Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Scuttlebutt, anyone?

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?



Jan Jones said...

Wow, Joanna, I would never have believed scuttlebutt was that old!

Press into service and show a leg, I knew, but I love the origin of I'll eat my hat.

Looking forward to more gems!

Jane Odiwe said...

I didn't know most of those-fascinating stuff Joanna!
I especially loved 'show a leg'!

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think they're wonderful, too. And I can tell you that, back in the days of national service in the mid-20th century, sailors still slept in hammocks (very comfortable, I'm told) and were still in danger of having the strings cut if they were too slow getting up.

However, I think that, by then, all the legs shown were probably of the hairy variety!


Joanna Waugh said...

My favorite expression is "not enough room to swing a cat." Everyone pictures someone twirling a cat around over their head by the tail but it really refers to the cat-o-nine-tails the bosun used to whip miscreants.

Anonymous said...

Hi Joanna

Funnily enough, there's been discussion about the origins of "not enough room to swing a cat" on the Notes&Queries page of the Guardian newspaper, most recently on 10th December (yesterday). I imagine it will be on their website

One respondent says: "there is no validated example of [the phrase] being used to mean the use of a whip for floggings. Neither is there any reason why it should have been, given that these floggings were always carried out on deck..."

Another says the phrase referred to "cats, or catboats ... small sailing colliers that took coals from Newcastle to London. When many were moored in harbour the situation could arise where there was no more room for a cat to swing on its mooring."

So, you pays your money and takes your choice, it seems...

But it's all still endlessly fascinating.

BTW, in another response on the same day, someone is disputing the generally accepted naval derivation of "cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey".


Anonymous said...

Hmm... now I've got visions of slacking sailors shaving thier legs!

Jan Jones said...

You know, you really ought to do something about that imagination of yours, Louise...