Jackspeak, Naval slang: A to F

Jackspeak, a guide to Naval language which has become mainstream….

The Royal Navy is the oldest organised fighting service in the world and those of us with British ancestors would more than likely have a sailor somewhere in the family tree, be he with the RN or the merchant marine such as the East India Company. Naval slang would be part of his everyday language. It is surprising how many of these of terms are still heard today… here are a few gems from the A’s to F’s:


A1, the highest level of seaworthiness so to be A1 means of to be of the best quality

Across the ditch: Over the Channel in Europe

Across the Pond: in America

Adam’s ale: Drinking water

Addled: drinking water that has become putrid, so addled means ‘gone off’

Afters: pudding

Agony Bags: Bagpipes

All above board:  anything above the deck so visible to anyone, now means fair and open business dealing

All singing, all dancing: sarcastic comment about a piece of equipment claimed to solve a previously impossible problem

Arthur, Martha or Mabel: someone not sure of his job, confused

Awash: half submerged.. can refer to too much food or drink


Bale out: comes from the old name ‘boyle’ for bucket

Bandy: traditional nickname for anyone with the surname Evans

Birmingham screwdriver: A big hammer for fine adjustments

Biscuit: kneaded cakes of flour baked with the least quantity of water possible and then stored as a bread substitute

Bitter end: The inboard end of a ship’s anchor cable was secured to special points called bitts. If the cable was run out all the way it was at the bitter end and was at its limit.

Blower: telephone, originated with the early speaking tubes used for communication between the Bridge and engine room

Blubber: to cry, originating from whaling days when fat globules looked like tear drops as the whale was flensed.

Blue: Form of address between sailors and marines unfamiliar with each others names.

Booby: a tropical sea bird which is very easy to catch once it has settled hence a booby prize is really no catch/prize at all.

Brass monkeys: Cold.. ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’. In wooden sailing ships the brass monkey was a three ringed brass plate beside each gun on which 3 cannon balls were placed with the fourth above to form a pyramid. In extreme cold the brass contracted more than the iron so the balls were too large for the brass rings and the top cannon ball pushed the lower ones off the plate.

Bristol fashion: based on the reputation of ships sailing from Bristol where everything was neat, tidy and seamanlike in appearance and function.

Buck: one of several meanings is the nickname for anyone called Taylor or Rogers.

Bucket of fog: A situation that is illogical or incomprehensible.

Bumph: description of never-ending stream of paperwork.

By and large: a nautical term meaning to sail a boat by the wind (i.e. to weather) but large (i.e. not very close to the wind) which is now generally used for ‘broadly speaking’.


Cackle:  excessive and loud talk.

Cackle berries: hens eggs.

Call boys: before the loudspeaker system was installed in big war ships, boy seamen had the job of running to any part of the ship to repeat the orders issued by the ‘pipes’.

Can’t make head nor tail of it: expression used by the Yeoman of signals when he is unable to make any sense out of a distant hoist of flag signals.

Cat o’nine tails: instrument of punishment stored in a red baize bag to disguise the blood.

Cat’s out of the bag: retribution is imminent.

Not enough room to swing a cat: Confined space.

Char: Hindu word for tea.

Chief Nightingale: the senior medical rating in a larger warship carrying medical staff.

Chippy: nickname of anyone called Carpenter.

Chock-a-block or Chokka: upset or fed up, derived from the old warship sailing term when two blocks rigged in a tackle have come together so no further movement is possible.

Circuits and bumps: landing practice for pilots.

Clag: connect two items together, especially fire hoses.

Clanger: a badly timed remark that is so embarrassing it makes the ship’s bell clang.

Clean slate: the helmsman’s log slate, on which the course and distance was chalked, was wiped clean at the start of the next period of duty at the wheel, now means fresh start or cancelling a debt.

Close quarters: strong bulwarks erected as a defence against boarders i.e. needed hand to hand fighting.

Codswallop: A load of nonsense;  derived from Hiram Codd who in 1875 successfully made bottled  carbonated water which remained drinkable for longer than still water stored in casks… Wallop was slang for beer so Mr Codd’s Wallop was useless to hardened beer drinkers.

Collar: worn originally to prevent the sailor’s pigtail from soiling his jumper.

Copper -bottomed: protective copper sheathing plates fitted to wooden hulls to reduce attacks by teredo worms so the wood lasted longer and the ship went faster as the copper also discouraged barnacle and weed growth, now something guaranteed to be worthwhile has a copper-bottomed guarantee.

Creek: a narrow inlet usually within a natural harbour which is tidal so dried out at low water. Naval Hospitals were often at the heads of these creeks. The standard of care was poor in the early days so to be ‘Up the creek’ (with or without a paddle) was to be in a precarious situation.

Crows in working dress: seagulls.

Cut and run: This derives from the process of furling the sails on their yards and stopping them there with light rope yarns which can be easily cut with a knife so the sails drop quickly, fill with air and the ship would move (run)… in an extreme emergency the anchor cable could also be severed.

Cut of his jib: a sailor had to recognise the nationality of another vessel purely by recognising the shape of her jibsail, used to be about the shape of a person’s nose but now is a comment on a person’s style.

Cuts very little ice: wooden ships could make very little progress in pack ice, now means the speaker has made very little impression on the listener.



Davy Jones Locker: the ghost of Jonah corrupted down the ages to mean the grave of the sea

Death: you look like death warmed up may be a statement of someone with a severe hangover

Definite maybe: classic piece of non-commitment

Devil and the deep blue sea: seam between the deck and the hull so there was only the thickness of the planking between the Devil and the deep blue sea

Devil to pay: the other devil was the long plank running from stem to stern and immediately adjacent to the keel. It had to be kept waterproof by paying it with oakum (hemp fibres sealed in with hot pitch/tar in the most inaccessible area of the hull … so now if you have the Devil to pay you’re in serious trouble)

Dhobey/dhobi/dhoby: washing clothes

Dickey : a multi-purpose word which includes dickey heart (health) , dickey front (shirt), second dickey (2IC) , dickey seat (seating arrangement)

Dickhead: idiot

Dinky Dai: generic name for an Australian (from Dinkum-G’day)

Dip: multipurpose eg fail a test, lose a rank

Ditch: land in sea of get rid of someone or something

Divvy: dividend/share

Do the honours: pour the wine

Doddle: something really easy

Dog Days: hottest part of the year in northern hemisphere when Sirius the Dog star rises and sets with the sun

Doolalley: crazy

Down the hatch: drinking toast

Dressed up to the nines:  Jack or Royal’s lady when overdressed for a function


Eating irons: cutlery

Every man for himself: final order when a warship is on fire or badly damaged and about to sink


Faith to plant acorns: strong convictions

Far flung: a long way from home

Fat dumb and happy: not paying attention to the exacting business at hand

Feet under the table: made himself at home and getting on very well

Fell off his perch: the come-uppance of a self important individual

Five fingered salvo or bunch of fives: a well landed punch

Flash: he’s looking flash ie smart

Flog a dead horse: the process of paying off a month’s advance wages at sea was known as working off a dead horse, when this month was up a straw effigy of a horse was hoisted aloft then dropped into the sea. To flog a dead horse was to expect, in vain, that the crew would be willing to work any harder during that first month since they’d already been paid for it.

Flotsam: cargo or equipment lost overboard

Free and easy: old sailing term for a ship whose sheets (sail control ropes) had been eased off and is now running free before the wind

Fudging the issue: faulty aims or reasoning

Fungus farm: beard


Taken from Jackspeak, a guide to British Naval Slang and usage by Rick Jolly and illustrated by Tug, Conway Books, 2011.


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