Navy Terms and Fun Facts


The basic one-way communications system on a vessel. Reaches all spaces on a ship. Used for general announcements, and to transmit general alarm system signals. Control stations are located on the bridge, quarterdeck, and central station. Other transmitters may be installed at additional points. There are other MC and JV circuits used for communications within the ship. They are typically system-specific, i.e. weapons systems, navigation communication, engineering systems, firefighting, etc.

Above Board 

The term today means someone who is honest, forthright. It's origin comes from the days when pirates would masquerade as honest merchantmen, hiding most of their crew behind the bulwark (side of the ship on the upper deck). They hid below the boards.

Between the Devil and the Deep

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.


The portion of a Navy enlisted uniform that hangs from the back of the neck. In the wooden navy it was fashion for sailors to have long hair but it would get blown about by the winds and get stuck in the rigging or machinery. To counteract this sailors at sea would braid their hair and dip it in tar (used to seal the boards on the ship). When ashore on liberty (as opposed to a longer leave where they would wash the tar out of the hair) they would cut a bib out of sack cloth and tie it around their neck to keep from getting tar on their one good shirt. The bib eventually became an official part of the enlisted uniform.


(1) A loop in or slack part of a line. (2) A curve or bend in a shoreline, or a small body of water formed by same.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.

Binnacle List

Many novice sailors, confusing the words 'binnacle' and barnacle, have wondered what their illnesses 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 ship corpsmen used to place a list of sick on the binnacle health. After long practice, it came to be called binnacle list.

Bitter End

As any able-bodied seaman can tell you, a turn of a line around a bitt, 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. The landlubbing phrases "stick 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.

Black Balls

Three black balls hung in a vertical line on the mast indicate the ship is aground. - Coast Guard Navigation Rules


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 larger 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 (or coxswain).

Boatswain's Pipe

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 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.

Brass Monkey

During the civil war, cannonballs were stacked up in pyramids called brass monkeys. When it got extremely cold, they would explode or break, hence the term "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey".

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".

Brown Shoes

In 1913 high laced shoes of tan leather first appeared in Uniform Regulations and were authorized for wear by aviators with khaki's. The color changed to russet brown in 1922. Uniforms exclusive to the aviation community were abolished in the 1920's and reinstated in the 1930's. The authorized color of aviators’ shoes has alternated between brown and black since then.


The term given to the senior ensign in an activity.

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 "carry on" 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 carry on as an order to resume work; work not so grueling as two centuries ago.

Charge Book

 During World War II, 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 themselves 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).


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 honorable ordinary 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," 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.

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.

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.

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. All 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.

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.

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.

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 "hashmarks" 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 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--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.

Chewing the Fat

God made the vittles, but the devil made the cook was a popular saying used by seafaring men in the last century when salted beef was the staple diet aboard ship. This tough cured beef, suitable only for long voyages when nothing else was as cheap or would keep as well, required prolonged chewing to make it edible. Men often chewed one chunk for hours, just as if it were chewing gum and referred to this practice as Chewing the fat

Chief's Bell

 It is at the Navy Memorial, Navy Heritage Center, Gallery Deck. The inscription on the front has an anchor with the words "Chief Petty Officer Centenial 1893-1993" around it.


One tradition carried on in the Navy is the use of the chit. It is a carry over from the days when Hindu traders used slops of paper called chitti for money, so they wouldn't have to carry heavy bags or gold and silver. British sailors shortened the word to chit and applied it to their mess vouchers. Its most outstanding use in the Navy today is for drawing pay and a form used for requesting leave and liberty. But the term is currently applied to almost any piece of paper from a pass to an official letter requesting some privilege.

Cocked Hat

A hat worn by officers with ceremonial uniforms commonly refereed to as a "fore and aft" hat. During the 1700's the hat was worn parallel to the shoulders, but in the 1800's was modified to be worn with the points to the front and back. Wearing of the Cocked Hat was discontinued on 12 October 1940.

Command at Sea Pin

Established in 1960 to recognize the responsibilities placed on those officers of the Navy who are in command, or who have successfully commanded, ships and aircraft squadrons of the fleet. The component parts, a commission pennant, an anchor, and the line star, were determined to be ideally suited for a design which would be symbolic in the ready identification of those officers who have attained the highly coveted and responsible title of Commanding Officer of our commissioned units at sea.


Small white rope work, wrapped around stanchions and railings, mostly in the pre-WWll Navy .

Crow's Nest

The crow (the bird not the rating badge) was an essential part of the early sailors navigation equipment. These land-lubbing fowl were carried on board to help the navigator determine where the closest land lay when the weather prevented sighting the shore visually. In case of poor visibility, a crow was released and the navigator plotted a course that corresponded with the birds because it invariably headed toward land. The crow's nest was situated high in the main mast where the look-out stood watch. Often he shared this lofty perch with a crow or two since the crows' cages were kept there; hence the crow's nest


A short saber with a cut and thrust blade and a large hand guard. Issued to enlisted men as a sidearm and maintained in ships armories until the beginning of W.W.II. The weapons were officially declared obsolete in 1949. The Cutlass was considered an organizational issue item, but was never considered to be a part of the enlisted uniform.

Cut of His Jib

In the days of sailing ships, nationality and rigs could often be distinguished by their jibs. A Spanish ship, for example, had a small jib or none at all. Large French ships often had two jibs and English ships normally had only one. From ships, the phrase was extended to apply to men. The nose, like the jib of a ship arriving in harbor, is the first part of the person to arrive at a designated place. Figuratively, it implies the first impression one makes on another person.

Dead Horse

When a Sailor pays off a debt to the command (advance pay, overpayments, etc...) they say they've paid off a Dead Horse. The saying comes from a tradition of British sailors. British seamen, apt to be ashore and unemployed for considerable periods of time between voyages, generally preferred to live in boarding houses near the piers while waiting for sailing ships to take on crews. During these periods of unrestricted liberty, many ran out of money, so innkeepers carried them on credit until hired out for another voyage. When a seaman was booked on a ship, he was customarily advanced a month's wages, if needed, to pay off his boarding house debt. Then, while paying back the ship's master, he worked for nothing but "salt horse" the first several weeks aboard. Salt horse was the staple diet of early sailors and it wasn't exactly tasty cuisine. Consisting of a low quality beef that had been heavily salted, the salt horse was tough to chew and even harder to digest. When the debt had been repaid, the salt horse was said to be dead and it was a time for great celebration among the crew. Usually, an effigy of a horse was constructed from odds and ends, set afire and then cast afloat to the cheers and hilarity of the ex-debtors.

Devil to Pay

Today the expression devil to pay is used primarily as a means of conveying an unpleasant and impending happening. Originally, this expression denoted a specific task aboard ship such as caulking the ship's longest seam. The devil was the longest seam on the wooden sailing ship and caulking was done with pay or pitch. This grunt task of paying the devil was despised by every seaman and the expression came to denote any unpleasant task.

Distinguishing Marks/Rating Badges

In 1841, insignia called "distinguishing marks" were first prescribed as part of the official uniform. An eagle and anchor emblem, forerunner of the rating badge, was the first distinguishing mark. In 1886 rating badges were established, and some 15 specialty marks were also provided to cover the various ratings. On 1 April 1893, petty officers were reclassified and the rating of chief petty officer was established. Until 1949 rating badges were worn on the right or left sleeve, depending on whether the person concerned was on the starboard or port watch. Since February 1948, all distinguishing marks have been worn on the left sleeve between the shoulder and elbow.

Ditty Bags

Ditty bog (or box) was originally called ditto bag because it contained at least two of everything - two needles, two spools of thread, two buttons, etc. With the passing of years, the 'ditto' was dropped in favor of ditty and remains so today. Before WW I, the Navy issued ditty boxes made of wood and styled after foot lockers. These carried the personal gear and some clothes of the sailor. Today the ditty bag is still issued to recruits and contains a sewing kit, toiletry articles and personal items such as writing paper and pens.

Dog Watch

Dog Watch is the name given to the 1600-1800 and the 1800-2000 watches aboard a ship. The 1600-2000 four-hour watch was originally split even to prevent men from always having to stand the same watches daily. As a result, Sailors dodge the same daily routine; hence they are dodging the watch or standing the dodge watch. In its corrupted form, dodge became dog and the procedure is referred as "dogging the watch" or standing the "dog watch."


In 1901 regulations authorized the first use of denim jumpers and trousers, and the 1913 regulations originally permitted the dungaree outfit to be used by both officers and enlisted with the hat of the day. The cloth used then wasn't as well woven nor was it dyed blue, but it served the purpose. Dungarees worn by Sailors of the Continental Navy were cut directly from old sails and remained tan in color just as they been when filled with wind. After battles, it was the practice in both the American and British Navies for Captains to report more sail lost in battle than actually was the case so the crew would have cloth to mend their hammocks and make new clothes. Since the cloth was called dungaree, clothes made from the fabric borrowed the name.

Eagle on Crows/Devices

For many years the U.S. specified modified forms of the Napoleonic Eagle in the devices and insignia used to distinguish the various ranks and ratings of enlisted men and officers. This eagle was usually cast, stamped or embroidered facing left and the same practice was used by the Navy. Why the Napoleonic eagle faced left is unknown. In 1941 the Navy changed the eagles facing direction to follow the heraldic rules which faces the right toward the wearer’s sword arm. This rule continues to apply and the eagle now faces to the front or the wearers right.

Eight Bells

This measure of time originated in the days when a half-hour glass was used to tell off the four-hour watches. Each time the sand ran out, the ship's boy, whose job it was to reverse the glass, struck a bell to show he was attending to his business. Thus, eight times he turned the glass, and eight times struck the bell.


Fathom was originally a land measuring term derived from the Ango-Saxon word "faetm" meaning to embrace. In those days, most measurements were based on average size of parts of the body, such as the hand (horses are still measured this way) or the foot (that's why 12 inches are so named). A fathom is the average distance from fingertip to fingertip of the outstretched arms of a man --- about six feet. Since a man stretches out his arms to embrace his sweetheart, Britain's Parliament declared that distance be called a "fathom" and it be a unit of measure. A fathom remains six feet. The word was also used to describe taking the measure or "to fathom" something. Today, of course, when one is trying to figure something out, they are trying to "fathom" it.

Field Day

This term originally refers to military parade. The term was used starting in the mid-18th century to refer to a day when military units would stand parade for the public. By the 1820s, it had transformed into any day of exciting events and opportunities. How this became "turn two field day" no one seems to know. I don't remember feeling much like I was in a parade when I cleaned bilges during "Field Day".


The appropriate pronunciation for this word is fo'ksul. The forecastle is the forward part of the main deck. It derives its name from the days of Viking galleys when wooden castles were built on the forward and after parts the main deck from which archers and other fighting men could shoot arrows and throw spears, rocks, etc.

Fouled Anchor

The foul anchor as a naval insignia got its start as the seal of the Lord Howard of Effingham. He was the Lord Admiral of England at the time of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. During this period the personal seal of a great officer of state was adopted as the seal of his office. The fouled anchor still remains the official seal of the Lord High Admiral of Great Britain. When this office became part of the present Board of Admiralty, the seal was retained on buttons, official seals, and cap badges. The Navy's adoption of this symbol and many other customs can be directly attributed to the influence of British Naval tradition. The fouled anchor is among them.


The galley is the kitchen of the ship. The best explanation as to its origin is that it is a corruption of "gallery". Ancient sailors cooked their meals on a brick or stone gallery laid amidships.


To most sailors the word geedunk means ice cream, candy, potato chips and other assorted snacks, or even the place where they can be purchased. No one, however, knows for certain where the term originated, but there are several plausible theories. 1) In the 1920's a comic strip character named Harold Teen and his friends spent a great amount of time at Pop's candy store. The store's owner called it The Geedunk for reasons never explained. 2) The Chinese word meaning a place of idleness sounds something like gee dung. 3) Geedunk is the sound made by a vending machine when it dispenses a soft drink in a cup. 4) It may be derived from the German word tunk meaning to dip or sop either in gravy or coffee. Dunking was a common practice in days when bread, not always obtained fresh, needed a bit of tunking to soften it. The ge is a German unaccented prefix denoting repetition. In time it may have changed from getunk to geedunk. Whatever theory we use to explain geedunk's origin, it doesn't alter the fact that Navy people are glad it all got started.

Goat Locker

Entertainment on liberty took many forms, mostly depending on the coast and opportunity. One incident which became tradition was at a Navy-Army football game. In early sailing years, livestock would travel on ships, providing the crew the fresh milk, meats, and eggs. as well as serving as ships' mascots. One pet, a goat named El Cid (meaning Chief) was the mascot aboard the USS New York. When its crew attended the fourth Navy-Army football game in 1893, they took El Cid to the game, which resulted in the West Pointers losing. El Cid (The Chief) was offered shore duty at Annapolis and became the Navy's mascot. This is believed to be the source of the old Navy term, "Goat Locker".


 The term "goldbrick" achieved it widest use as a military slang, but has been in common use for many years as a term describing the avoidance of work, or shirking. Anything worthless which has been passed on as genuine is also referred to as a goldbrick. It originally referred to a bar of worthless metal which has been gilded to make it appear to be solid gold.


In the modern Navy, falsifying reports, records and the like is often referred to as "gundecking." The origin of the term is somewhat obscure, but at the risk of gundecking, here are two plausible explanations for its modern usage. The deck below the upper deck on British sailing ships-of-war was called the gundeck although it carried no guns. This false deck may have been constructed to deceive enemies as to the amount of armament carried, thus the gundeck was a falsification. A more plausible explanation may stem from shortcuts taken by early Midshipmen when doing their navigation lessons. Each Mid was supposed to take sun lines at noon and star sights at night and then go below to the gundeck, work out their calculations and show them to the navigator. Certain of these young men, however, had a special formula for getting the correct answers. They would note the noon or last position on the quarter-deck traverse board and determine the approximate current position by dead reckoning plotting. Armed with this information, they proceeded to the gundeck to "gundeck" their navigation homework by simply working backwards from the dead reckoning position.


The "head" aboard a Navy ship is the bathroom. The term comes from the days of sailing ships when the place for the crew to relieve themselves was all the way forward on either side of the bowsprit, the integral part of the hull to which the figurehead was fastened.

He Knows the Ropes

In the very early days, this phrase was written on a seaman's discharge to indicate that he was still a novice. All he knew about being a sailor was just the names and uses of the principal ropes (lines). Today, this same phrase means the opposite — that the person fully knows and understands the operation (usually of the organization).


The last Navy ships with teak decks were the battleships, now since decommissioned. Teak, and other wooden decks, were scrubbed with a piece of sandstone, nicknamed at one time by an anonymous witty sailor as the "holystone." It was so named because since its use always brought a man to his knees, it must be holy! However, holystones were banned by the Navy by General Order Number 215 of 5 March 1931 because they wore down the expensive teak decks too fast.


This term, meaning everything is OK, was coined from a street named Honki-Dori in Yokohama. As the inhabitants of this street catered to the pleasures of Sailors, one can readily understand why the street's name became synonymous for anything that is enjoyable or satisfactory.


The Jack is a replica of the blue, star-studded field of the National Ensign that is flown by ships at anchor from 8 a.m. to sunset. The Jack is hoisted at a yardarm when a general court-martial or a court of inquiry is in session. It is half-masted if the Ensign is half-masted, but it is not dipped when the Ensign is dipped.

Jacob's Ladder

Jacob's Ladder is a portable ladder made of rope or metal and used primarily as an aid in boarding a ship. Originally, the Jacob's Ladder was a network of line leading to the skysail on wooden ships. The name alludes to the biblical Jacob, reputed to have dreamed that he climbed a ladder to the sky. Anyone who has ever tried climbing a Jacob's Ladder while carrying a seabag can appreciate the allusion. It does seem that the climb is long enough to take one into the next world.


To be keelhauled today is merely to be given a severe reprimand for some infraction of the rules. As late as the 19th century, however, it meant the extreme. It was a dire and often fatal torture employed to punish offenders of certain naval laws. An offender was securely bound both hand and foot and had heavy weights attached to his body. He was then lowered over the ship's side and slowly dragged along under the ship's hull. If he didn't drown - which was rare - barnacles usually ripped him, causing him to bleed to death. All navies stopped this cruel and unusual punishment years ago and today any such punishment is forbidden.


Originated in 1845 in India where British soldiers soaked white uniforms in mud, coffee, and curry powder to blend in with the landscape. Khakis made their debut in the U.S. Navy in 1912 when they were worn by naval aviators, and were adopted for submarines in 1931. In 1941 the Navy approved khakis for on-station wear by senior officers, and soon after Pearl Harbor chiefs and officers were authorized to wear khakis ashore on liberty.

Knock Off Work

To quit suddenly; to stop.---"It's about time to knock off work."---Nautical origin: Aboard sailing ships, the galleys used to be rowed to the rhythm of a mallet striking a wooden block. When the knocking stopped, it was a signal to stop rowing.


The term knot or nautical mile, is used world-wide to denote one's speed through water. Today, we measure knots with electronic devices, but 200 years ago such devices were unknown. Ingenious mariners devised a speed measuring device both easy to use and reliable called the "log line". From this method we get the term knot. The log line was a length of twine marked at 47.33 foot intervals by colored knots. At one end was fastened a log chip; it was shaped like the sector of a circle and weighted at the rounded end with lead. When thrown over the stern, it would float pointing upward and would remain relatively stationary. The log line was allowed to run free over the side for 28 seconds and then pulled on board. Knots which had passed over the side were counted. In this way the ship's speed was measured.

Log Book

In the early days of sailing ships, the ship's records were written on shingles cut from logs. These shingles were hinged and opened like a book. The record was called the "log book." Later on, when paper was readily available and bound into books, the record maintained it name.

Long Shot

Today it's a gambling term for an event that would take an inordinate amount of luck. It's origins are nautical. Because ships' guns in early days were very inaccurate except at close quarters, it was an extremely lucky shot that would find its target from any great distance.

Mind Your P's and Q's

Nowadays a term meaning "Be on your best behavior." In old days, Sailors Serving aboard government ships could always get credit at the waterfront taverns until pay-day. As they would only pay for those drinks which were marked up on the score-board, the tavern-keeper had to be careful that no Pints or Quarts had been omitted from the customers list.


A knot that forms a massive weighted ball at the end of a heaving line.

Navy Blue

 Blue has not always been navy blue. In fact it wasn't until 1745 that the expression navy blue meant anything at all. In that year several British officers petitioned the Admiralty for adaptation of new uniforms for it's officers. The first lord requested several officers to model various uniforms under consideration so he could select the best. He then selected several uniforms of various styles and colors to present to King George II for final decision. King George, unable to decide on either style or color, finally chose a blue and white because they were the favorite color combinations of the first lord's wife, Duchess of Bedford.

Navy Colors

27 August 1802 the Secretary of the Navy signed an instruction which set a pattern for the dress of the U.S. Navy in Blue and Gold.

Navy Seal

The Department of the Navy Seal was created in 1957. An official Navy flag was authorized by Presidential Order on 24 Apr 1959. The design is on a circular background of fair sky and moderate sea with land in sinister base, a three-masted square-rigged ship underway before a fair breeze with after topsail furled, commission pennant atop the foremast, National Ensign atop the main, and the commodore's flag atop the mizzen. In front of the ship a Luce-type anchor inclined slightly endwise with the crown resting on the land and, in front of the shank and in back of the dexter fluke, an American bald eagle rising to sinister regarding to dexter, one foot on the ground, the other resting on the anchor near the shank; all in proper colors. The whole within a blue annulet bearing the inscription "Department of the Navy" at top, and "United States of America" at the bottom, separated on each side by a mullet and within a rim in the form of a rope; inscription, rope, mullet, and edges of annulet all gold


"Mayday" is the internationally recognized voice radio signal for ships and people in serious trouble at sea. Made official in 1948, it is an anglicizing of the French m'aidez, "help me".

No Quarter

"No quarter given" means that one gives his opponent no opportunity to surrender. It stems from the old custom by which officers, upon surrender, could ransom themselves by paying one quarter of a year's pay.

Pea Coat

Sailors who have to endure pea-soup weather often don their pea coats but the coat's name isn't derived from the weather. The heavy topcoat worn in cold, miserable weather by seafaring men was once tailored from pilot cloth — a heavy, course, stout kind of twilled blue cloth with the nap on one side. The cloth was sometimes called P-cloth for the initial letter of "pilot" and the garment made from it was called a p-jacket — later, a pea coat. The term has been used since 1723 to denote coats made from that cloth.

Petty Officer

The Petty Officer can trace his title back to the old French word petit meaning something small. Over the years the word also came to mean minor, secondary and subordinate. In medieval and later England just about every village had several "petite", "pety" or "petty" officials/officers who were subordinate to such major officials as the steward of sheriff. The petty officers were the assistants to the senior officials.

The senior officers of the early British warships, such as the Boatswain, Gunner and Carpenter, also had assistants or "mates." Since the early seamen knew petty officers in their home villages they used the term to describe the minor officials aboard their ships. A ship's Captain or Master chose his own Petty Officers who served at his pleasure. At the end of a voyage or whenever the ship's crew was paid off and released the Petty Officers lost their positions and titles. There were Petty Officers in the British navy in the Seventeenth Century and perhaps earlier but the rank did not become official until 1808.

Petty Officers were important members of our Navy right from its beginnings and were also appointed by their ship's Captain. They did not have uniforms or rank insignia, and they usually held their appointments only while serving on the ship whose Captain had selected them.

Petty Officers in our Navy got their first rank insignia in 1841 when they began wearing a sleeve device showing an eagle perched on an anchor. Some Petty Officers wore the device on their left arms while others wore it on their right. All wore the same device. Specialty or rating marks did not appear officially until 1866 but they seem to have been in use for several years previously. Regulations sometimes serve to give formal status to practices already well established.

In 1885 the Navy recognized it three classes of Petty Officers--first, second and third--and in the next year let them wear rank insignia of chevrons with the points down under a spread eagle and rating mark. The eagle faced left instead of right as it does today.

The present Petty Officer insignia came about in 1894 when the Navy established the Chief Petty Officer rank and gave him the three chevrons with arc and eagle. The first, second and third class Petty Officers also began wearing the insignia they do today.


Port holes

The word "port hole" originated during the reign of Henry VI of England (1485). King Henry insisted on mounting guns too large for his ship and the traditional methods of securing these weapons on the forecastle and aftcastle could not be used.

A French shipbuilder named James Baker was commissioned to solve the problem. He put small doors in the side of the ship and mounted the cannon inside the ship. These doors protected the cannon from weather and were opened when the cannon were to be used. The French word for "door" is "porte" which was later Anglicized to "port" and later went on to mean any opening in the ship's side, whether for cannon or not.


The origin of the word scuttlebutt which is nautical parlance for a rumor, comes from a combination of scuttle - to make a hole in the ship's side causing her to sink - and butt - a cask or hogshead used in the days of wooden ships to hold drinking water; thus the term scuttlebutt means a cask with a hole in it. Scuttle; describes what most rumors accomplish if not to the ship, at least to morale. Butt describes the water cask where men naturally congregated, and that is where most rumors get started. The terms galley yarn and mess deck intelligence also mean the spreading of rumors and many of course start on the mess deck

Sick Bay

 Ships hospitals were originally known as "Sick Berths," but as the were generally located in the round sterns of the old battle wagons, their contours suggested a "bay," and the latter name was given them.


 Originally, skylarking described the antics of young Navymen who climbed and slid down the backstays for fun. Since the ancient word"lac" means "to play" and the games started high in the masts, the term was "skylacing". Later, corruption of the word changed it to "skylarking".


 Sea dogs who sailed the wooden ships endured hardships that sailors today never suffer. Cramped quarters, poor unpalatable food, bad lighting and boredom were hard facts of sea life. But perhaps a more frustrating problem was getting fire to kindle a cigar or pipe tobacco after a hard day's work. Matches were scarce and unreliable, yet smoking contributed positively to the morale of the crew, so oil lamps were hung in the fo'c'sle and used as matches. Smoking was restricted to certain times of the day by the bos'un's. When it was allowed, the "smoking lamps" were "lighted" and the men relaxed with their tobacco. Fire was and still is the great enemy of ships at sea. The smoking lamp was centrally located for the convenience of all and was the only authorized light aboard. It was a practical way of keeping open flames away from the magazines and other storage areas. In today's Navy the smoking lamps have disappeared but the words "smoking lamp is lighted in all authorized spaces" remains, a carryover from our past.


By tradition sixteen bells are struck on midnight of New Years...the oldest person on the vessel strikes the first 8 no matter what his rank(enlisted or admiral or whatever)..the second 8 are struck by the youngest person on the vessel....


This means one is in a satisfactory position for whatever has to be done next. It is a phrase borrowed from square-rigger days. When a square-rigged ship braced her yards before the wind, she was "squared away.


The Vikings called the side of their ship its board, and they placed the steering oar, the "star" on the right side of the ship, thus that side became known as the "star board." It's been that way ever since. And, because the oar was in the right side, the ship was tied to the dock at the left side. This was known as the loading side or "larboard". Later, it was decided that "larboard" and "starboard" were too similar, especially when trying to be heard over the roar of a heavy sea, so the phrase became the "side at which you tied up to in port" or the "port" side.


The origin of the word "scuttlebutt," which is nautical parlance for a rumor, comes from a combination of "scuttle" — to make a hole in the ship's hull and thereby causing her to sink —- and "butt" — a cask or hogshead used in the days of wooden ships to hold drinking water. The cask from which the ship's crew took their drinking water — like a water fountain — was the "scuttlebutt". Even in today's Navy a drinking fountain is referred to as such. But, since the crew used to congregate around the "scuttlebutt", that is where the rumors about the ship or voyage would begin. Thus, then and now, rumors are talk from the "scuttlebutt" or just "scuttlebutt".


Contrary to popular notion, the letters S.O.S. do not stand for "Save Our Ship" or "Save Our Souls". They were selected to indicate a distress because, in Morse code, these letters and their combination create an unmistakable sound pattern.

Splice the Main Brace

In the age of sail, ship's rigging was a favorite target during sea battles because destroying the opponent's ability to maneuver or get away would put you at obvious advantage. Therefore, the first and most important task after a battle was to repair damaged rigging (also known as lines- but never "rope"!). Examples of lines include braces (lines that adjust the angle at which a sail is set in relation to the wind) and stays (lines supporting the masts).
The main brace was the principal line controlling the rotation of the main sail. Splicing this line was one of the most difficult chores aboard ship, and one on which the ship's safety depended. It was the custom, after the main brace was properly spliced, to serve grog to the entire crew. Thus, today, after a hard day (or, not so hard day), the phrase has become an invitation to have a drink.


The Vikings called the side of their ship its board, and they placed the steering oar, the "star" on the right side of the ship, thus that side became known as the "star board." It's been that way ever since. And, because the oar was in the right side, the ship was tied to the dock at the left side. This was known as the loading side or "larboard". Later, it was decided that "larboard" and "starboard" were too similar, especially when trying to be heard over the roar of a heavy sea, so the phrase became the "side at which you tied up to in port" or the "port" side.

Three Sheets to the Wind

We use the term "three sheets to the wind" to describe someone who has too much to drink. As such, they are often bedraggled with perhaps shirttails out, clothes a mess. The reference is to a sailing ship in disarray, that is with sheets (lines — not "ropes" — that adjust the angle at which a sail is set in relation to the wind ) flapping loosely in the breeze.

Took the wind out of his sails

Often we use "took the wind out of his sails" to describe getting the best of an opponent in an argument. Originally it described a battle maneuver of sailing ships. One ship would pass close to its adversary and on its windward side. The ship and sails would block the wind from the second vessel, causing it to lose headway. Losing motion meant losing maneuverability and the ability to carry on a fight.



Traditionally, a 24-hour day is divided into seven watches. These are: midnight to 4 a.m. [0000-0400], the mid-watch; 4 to 8 a.m. [0400-0800], morning watch; 8 a.m. to noon [0800-1200], forenoon watch; noon to 4 p.m. [1200-1600], afternoon watch; 4 to 6 p.m. [1600-1800] first dog watch; 6 to 8 p.m. [1800-2000], second dog watch; and, 8 p.m. to midnight [2000-2400], evening watch. The half hours of the watch are marked by the striking

Wetting Down

In the old Navy, an officer's commission was hand-written on heavy parchment. According to some sources, the newly commissioned or promoted officer held a dinner for his shipmates and friends. During the course of the evening, the new commission was rolled into a cone, the small end folded up to form a cup. This paper cup was passed around the table for all the guests to toast the new officer. Thus, the new commission was "wetted down." Considering the importance of the document, however, this interpretation may be doubtful. Commissions in the early U.S. Navy were signed and issued by the President and were of great legal and personal value.

According to other sources, the wetting down party was once quite a rough and tumble affair. It was the custom for the officer to wear his new uniform or stripes for the first time at the wetting down. The guests would then proceed to christen the uniform, the occupant, and the commission with whatever liquid refreshment (paid for by the victim) was available. Over the years, however, Navy life has became more calm, the price of gold braid has skyrocketed and a literal christening is not usually condoned.

A Wetting Down is still an honored and expected tradition, however. You are expected to stand for drinks for the wardroom upon each promotion. It is considered very ill form to forego the tradition!