History Undusted: Naval Slang

In our everyday language, we often use sayings without really knowing how they originated.  Sayings such as “to swing a cat” or “down the hatch” or “break the ice”.  These three have something in common:  They all began life as naval slang.

cat-o_-nine-tails__psf_The first, “to swing a cat,” has a rather gruesome beginning:  It refers to the cat-o’-nine-tails, a whip made up of nine knotted cords roughly 75 cm long that was designed by the British Royal Navy to inflict severe pain and lacerate the skin.  It was used in flogging for anything from drunkenness to mutinous talk to stealing.  It was known as a “cat,” and obviously they needed room to swing it, to get the full effect.  Today it merely refers to the size of a room or space as being “too small to swing a cat”.  Another nautical idiom with cat was “to cat the anchor”:  The cat referred to here was a large wooden beam on either side of the bow of a sailing ship which was used to support the weight of the anchor as it was raised or lowered; since there was usually the head of a lion or large cat carved at the head of the beam, it was called a cathead.

“Down the hatch” is more straightforward:  The hatch was the covering of the hatchway on a ship, an opening in the deck which allowed vertical access into the hold for loading cargo.  It means the act of drinking in particular, the mouth being the “hatch”.

“To break the ice” means to remove the invisible social barriers between strangers to ease conversation and social contact.  It comes from the specialized ships called “ice breakers,” which were designed to plough through icy waters, making the passage of other vessels possible.  Without such a ship, arctic expeditions could find themselves frozen in, land-locked by shifting ice sheets.

For many more sayings relating to naval history, check out “Not Enough Room to Swing a Cat” – Naval Slang and its Everyday Usage by Martin Robson.

Originally posted 28 on History Undusted.


Filed under Etymology, History, History Undusted, Military History, Research

21 responses to “History Undusted: Naval Slang

  1. Pingback: A Little Light Reading… Not | Stephanie Huesler

  2. Very interesting read. I was in the Navy and they still have their own language as such. My husband and I often confuse people with our Naval slang. It doesn’t help that I’m from London so I also use cockney rhyming slang at times… mostly to confuse people even more. Thankyou for a great read 🙂

  3. Thank you! Cockney is indeed a world to its own. 🙂 I think the Navy, more than any other profession, has enriched the English language – not just with their own colourful mix, but also the words they brought back home! And thank you to you and your husband for serving, and the sacrifices you made to be there!

  4. There’s also a mythical one, that ‘to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’ comes from a brass frame called a brass monkey which the cannonballs were stacked on in a pyramid shape. When the weather was cold enough, the brass supposedly contracted so much that the balls didn’t fit any more. A lovely story but unfortunately nobody has ever found any evidence that the brass monkey existed and stacking cannonballs like that on a ship which was rolling from side to side would be a very bad idea. 🙂

  5. I agree! Obviously whoever made that phrase up was smoking oakum and had never set foot on a ship of sail! 😉

  6. Interesting post. Just for the record: icebreaker shots are not a thing of the past. See http://www07.abb.com/images/librariesprovider91/default-album/livi_ice2_sourceakerarctic_nb510.jpg

  7. Ice breaker ships? I know they’re not a thing of the past – that’s not actually what the tense implies. But in the past, with wooden ships that could easily be crushed by ice sheets, they were absolutely essential to forging a passage for trade and exploration. Nowadays a crew has a chance of being rescued with helicopters or sea planes; they can send out distress signals and hope for rescue if they get stuck despite the ice breaker. In bygone days, it simply meant death by freezing or starvation for the entire crew…

  8. The amusing discussion of a mythical source for a colorful phrase has piqued my curiosity. How did they store cannon balls so as to be readily accessible w/o much risk of rolling around? I would guess that a sturdy topless wooden chest did the job, maybe with some sand in the bottom.

  9. From what I’ve learned so far, ships of sail were at the mercy of weather, so no crew in their right minds would store cannonballs in a pyramid (as the urban myth goes, atop a brass indented plate called a “monkey); as cannonballs were made primarily of iron, they would have rusted quickly in the salty sea spray if kept on deck.
    Also, because of the weather, it often took quite some time for a ship to come into a favourable position to engage an enemy ship; the guns were kept loaded at at all times, and surplus shot was stored in the hold as ballast (there, they were stored either on shelves indented with round holes, or between iron bars); each gun had a crew, and as cannonballs came up from the hold they could be fetched. On deck during a battle, the balls could be held in place by placing them in the indentations between the boards of the wooden hatch coamings .
    The cannonballs weren’t the only things stored below deck for the gun crews: The propellant charges were also stored below the waterline, as they were highly flammable. It was difficult to sink a wooden ship, but fire was their greatest enemy.

    By the way, “brass balls” was a combination of two terms referring to courage or toughness, but it didn’t come into use until the 1960’s (hence, “smoking oakum” 😉 ).

  10. i love your post. I’m actually writing a book on idioms; there are so many naval sayings that it’s hard not to let them take over! Running The Gauntlet and Rubbing Salt In The Wounds always goes down well 🙂

  11. Thank you. I know what you mean! The Navy has such a colourful, as well as practical, language that it’s hard not to use them: Batten down the hatches, close quarters, groggy, to give a wide berth, get underway, hand over fist, high and dry, taken aback, loose cannon, touch and go, and shake a leg… the list goes on and on!
    Have fun collecting idioms for your book!

  12. Seconded! That’s fascinating. Apropos of nothing, I found one of my ancestors described in a document as a ‘donkey engineer’, which sounded very odd. Turns out that before the age of steamships, small steam engines were used to haul lines etc. These were called steam donkeys.

  13. Just one warning, Stephen. Beware of any bullshit derived from the late Daniel Cassidy. Be suspicious of any claim that any word derives from Irish. There are some genuine examples, but Cassidy was a pompous fantasist.

  14. That’s an interesting job title, if ever I saw one! 🙂

  15. As with any research, one should always confirm information through various valid sources. As far as Cassidy is concerned, he’s passing the way of the Dodo… aside from your blog, I hadn’t ever really heard of him before (I tend to stick to reliable research sources, anyway 🙂 )…

  16. Yes, there’s really no point in pursuing fake research, however exciting it is in comparison to reality! 🙂

  17. Thanks for the advice. The whole area is a minefield of claims and counter claims. Some of them are obviously wrong but it doesn’t stop others from believing them to be right and the actual originals to be make-believe.

  18. Thanks for the info. That cat o nine tails looks painful. Hopefully for the crew there was “not enough room to swing the cat”.

  19. It was meant to be painful… hundreds of men at sea for months on end needed a firm hand in discipline, but the ‘tails was only used in extreme cases.

  20. Pingback: Jackspeak never gets old… | petermilitaryblog

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