The Term "Nautical"



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NAUTICAL TERMS, PHRASES, & TRIVIA

The Term "Nautical" is rooted in the Greek word "NAUT," meaning sailor.



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AHOY!

  • This old traditional greeting for hailing other vessels was originally a Viking battle cry.

ALOFT

  • The old High German word for "air" was "luft," which was combined with the French term `a,' meaning `to go.' Thus, "a-luft" became aloft in old English. It means "to go into the air," or "climb the mast."

AMIDSHIPS

  • An indefinite area midway between the bow and the stern

ATHWARTSHIP

  • Across the ship, at right angles to the fore and aft centerline of the vessel.

AVAST

  • Contraction of two French words, "Haud Vast," meaning to "hold fast." In other words, hang on and stop what you are doing.

AWEIGH

  • When a ship raises anchor, the anchor is said to be aweigh as soon as it leaves the bottom. From the process of weighing anchor.

AYE AYE

  • Aye is old English for "yes." A bluejacket says, "Aye aye, Sir," meaning, "I understand, and I will obey." It is based on the Latin word, "Aio', meaning "yes."

BALLS OUT

  • Refers to an early design of engine governor, in which a pair of masses (balls) spun at an increasing rate as engine speed increased. Centrifugal acceleration threw the masses outward, so "balls out" refers to maximum possible engine speed.

BALLS TO THE WALL

  • Maximum speed or maximum effort.

BAMBOOZLE

  • In today's Navy, when you intentionally deceive someone, usually as a joke, you are said to have "bamboozled" them. The word was used in the days of sail, too, but the intent was not 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 of pirates.

BATTEN

  • A thin iron bar which is used to secure the tarpaulin cover over a cargo hatch or passageway. "Batten down the hatches" usually means prepare for a storm or trouble.

BATTEN DOWN

  • Make fast, secure or shut. Originally, deck hatches did not have hinged, attached covers. Hatch covers were separate pieces which were laid over the hatch opening, then made fast with battens (pieces of timber).

BEFORE THE MAST

  • 1) Literally, the position of the crew whose living quarters on board 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."

  • 2) Signing on a ship's crew as an ordinary seaman on a merchant vessel, or sometimes as an enlisted sailor on a naval ship. It refers to the fact that the ship rapidly narrows towards the bow after the foremost mast, where it is impractical to stow cargo. Quite naturally, especially, aboard merchantmen, it is where the regular crew has their sleeping quarters. Officers and passengers had theirs aft. Popularized by Richard Dana's novel, "Two Years Before the Mast."

BELL-BOTTOM TROUSERS

  • 1) The Sailor's bell-bottom trousers, which came to epitomize 60's and the early 70's fashion, are actually a practical item for Sailors living aboard ship. The wide, flared, legs are easy to roll up and down when swabbing a deck or wading through slightly flooded spaces.

  • 2) Commonly believed that the trouser were introduced in 1817 to permit men to roll them above the knee when washing down the decks, and it make it easier to remove them in a hurry when forced to abandon ship or when washed overboard. The trousers may be used as a life preserver by knotting the legs.

BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP (also Deep Blue Sea)

  • In wooden ships, the "devil," was the longest seam of the ship. It ran from the bow to the stern. When at sea and the "devil," had to be caulked, the sailor sat in a bo'sun's chair to do so. He was suspended between the "devil" and the sea--the deep--a very precarious position, especially when the ship was underway.

BIG CHICKEN DINNER

  • Bad Conduct Discharge. In many ways, equivalent to a felony conviction.

BILGE

  • 1) The area below the deck gratings in the lowest spaces of the ship, where things, especially liquids, tend to collect.

  • 2) To fail or do poorly. "Poor Smitty bilged the quiz."

  • 3) To name a classmate or shipmate involved in wrongdoing, or to identify a mistake made by someone else.

  • 4) Old English in origin. A variation of "bulge." Where the ship "bulged" most was at its bottom. There, sea water seeping in through the bottom planks became stagnant and foul, which was mixed by dripping water and "slops" from the upper decks. Pumping out the bilges was a smelly, very disagreeable chore. The term became used to describe anything unpleasant or unbelievable.

BILGE DIVING

  • Working in the bilges of a ship, or cleaning same.

BILGE RAT

  • Someone who works in the engineering spaces.

BINNACLE LIST

  • Many novice Sailors, confusing the 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, in the eighteenth century (and probably before), ship's corpsmen used to place a list of the sick on the binnacle each morning to inform the Captain about the crew's health. After long practice, it came to be called the Binnacle List.

BITTER END (THE)

  • 1) As any able-bodied seaman can tell you, a turn of a line around a bit, those wooden or iron posts sticking through a ship's deck, is called a bitter. Thus the last of the line secured to the bitts is known as the bitter end. Nautical usage has somewhat expanded the original definition in that today the end of any line, secured to bitts or not, is called a bitter end.

  • 2) The landlubbing phrases "sticks to the bitter end" and "faithful to the bitter end" are derivations of the nautical term and refer to anyone who insists on adhering to a course of action without regard to consequences.

  • 3) From the old Norse word "bit" or beam. A pair of posts fixed on the deck of a ship for securing lines. "Bitter" became a term for a single turn of a cable around the bitts, which was usually the very end of a rope that sometimes hangs over the side of a ship and is closest to the ocean. Its very end is "salty" or "bitter" since it often trails in the water.

BLUE JACKET

  • The first uniform that was ever officially sanctioned for sailors in the Royal Navy was a short blue jacket open in the front. A generic name for a Navy enlisted person.

BOATSWAIN & COXSWAIN

  • 1) As required by 17th Century law, British ships-of-war carried three smaller boats, the boat, the cock-boat, and the skiff. The boat--or gig-- was usually used by the Captain to go ashore and was the largest of the three. The cock-boat was a very small rowboat used as the ship's tender. The skiff was a lightweight all-purpose vessel. The suffix "swain" means keeper, thus the keepers of the boat, cock, and skiff were called boatswain and cockswain (coxswain).

  • 2) A coxswain or cockswain was at first the swain (boy servant) in charge of the 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. The term has been in use in England dating back to at least 1463. With the passing of time, the coxswain became the helmsman of any boat, regardless of size.

  • 3) Another reference defines "Swain" or "Swein" as Anglo-Saxon for servant. Boatswain refers to the warrant or petty officer in charge of the deck crew.

BOATSWAIN'S PIPE

  • 1) No self-respecting boatswain's mate would dare admit he couldn't blow his pipe in a manner above reproach. This pipe, which is the emblem of the boatswain and his mates, has an ancient and interesting history. On the ancient row-galleys, the boatswain used his pipe to call the stroke. Later, because its shrill tune could be heard above most of the activity on board, it was used to signal various happenings such as a knock-off and the boarding of officials. So essential was this signaling device to the well-being of the ship that it became a badge of office and honor in the British and American Navy of the sailing ships.

  • 2) One of the oldest and most distinctive pieces of nautical equipment, the pipe or flute was used in Greece and Rome to keep the stroke of galley slaves. The pipe was used in the Crusades to call English cross bowmen on deck for attack. In time, the pipe came to be used as a badge of office by commanders. The whistle was used for salutes to distinguished persons as well as to pass orders.

  • 3) A 1645 publication detailing honors for an admiral, orders; "The ship's barge to be sent to fetch the visitor having the cockson with his silver whistle in the stern--Upon the near approach of the barge, the noise of the trumpets are to sound and so to hold on until the barge comes within less than musket shot, at that time, the trumpets are to cease and all such as carry whistles are to whistle a welcome three several times." The parts of the pipe are to buoy, gun, keel, and shackle.

BOOT

  • Rookie or newbie, as in "boot Ensign." Originated in the habit of referring to a new man as "boot camp," rather than by name.

BOW

  • The forward end of a ship.

BRAVO ZULU

  • The term originates from the Allied Signals Book (ATP 1), which in the aggregate is for official use only. Signals are sent as letters and/or numbers, which have meanings by themselves sometimes or in certain combinations. A single table in ATP 1 is called "governing groups," that is, the entire signal that follows the governing group is to be performed according to the "governor." The letter "B" indicates this table, and the second letter (A through Z) gives more specific information. For example, "BA" might mean "You have permission to... (Do whatever the rest of the flashing light, flag hoist or radio transmission says). "BZ" happens to be the last item in the governing groups table. It means "well done."

BRASS MONKEY

  • Every sailing ship had to have cannon for protection. Cannon of the times required round iron cannon balls. The master wanted to store the cannon balls such that they could be of instant use when needed, yet not roll around the gun deck. The solution was to stack them up in a square-based pyramid next to the cannon. The top level of the stack had one ball, the next level down had four, the next had nine, and the next had sixteen, and so on. Four levels would provide a stack of 30 cannon balls. The only real problem was how to keep the bottom level from sliding out from under the weight of the higher levels. To do this, they devised a small brass plate ("brass monkey") with one rounded indentation for each cannon ball in the bottom layer. Brass was used because the cannon balls would not rust the "brass monkey," but would rust to an iron one.

  • When temperature falls, brass contracts in size faster than iron. As it got cold on the gun decks, the indentations in the brass monkey would get smaller than the iron cannon balls they were holding. If the temperature got cold enough, the bottom layer would pop out of the indentations spilling the entire pyramid over the deck. Thus it was, quite literally, "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey."

BREECH

  • Middle English--from "broc" or leg-covering. The plural form was "breeches" or "pants," usually referring to the bottom half of any object, such as a cask, beam, gun, or man.

BRIDGE

  • As ships passed to steam and orders could be given by remote methods such as the engine-order telegraph, a small control deck with an enclosed pilot house was constructed above the main deck of the ship in front of the funnel, usually reaching from side to side and thus "bridging" the main deck. It became the term used to describe the place where the Captain steered the ship from and gave his orders.

BRIG

  • 1) Lord Nelson used a brig (type of ship) for removing prisoners from his ships, hence prisons at sea became known as brigs.

  • 2) One of the smaller but more versatile warships of the sailing era was the two-masted "brigantine" (French word for "Bandit), or "brig" as it was abbreviated by the Royal Navy. Small, fast, and well-armed for its size, it served as a scout for the bigger ships, patrol vessel, convoy escort, and errand boy for the fleet. In the last case, it would often be used to run mail, fresh provisions, spare parts, and personnel back and forth to England. Admiral Nelson found them very handy to transport prisoners of war. So many were his victories and so great were his success that for a period of time, nearly every brig arriving in England had prisoners aboard, and so many were modified as sea-going jails for this express purpose. With every ship having at least one or two troublesome crewman as well as an occasional prisoner of war, it was customary to put him in the ships own "brig" for a spell.

BRIGHTWORK

  • Bright work originally referred to polished metal objects, and bright woodwork to wood which was kept scraped and scrubbed, especially top side. Bright it should be and work it is.

BROACH

  • Middle English “brocus,” or "projecting." Originally used to describe the piercing of a cask to open it. The term was eventually used to describe the opening of a new subject in conversation. It was also used to describe when a ship is turned sideways to a wave, allowing it to break over for the length of the hull. This usually means the ship is in extreme and is probably sinking or about to break up. The possible origins of this particular term are from the action of the masts thrusting through the on-coming waves while the ship is full over on its side.

BUG JUICE

  • Substance similar in appearance to Kool-Aid which is served as a beverage aboard USN ships. Its color has no bearing on its flavor. Largely composed of ascorbic acid. Used extensively as an all-purpose cleaner/stripper for bulkheads, decks, brass fire nozzles, and pipes.

BULKHEAD

  • A vertical steel partition corresponding to the wall of a room, extending either athwartship or fore and aft.

BULLY BOY

  • Bully boys, a term prominent in Navy chanties and poems, means in its strictest sense, "beef eating Sailors." Sailors of the Colonial Navy had a daily menu of an amazingly elastic substance called bully beef, actually beef jerky. The term appeared so frequently on the mess deck that it naturally lent its name to the sailors who had to eat it. As an indication of the beef's texture and chew ability, it was also caned "salt junk/' alluding to the rope yarn used for caulking the ship's seams.

BULL NOSE

  • An opening at the very tip of the bow through which lines for tying up to a dock were run. When in heavy seas and the bow buried itself in green water, the bulInose produces quite remarkable jets of water.

BUNKER

  • A compartment used for the stowage of fuel.

BUY THE FARM

  • Killed in action or by accident while on duty. From World War I onwards, American servicemen were offered a government insurance policy, which was often large enough to pay off the family farm.

BY AND LARGE

  • 1) Col1oquial term meaning 'For the most part.' Origin of the term seems to be that a ship was considered particularly seaworthy if it could sail both 'by' (close to the wind} and 'large' (broad to or before the wind}.

  • 2) A term derived from two sailing terms combined: "By the wind" (Close-hauled), and "Sailing Large" (Running Free). The term, 'at large’, also comes from this usage.

CAPTAIN

  • Latin in origin. "Caput" meaning "head" or "leader". The commanding officer of a military unit. It now refers to the commanding officer of a ship, regardless of his actual rank. As a courtesy, even the Lieutenant commanding a patrol boat is addressed as 'Captain.'

CARRY ON

  • In the days of sail, the Officer of the Deck kept a weather eye constantly on the slightest change in wind so sails could be reefed or added as necessary to ensure the fastest headway. Whenever a good breeze came along, the order to "carryon" 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 "carryon" as an order to resume work - work not as grueling as two centuries ago.

CHANNEL FEVER

  • Anxious to get home, or reach port.

CHARGE BOOKS

  • 1) The use of the charge book dates back to World War H. Due to losses incurred in combat, Commanding Officers were authorized to advance deserving, qualified personnel to Chief Petty Officer. Prior to moving into the Chief Petty Officer quarters, Commanding Officers directed the selectee to go to each chief aboard and obtain a list of their duties and responsibilities, and get their signatures. This way, the prospective chief was knowledgeable about the members of the mess, and where to go for assistance to solve problems. With each chief's duties and responsibilities entered into the charge book along with the chief's signature, it was then presented to the Commanding Officer. When the Commanding Officer was satisfied that his selectee was knowledgeable about the mess, he would advance him at quarters in front of ship's company.

  • 2) During World War H, Commanding Officers were authorized to advance and promote deserving and qualified sailors to the highest enlisted rank of Chief Petty Officer. The determination of "deserving and qualified" could be difficult for the CO. The situation also presented challenges to the Sailor who aspired to attain a Chief rating. From these dilemmas sprang the original charge books. Chiefs began to direct PO1's to prepare them to assume the additional responsibilities. Ship's professional libraries were nonexistent or poorly stocked and much had to be learned directly from conversations with the Chiefs themselves and taken down to be studied later. In addition to the technical aspects of the various ratings, CPO's also talked to the PO1's about leadership, Accountability, supporting the chain of command, and other subject matter often using personal experiences to illustrate how something should (or should not) be done. The collection of notes and study material eventually came to be called a "Charge Book" perhaps because those who kept them were their "Charges" (entrusted to their care) for professional development or perhaps because the entries included "Charges" (authoritative instructions or tasking of a directive nature).

CHARLIE NOBLE

  • Charlie Noble is an "H," 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 ga11ey 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."

CHARLIE OSCAR

  • 1) Commanding Officer.

  • 2) Chart -- From the Latin word 'Charta', or the Greek, 'charte', which was a kind of papyrus. In Middle English, the chart or maps were known as 'sea cards'.

CHENG

  • Chief Engineer. Pronounced 'Cheng'.

CHEVRONS

  • 1) Chevron is a French word meaning rafter or roof, which is what a chevron looks like; two straight lines meeting at an angle just as rafters do in a roof. It has been an honourable ordinarie in heraldry since at least the Twelfth Century. Ordinaries are simple straight line forms that seem to have originated in the wood or iron bars used to fasten together or strengthen portions of shields. Other ordinaries include the cross, the diagonal cross or "x," the triangle, the "y,n and horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. The chevron was a basic part of the colorful and complicated science of heraldry. It appeared on the shields and coats-of-arms of knights, barons and kings.

  • 2) Chevrons were thus easily recognized symbols of honor. That might by why French soldiers started wearing cloth chevrons with the points up on their coat sleeves in 1777 as length of service and good conduct badges. Some British units also used them to show length of service. In 1803 the British began using chevrons with the points down as rank insignia. Sergeants wore three and Corporals two. Perhaps they wore them with the points down to avoid confusion with the earlier length of service chevrons worn with the points up. Some British units also used chevrons of gold lace as officers' rank insignia. British and French soldiers who served in our Revolutionary War wore chevrons as did some American soldiers. In 1782 General George Washington ordered that enlisted men who had served for three years "with bravery, fidelity and good conduct" wear as a badge of honor "a narrow piece of white cloth, of angular form" on the left sleeve of the uniform coat.

  • 3) In 1817 Sylvanus Thayer, the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, used chevrons to show cadet rank. From there they spread to the rest of the Army and Marine Corps. From 1820 to 1830 Marine Captains wore three chevrons of gold lace with points down on each sleeve above the elbows of their dress uniforms. Lieutenants wore one or two gold lace chevrons depending on whether they were staff or command officers. Marine Noncommissioned Officers started wearing cloth chevrons with the points up as rank insignia in 1836. They had been wearing them for three years as length of service badges. In 1859 they began wearing chevrons in about the same patterns they do today.

  • 4) Starting in 1820 Army company grade officers and Sergeants wore one chevron with the point up on each arm. The officers' chevrons were of gold or silver lace, depending on the wearer's branch of service. Captains wore their chevrons above the elbow while Lieutenants wore theirs below. Sergeant Majors and Quartermaster Sergeants wore worsted braid chevrons above the elbow while other Sergeants and Senior Musicians wore theirs below. Corporals wore one chevron on the right sleeve above the elbow. By 1833 the Army and Marine company grade officers had stopped wearing chevrons and returned to epaulettes as rank insignia. Sergeants of the Army dragoons then began wearing three chevrons with points down and Corporals two. And other NCOs wore cloth epaulettes to show their rank. From 1847 to 1851 some Army NCOs wore chevrons with the points up on their fatigue uniform jackets but still used cloth epaulettes on their dress uniforms. After 1851 all Army NCOs wore chevrons with points down until 1902 when the Army turned the points up and adopted the patterns used today, two chevrons for Corporals, three for Sergeants and combinations of arcs and other devices beneath the chevrons for higher grades of Sergeants.

  • 5) The stripes worn by Air Force members date from 1948. The basic design was one of several presented to 150 NCOs at Bolling Air Force Base, Washington D.C., in late 1947 or early 1948. Some 55 percent of the NCOs preferred that design so on March 9, 1948, General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, then the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, accepted their choice and approved the design. Naturally, it took some time to obtain and distribute the new stripes so it could have been a year or more before all Air Force members got them.

  • 6) Whoever designed the stripes might have been trying to combine the shoulder patch worn by members of the Army Air Forces during World War II and the insignia used on aircraft. The patch featured wings with a pierced star in the center while the aircraft insignia was a star with two bars. The stripes might be the bars from the aircraft insignia slanted gracefully upward to suggest wings. The silver grey color contrasts with the blue uniform and might suggest clouds against blue sky. .

  • 7) Most enlisted service members wear chevrons or stripes to show their ranks. The exceptions are the lowest three grades of Navy and Coast Guard Seamen and the Army Specialists. The Seamen wear one, two or three diagonal stripes or thrash marks on their sleeves. These stripes first appeared on the cuffs of sailors' jumpers in 1886. Petty Officers and Seamen First Class wore three stripes, Seamen

  • 8) Second Class two stripes and Seamen Third Class one stripe. Shortly after World War II the Navy moved the stripes to its Seamen's upper arms, as did the Coast Guard. Army Specialists wear an insignia that combines a spread eagle and, depending on the pay grade, arcs n sometimes called "bird umbrellas." The eagle and arcs are mounted on a patch that suggests inverted chevrons. The badge appeared in 1955 as part of an effort to differentiate between the Army's technical or support specialists who were not NCOs and the NCOs.
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