Jack Speak—Naval Language and Slang of the Royal Navy
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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
Questions & Answers
Is the term "matelot' for a Navy sailor in any way derogatory?
The term "matelot' is neutral. It is a French term, and its original meaning was 'bedmate' because two sailors used to share hammock space. Now it is just a word for sailor often used by sailors to describe themselves.Helpful 3
What is navy slang for the Fleet Air Arm?
The members of the Fleet Air Arm were sometimes referred to as 'Airy Fairies'.Helpful 6