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Jack Speak – A Sailors Dictionary

Naval Slang

As a former submariner, I wanted to embrace my naval heritage on my new blog. Jack Speak is a collection of nautical words and phrases developed over 400 years by the Royal Navy used in everyday language.  The Royal Navy has a heritage all of its own.  It is a lingo as mysterious as the Language of Flowers and as fascinating as the Language Of Stamps, but it is a closed book to the most eridite civilian and double dutch even to the most expert lexicgographer.  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.

First of why Jack Speak? well It is the term for the colourful ‘slanguage’ used by sailors over the centuries and is a wonderful world of inspiration for a nautical clothing range. This unique colloquial form of communication has it’s origins in every corner of the globe and is still very much in use today. Whether you’re getting ‘ship-shape and Bristol fashion’ or are ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’ JackSpeak can be heard everywhere.

Did you know there are hundreds of everyday phrases that originated from Navy slang, or Jack speak as it’s also known?

Ever been asked to show a leg? Have you let the cat out of the bag? Or perhaps you’re always being told to pipe down. I won’t cover every term as it will be a very long post but below is some of the most common ones.

If so, you’re in a good company.

Plymouth’s proud naval heritage has shaped our city’s identity and landscape, with many of our most prominent buildings and landmarks steeped in military history.

And whether we realise it or not, the hundreds of thousands of sailors, bootnecks and submariners that have made the Ocean City their home over the years have had a massive influence on the way we talk – with many military mottos now engrained within the modern English language.

Here we look at a few Navy phrases that have slipped into our everyday speech and how they came about.

Show a leg

Girlfriends could have an extra half hour in bed when a ship was in port – but they had to ‘show a leg’ to stay in the hammock while the men got up.

Pull your finger out

Cannons were primed with a little gunpowder in the ignition hole. A sailor would keep it in place with his finger and had to ‘pull his finger out’ just before firing.

Freeze the balls off a brass monkey

A monkey was a brass tray where cannon balls stored. In cold weather brass contracted and balls fell over.

Let the cat out of the bag/swing a cat

The cat refers to the cat’o nine tails, which was a multi-tailed whip used as a severe form of discipline. The ‘cat’ – as it was often know – was kept in a cloth bag. If it was taken out, there would be trouble.

Over a barrel

Sailors were often strapped over a barrel before being flogged.

Long shot

The term refers to firing a canon beyond its range – with little chance of success.

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.

True colours

Naval etiquette, which allows 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.

Above board

The expression ‘all above board’ refers to things on the top deck of the ship and therefore open to inspection.

Get out at Fratton

During intimate moments, Jack would be well advised to wear a ‘franger’ or a condom, which are also known as a wellie, Fred, or forget-me-not.

If Jack doesn’t have a ‘franger’ then his partner may expect him to ‘get out at Fratton’ – the last railway station before the naval base at Portsmouth.

Piping hot

The bo’sun would blow on a pipe to tell mess masters food was ready and to go and collect it while still hot.

Square meal

A sailor’s plate or tray was a wooden square.

On the fiddle

The fiddle was a raised lip round sailor’s plate.

It indicated how much sailor entitled to. If he took too much, food touched lip and sailor was said to be ‘on the fiddle’, which was a flogging offence.


Admiral Vernon, who was known as ‘Old Grogram’ from his habit of wearing a grogram coat, he supervised dilution of daily tot of rum (57% proof, 1/2 gill rum to 1 gill of water).

Feeling groggy

Too much grog!

Three sheets to the wind

This is an expression indicating lack of control of a sail and also being in a high state of inebriation.

Pipe down

At end of day sailors would have to obey a call from bo’sun’s pipe, stop talking, turn out lights and go to sleep.

Here are some more interesting and familiar terms

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. ‘Divisions’ are another feature of establishment routine where everyone in uniform marches (on special occasions, led by a Royal Marine Band.

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.

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.

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