Having written lots of army heroes in previous books, I’m now thinking of turning to the Royal Navy. That means lots of new research, of course, which is fascinating. I thought you might like to share some of the gems of English that I’ve found so far. It’s amazing how much naval slang has been taken into the language. We use it without thinking about it.
An obvious one is “to press something into service”. Yes, that stems from the naval press gang, which certainly pressed men into service, for King and country.
Less obvious is a term like “scuttlebutt” which we use to mean gossip, often scurrilous gossip. The “butt” was the water butt put on deck in tropical seas so that sailors could drink in the heat. To stop them from having too much of the precious water stores, they were allowed to take the water only one mug at a time, by inserting the mug through a hole in the butt, called the “scuttle”, overseen by a marine. Of course, sailors tended to congregate there, waiting their turn and gossiping. Hence “scuttlebutt”, the original water-cooler gossip.
Another term I like is “I’ll eat my hat”. Sounds very odd when you think about it, doesn’t it? But it made sense in the Royal Navy. Sailors used to keep a spare quid of chewing tobacco in their hats. If they ran out of tobacco, and had used their spare, they used to take out the lining of their hat, well impregnated with tobacco juices, and chew that instead.
Finally, there’s “show a leg”. When the bosun’s mates went round in the morning to rouse the crew, asleep in their hammocks, the penalty for not getting out quick enough was to have your hammock strings cut so that you tumbled to the deck below. However, there were sometimes women on board, especially when ships were in port, and they slept in the hammocks, too. “Show a leg” meant just that. If a hairy leg appeared, strings could be cut. If a smoother leg appeared, the bosun’s mate let the “lady” lie.
Don’t be surprised if some of these figure in any naval story I write. I think they’re irresistible, don’t you?