Royal Navy Slang You Use Without Knowing It

Jack speak, the secret language of sailors

Alex Kilcannon
6 min readApr 17, 2020


Image by David Mark from Pixabay

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…



Alex Kilcannon

Writer, poet, outdoors instructor and Mother of Teenagers. I rewild kids for a living.