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Jack Speak—Naval Language and Slang of the Royal Navy

Updated on December 17, 2016
Rik Ravado profile image

Rik is civilian who spent the last 15 years working with the Royal Navy, in uniformed posts and also as a consultant training analyst

Royal Navy Logo
Royal Navy Logo

The British Royal Navy has a language or slang all of its own which reflects both its long history and also the culture (both good and bad) of the seafarer.

I've never been in the armed forces but began to work with the Royal Navy about 10 years ago in an Officer's Billet (job) as a training specialist. To begin with, I hadn't got a clue what anyone was talking about. Then I discovered JackSpeak.

The Royal Navy has a curious habit of pretending its shore establishments or 'stone frigates' are ships. With training establishments, this apparently odd behavior helps the trainees to feel at home or rather 'at sea'. On 'concrete ships', the RN talk about raising the gangplank (closing the gates) and allowing sailors to 'go ashore'.

Pipes and Heads

The officer's mess is called the Wardroom and the toilets are the 'heads'. A call to 'clear the lower decks' means everyone is to be addressed by a senior officer while the 'upper deck' refers to officers only. This address will be announced by a 'pipe'.

To the non-nautical, this means a 'tannoy' announcement. This expression goes back to the days when a pipe or whistle was blown before an announcement was made aboard ship.

Bosun's Whistle
Bosun's Whistle

Colours and Colourful Language

Ceremonial activities also affect shore life. First thing in the morning there are 'colours'. Everyone is expected to face the mast (surprisingly, every shore establishment has one) while the white ensign is raised to the accompaniment of a bugle.

Fortunately (for me) only uniformed personnel are expected to salute. 'Divisions' are another feature of establishment routine where everyone in uniform marches (on special occasions, led by a Royal Marine Band.

Navy speak or 'Jack' speak, as it is sometimes affectionately called, is complex and consists of a broad spectrum of language from military jargon, through historical derivations to slang and downright vulgarity. Much of the vocabulary relates to life on board ship and also to Jack's arduous leisure pursuits while ashore.

Bearing in mind the reputation English sailors have, some of this is very lewd and explicit! There are a great many expressions which relate to drinking, women, bodily functions and (not to put to fine a point on it) sex.

It will be fascinating to see how JackSpeak and navy slang evolves as the number of women going to sea steadily increases. Will political correctness in the Royal Navy triumph? Will women feminise the language and culture? Only time will tell.

Navy Cannon Being Fired
Navy Cannon Being Fired

Naval Expressions in Everyday Use

Many expressions we regularly use today, on dry land, originate from life on board ship in Nelson's day.

  • Take the expression long shot meaning attempting something with little chance of success. This originated from firing a cannon beyond its normal range.
  • What about at loggerheads? Loggerheads were hollow spheres of iron at each end of a shaft. They were heated and used to melt tar in a bucket. The expression arose because the two loggerheads can never come together.
  • Swinging the lead relates to a sailor dropping a lead weight on a line over the side of the ship in order to measure the sea depth. Sailors found this to be a handy method of avoiding real work.
  • On a more culinary note, chew the fat relates to the need for heavy mastication in order to break down the tough rind of beef that was stored in a barrel of brine for months on end.

Royal Navy Chef Onboard HMS Ark Royal
Royal Navy Chef Onboard HMS Ark Royal
  • Piping hot originates from the fact that if food were collected from the galley as soon as the appropriate 'pipe' sounded then would it would still be hot when served.
  • Toe the line, meaning to conform to rules and authority, originates from a time when a ship's company were mustered for victualling or pay. Each sailor stepped forward to a line marked on the deck and gave his name and duties.
  • Pig's Ear, a term for something messy, refers to an upper deck urinal used by sailors when on watch. Incidentally, Jack's expressions for a call of nature, all of which allude to experiences at sea, include, syphon the python, pumping the ship, ease springs, check the ship for leaks and springing a leak.
  • The expression all above board refers to things on the top deck of the ship and therefore open to inspection.
  • True colours relate to Naval etiquette which, while allowing false colours or flags to be displayed when approaching an enemy ship, insists that true colours are flown once battle begins and fire is exchanged.
  • Copper bottomed, something worthwhile, as in a 'copper-bottomed guarantee, refers to copper plates which were fixed to wooden ships hulls to minimise worm attack and prevent the build-up of barnacles and weeds.

Portsmouth Train Arriving at Fratton
Portsmouth Train Arriving at Fratton

Relationships and Fratton

When a male sailor arrives at a foreign port and goes in search of companionship he may well indulge in a bit of 'counterpane hurdling' or he may 'give the ferret a run'. For health reasons, Jack would be well advised to wear a 'franger'. A condom is also known as a wellie, a fred, or a forget-me-not.

If Jack doesn't have a franger then his partner may expect him to 'Get out at Fratton'. This is a quaint expression for 'coitus interruptus' and the derivation becomes clear when you realise that Fratton is the last railway station before Portsmouth and the Naval Base.

Strangely, however, a 'franger sangar' is a fried egg sandwich! While we're on the subject of relationships, beware anyone young and innocent invited on board to view the mythical 'golden rivet'. This fabled fixing is supposedly located in the lower reaches of the vessel by the shipbuilder and celebrates the completion of construction.

When I was on a Frigate in the Northern Gulf just before the last Gulf War, the Principal Warfare Officer (a young woman) arranged for me to visit the Engine Room. Her parting shot to the Deputy Marine Engineering Officer, also a girl, was "Don't forget to show him the Golden Rivet!". The irony is they were both about half my age. How times have changed!

Within the Royal Navy, the submariners remain a somewhat separate and secretive bunch. When anyone in the RN talks about 'a boat' then they mean a submarine. Submariners are sometimes referred to by the rest of the Navy as 'boat people'. The submariners refer to the surface fleet as 'skimmers' or less kindly as 'targets'.

Much sailors talk conveys a school-boyish sense of humour. I like 'sparrowfart' for dawn or first light. (What the sparrow does before he begins the dawn chorus). The 'sports pages' are the romantic and sexy bits in a letter to a loved one. Friday is known as 'Poets day' ( Go Off Early Tomorrow's Saturday)!

If this introduction has whetted your appetite for JackSpeak and Royal Navy slang or you find yourself working with the British Navy then consider purchasing the definitive guide to 'Jackspeak' written by Rick Jolly, a surgeon Commander in the Royal Navy.

Royal Navy do Bohemian Rapsody

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    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 9 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Rik, what about "Ship-shape and Bristol Fashion"? Nobody's mentioned that here yet.

      An uncle was in the wartime navy (WWII), and he came out with a few choice expressions, including "Hell's bells" (that was a favourite of his). Half the rest is a bit foreign to me, but understandable. He spent some time in the Med, where my Dad was in the Army. Between them you could have written a whole new English Dictionary. I what he'd make of today's midget sized RN?

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      phil coyle 17 months ago

      The RN got its name the Andrew after Andrew Miller a merchant who funded the early navy and it was known as Andrews navy. Andrews liver salts came much later Think this guy was pulling your p....r

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      len 5 years ago

      In the RCN in 1955/60 and only a few of these phrases are familiar. We called the sea "the chuck",lost articles were put in the "scran bag" desert was "duff"and issued rum was "pussers neats" There were many many more.

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      Geoff Leading Seaman 5 years ago

      Hi There love the page but did see something wrong You have have had lots of response with POETS day I can tell you for a fact as I'm in the Royal Navy it means Piss Off Early Tomorrows Saturday hope this helps ;)

    • Peter Geekie profile image

      Peter Geekie 5 years ago from Sittingbourne

      Thanks Rik

      As an ex officer in the Andrew this was good fun and reminds me of earlier days. Also may help to convince my wife who still thinks I make it up !!

      Kind regards Peter

    • Rik Ravado profile image
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      Rik Ravado 5 years ago from England

      Bob, are you mixing me up with Rick Jolly - who wrote the book Jackspeak? He is a doctor and I never served in the RN.

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      Bob Graffham 5 years ago

      Rick (Sir ! )You want me to pay my pension to you for this stuff? Always knew you were a crafty bastard? Showing we Aircrewmen of 772Sqdn at Portland in the Late 1970's your lovely collection of medical photo's taken in N.I.

      Oh well I guess someone has to supplement the pension and you certainly have the gift to eductate and entertain!

      All The Best.

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      Candice 5 years ago

      My fiancé is in his 2nd phase of training as a submariner engineer in the RA in HMS Sultan in Pompy and he's loving it! I love that only I know what he's saying when he say's he's going out for a 'tab' and things like that. Want to be the best Military wife I can be so this book looks like it will come in handy! Thank you!

    • Rik Ravado profile image
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      Rik Ravado 5 years ago from England

      Liam

      I think it might be 'teriyaki' This isn't Jackspeak but teriyaki derives from the noun teri (???), which refers to a shine or luster given by the sugar content in the tare, and yaki (Japanese cooking). My guess is sailors called the Sun 'teriyaki' in the Far East.

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      siti 5 years ago

      gud 4 knowledge

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      Liam 5 years ago

      There is a scene in The Battle of the River Plate with two Ratings on watch as the sun is rising and one says "here comes old 'terriagi' ". Is this word Jackspeak and what does it mean ?

    • Zoe Brain profile image

      Zoe Brain 6 years ago from Canberra, Australia

      Then there's sippers, gulpers, scran, two blocks... another voice from Australia here.

    • Rik Ravado profile image
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      Rik Ravado 6 years ago from England

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing Jimmy.

      Alan - Yes 'Oggin, 'Ogwash, Hoggin and Hogwash are all used according to the book Jackspeak by Rick jolly.

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      Alan Oliver 6 years ago

      During my time in the 'Andrew'... in the fifties, the 'Sea' was often referred to as the 'ogin' or 'oggin'? Has anyone come across the term?

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      ABSM JIMMY 6 years ago

      im in the Aussie navy and its all still used today... with more getting invented. interestingly, in rookies you get issued a book of jack speek with your kit. POETS day is true. oh and the girls love it more than the guys i think!!!

    • Rik Ravado profile image
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      Rik Ravado 7 years ago from England

      Jane - Interesting the idea of POETS day (even if the meaning is subtly different) extends beyond the British Navy!

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      Jane Lawton 7 years ago

      I'm an artist who moved to Florida recently, so I'm painting boats and seascapes. Loving it! A note about "Poets Day" I learned this in Charleston, S.C. of all places. P.O.E.T.S. stands for "Piss On Everything, Tomorrow's Saturday

    • Rik Ravado profile image
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      Rik Ravado 7 years ago from England

      Mike this is a really interesting. for those who don't know, Guz is the Navy nickname for Devonport in the south west of England. It possibly comes from the wartime signal letter group GUZZ, the port's call sign.

      According to the book 'Jackspeak', 'Andrew' is probably derived from Andrew Miller, a successful press gang officer of the 18th century. As with many of these terms there may be more than one explanation!

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      Mike Hobbs 7 years ago

      I asked an ex-matelot once 'Why the RN was referred to as 'The Andrew' he replied that it was all about Andrew's liver salts, in that it gave you the sh*ts. I come from Guz in 'oggy land, but this was explained to me in Scotland

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      Rik Ravado 7 years ago from England

      Tom

      Great to have an Australian viewpoint of Jack Speak. I know Whale Island well. Its also known as HMS Excellent. Thanks for your informative comment!

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      Tom Ware 7 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Rik, the Australian Navy I served in from 1954-60 was every bit as British as the RN and used all the same phraseology: Tiddly-oggies, bum-nuts and bacon, etc.. Many of the officers were from Blighty and I can recall one particularly hard gunnery officer from Whale Island. Yep, sailors have a language of their own...but so, too, do so many other professions and callings.

    • Rik Ravado profile image
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      Rik Ravado 7 years ago from England

      Thanks for stopping by Cynthia!

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      Cynthia Fadness 7 years ago

      I Think It was just great! Bravo!!!

    • Rik Ravado profile image
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      Rik Ravado 8 years ago from England

      Jo - Glad you enjoyed this article. I've visited HMS Drake. Working with the RN is unusual but generally a rewarding experience!

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      Jo McGOWAN 8 years ago

      ENJOYED VERY MUCH YOUR HUB, LIVE IN PLYMOUTH, WORKED WITH RN ON BOARD 'HMS DRAKE'.........JO

    • Rik Ravado profile image
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      Rik Ravado 8 years ago from England

      Glad you enjoyed it Sarah - hope it helps you to understand him better! PS: If he annoys you, when he's asleep, tip a bucket of water over him and shout "Man Overboard!"

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      sarah 8 years ago

      this page is great, my fella is in the navy and i am always telling him to speak english!!!

    • Rik Ravado profile image
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      Rik Ravado 8 years ago from England

      Catala - Yes I don't think that is an RN phrase - Glad you enjoyed.

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      catala 8 years ago

      you seem to have missed "shiver me timbers" but that was from the merchant navy? or John Silver..good hub

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      Rik Ravado 8 years ago from England

      Adam

      Glad you enjoyed it!

    • adamjthompson profile image

      adamjthompson 8 years ago

      I'm american, but a great read. Many of these terms are used in the US, too.

    • Rik Ravado profile image
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      Rik Ravado 9 years ago from England

      Thank you knolyourself for your kind comments - However, I'm not quite as old as Peter O'Toole!

      Theophanes - Yes dialects are great fun. When I used to live in a small village in Derbyshire people used to say "Hows ye Father?" The standard reply was "Fair to middlin" (it had nothing to do with how my father actually was!)

    • Theophanes profile image

      Theophanes 9 years ago from New England

      That was great! I've only heard of a small handful of those. It's amusing to know where they come from. I'm always fascinated by local dialects and slang that diverge so much from regular speechthat they become their own code or language. What a fun read, keep it up.

    • knolyourself profile image

      knolyourself 9 years ago from Bay Area, Ca

      Just got my first comment in history, may as well write one - and your it. Love the origin of language; and like your persona. Reminds of 'The Singing Detective'. Also like your writing style - you got 'The Knack', a film from the 60s. So really enjoyed your article, you should do well. And since you're in sight of the English Channel, also Heavy Weather, Peter O'Toole.

    • Rik Ravado profile image
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      Rik Ravado 9 years ago from England

      Mortimer, Woody - Glad you found it interesting. It amazes me how many words and expressions we use in everyday speech in the UK actually come from the Navy. Copper-bottomed is an obvious example!

    • Woody Marx profile image

      Woody Marx 9 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      A real 'copper bottomed' Hub! I love to hear about the true origins of words.

      Thanks!

    • MortimerWorth profile image

      MortimerWorth 9 years ago from Germany

      I've been around some US Navy and I am familiar with a little less than half of what you have here being part of their culture as well. I am once again enjoying the brainstorming fun facts that you dig up.

    • Rik Ravado profile image
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      Rik Ravado 9 years ago from England

      Many thanks William. Working with the Royal Navy is strange even to a British civilian - I often wonder what other Navies make of JackSpeak!

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 9 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      I greatly enjoyed reading this hub. Thanks, Rik. I'll add the book to my reading list.