggings were a common punishment in the Navy. Anything from overindulging on the rum ration to whispering mutiny could earn you a number of lashings from the cat o’ nine tails.
The number of lashes was scaled up according to the severity of the offence and a high number of lashings was as good as a death sentence.
The bosun (boatswain) or his mate were ordered to make a cat from nine plaits of rope that were knotted through their length and bound together with a wooden or rope handle.
The cat was kept in a red cloth or a bag. When the bosun drew the whip out, he was ‘letting the cat out of the bag’.
Have you ever spoiled someone’s secret and let the cat out of the bag?
4. No room to swing a cat
Thankfully, I couldn’t find an image of someone swinging an actual cat by the tail.
Long voyages at sea were boring and the work repetitive. Shore leave might not happen for weeks on end and some of the men aboard would have been pressganged rather than choosing to join up. The Navy maintained discipline amongst the crew by inflicting harsh punishments for even the smallest of crimes.
Most of the crew were expected to gather on the deck to watch the punishment to deter any notions of bad behaviour. If the ship’s deck got crowded the bosun would have ‘no room to swing a cat’.
Nowadays, you might use the phrase to describe a tiny room with little space to move.
5. Three Sheets to the Wind
Sheets are the name given to the ropes that control the corners of sails. If these catch in the wind, the sail could flap loose and the ship lose momentum, potentially taking it out of the crew’s control.
The phrase was then used by sailors to describe someone who was drunk, rather worse for wear and probably not in full charge of their faculties which is what we mean by it today.
6. A long shot
Ever taken a bit of a gamble on something?
A cannonball shot from extreme distance with little chance of hitting the target but considered worth a try under prevailing circumstances was described as taking a long shot.
7. Fire a warning shot/ shot across the bows
If a ship wished to avoid engagement, it would fire a warning shot across the enemies bow –the front part of the ship — to warn them to stand off or risk a fight.
When someone starts to irritate the hell out of you, you might give them a bit of snark back as a warning shot…
8. True Colours
The saying goes that sometimes you need to get close to someone before they reveal their true colours.
A ship’s flag is known as its colours. Naval etiquette allowed a ship to fly neutral or enemy colours — false colours — so they could get closer to their target. However, as soon as the battle was joined and shots fired, they would have to hoist their national flag — true colours — back up the mast.
9. Toe the Line
Sailors were paid for their services. When payday came around, they would muster in a queue on the deck in front of the Paymaster’s desk. A line was drawn a short distance from this money-loaded table.
Each sailor in his turn would place his toes on the line and call out his name and position on the ship. His money would be allocated and he could lean forward and scoop up his earnings without any chance of sneakily snatching up extra from another man’s pile.
Nowadays, we use it to indicate a willingness to abide by the rules.
10. Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey
This has to be one of my favourites and as a resident Brit, I’ve heard someone use it. He was a retired Naval Officer who thought it hilarious that I had imagined actual monkeys with, you know….brass balls.
Cannonballs were stored on brass trays called monkeys. In cold weather, the brass trays contracted and the balls would fall off and roll around the deck. It’s sometimes shortened to the phrase ‘it’s brass monkeys out there!’
11. The sun’s over the yardarm
On a sailing ship, the yardarms are the horizontal spars on the mast from which the square sails are hung.
As part of their rations, officers and sailors received a daily tot of grog — watered-down rum — something that was in plentiful supply due to trade with the East Indies.
In the Northern hemisphere, when the sun was up ‘over the yardarm’ it meant it was around 11 am and time for the forenoon ‘stand-easy’. Officers had an opportunity to slip away for their first tot of rum of the day as it was considered bad form to do so before this time.
The phrase is still used to gauge a suitable time to partake of the first drink of the day, although 11 am is probably frowned upon when you’re technically on your work break.
These are just a small sample of the colourful contributions Jack Speak has made to the English language.
Source: Jackspeak: The Pusser’s Rum Guide to Royal Navy Slanguage by Rick Jolly and Tugg