Did you know?

Did you know the origins of some of these terms below?

All above board This term has come to mean fair play or that an action is legitimate. The word board is possibly from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘bord’ which related to the planks used to construct the sides of a ship. Therefore all above board was all the parts of a ship above the deck i.e. all that was visible to the observer. It also may come from the practice of captains when entering combat to keep some of their men below deck so that the enemy could not see the true strength of the ship’s company.
All at Sea One is said to be all at sea if you are in a state of confusion or bewildered – it is derived from the position of a ship that has lost its bearings
Aloof This term meaning ‘standing apart, not being involved come from the Dutch word loef or windward. Said of a vessel; amongst a fleet of ships which sails higher into the wind so she draws apart.
Anti-flash gear Anti-flash gear was developed after the Battle of Jutland, the major naval battle of WW1. It was then used in both wars during action stations. Flash is the result of explosion usually below decks but can travel a considerable distance from the source. It is of very short duration and even thin clothing will give some protection.
As the Crow Flies It was a custom to carry crows on board ships. Vessels out of sight of land would release a crow, which would naturally fly towards land, taking the most direct route. Ships would follow the path of the crow, and the lookout platform at the top of the tallest mast became known as the crow’s nest.
ASDIC Stands for Anti-Submarine Detection Investigation Committee. This was formed in the First World War to counter the threat to Allied shipping by the German U-boats. The New Zealand scientist Ernest Rutherford helped with the development of the equipment that became known as ASDIC.
Balaclava This clothing item came into use during the Crimean War and was named after the village Balaklava, where the British army was campaigning during the war.
Nelson’s ‘Band of Brothers’ In 1798 Nelson referred to the British captains under his command during the Mediterranean campaign as his ‘band of brothers’. He took the phrase from Shakespeare’s Henry V, Act IV, Scene III where King Henry speaks to his men on the eve of the battle of Agincourt.
Basket Case>/td> This term has come to mean an infirm or failing person or thing. This entered use in the immediate period after 1918 and referred to men who had lost arms and legs and had to be moved around in a basket–type wheelchair. The connotation of the term was such that in 1919 the United States Army denied press reports that such men were in military hospitals but the term was never meant to describe individuals at that time.,/td>
Bazooka This slang term for a recoilless rocket launcher has its origins in a popular cartoon in American during the Second World War. One of the characters carried a large weapon he called his ‘bazooka’. The new weapon that was introduced during the war was given this nickname by soldiers and entered into popular use.
Beaker This word for a mug or cup comes from the Spanish word for a wooden water keg located in a ship’s boat barrica.
In a sailing warship the devil was the outermost seam between the planks of the deck and hull. So if a sailor
was working on this seam, and perhaps hanging out over the side he was said to between the ‘devil’ (the outermost seam) and the sea
Bigwig This term has come to mean someone in a senior position with a high level of responsibility. In the 18th Century and early 19th century, the size of a wig one wore was reflected their status in society. The source of this marker of status was France which set the trends that other countries followed.
Blood Money This was a payment instituted in the Seventeenth century for officers that had been wounded in action. There was a scale of payments i.e. the loss of a leg for a cavalry officer being worth more than an infantry officer. Other ranks would receive a pension rather than a one-off payment but at a lesser amount to the officers.
Break the Ice The act of overcoming the hesitation in social settings comes from ships designed to break through ice that came into use in the nineteenth century
Buff This term for someone who is in good physical shape comes from a garment made of strong leather with a soft surface that does not chafe the wearer used from the 17th century. It was made into a soft coat that cavalrymen wore under their cuirass (armour).
Cadre A skeleton military unit that keeps a structure of officers and ratings so it can be quickly expanded upon mobilisation or to replace casualties. The word comes from the French for frame, via the Italian word quadro or framework and the Latin quadrum or square.
Camp Follower A term for a civilian who was either officially or unofficially attached to a military unit – camp followers could include wives and traders that supplied items to the men.
Cap Tallies Cap tallies were first formally introduced by the Admiralty in 1860 to identify the ship’s companies of Royal Navy vessels. During wartime they were removed and a replaced by a generic HMS tally.
The term for forgetting what has happened and start anew come from the practice to record a ship’s courses and distances on a log slate and at the end of the watch, transfer this information into the deck log book. Then the slate was wiped clean for the next watch.
Clean Sweep Conducting a thorough clean up comes from the term for a monstrous sea which sweeps everything of the deck of a ship often including the superstructure.
Clubbing A term for when a ship drifts with the tide with an anchor down. A vessel clubbing will therefore be taken stern first.
Couple of Shakes The sailor’s way of measuring a show period of time alludes to the speed with which a sail would begin to shake if the helmsman allowed the ship to head too closely to the wind.
Cut and Run This saying may have two origins, both to do with ships at anchor needing to sail in a hurry; the most widely thought being that a captain would order the anchor cable to be cut. Alternatively, it describes the action of cutting ropes that held furled sails enabling the sails to fall and the ship to move off quickly.
Dag This term comes from a small single-handed firearm introduced in the 16th century for cavalry
Deadline This term for a set date or time for something to be completed by comes from the American Civil War. The ‘deadline’ was an area marked off with rope or stakes next to the fence of prisoner-of-war camps. Any POW who crossed the line was immediately shot by the guards and killed, hence the ‘deadline’.
Dutch Courage During the Anglo-Dutch wars of the seventeenth century, a descriptive phrase that included the word ‘dutch’, such as ‘go dutch’, ‘dutch uncle’ and ‘double dutch’, was used as an insult. English propaganda at the time claimed that Dutch sailors and other troops were cowards and would only fight when drunk on schnapps.
Fairway This golfing term has its origins in naval language. It means the clear passage into a harbour, port or river, where there are no hazards and obstacles. It seems that Golf didn’t take this term up until the early 20th century. This is a common tradition nowadays but records indicate that the first time it was carried out was by Captain J. Hall of HMS Heartache on 14 July 1612.
Figureheads on warships The first proper figureheads appeared on warships in the 14th century. By the time of the 19th century figureheads could very lavish additions to the bow. By the 1860s this trend had ended. HMS Warrior was one of the last warships to carry a figurehead. After her most ships carried a shield on the bow but by the dawn of the 20th century even this practice had been phased out.
Flags at Half Mast This is a common tradition nowadays but records indicate that the first time it was carried out was by Captain J. Hall of HMS Heartache on 14 July 1612.
Flash in the Pan To make a short lived impression. This term is from black power guns when the gunpowder in the firing pan of a flintlock gun failed to ignite the charge in the chamber. This could be very limiting to your chances of survival if the enemy was charging at you.
Flotsam Goods or material found floating in the sea – as opposed to Jetsam which has been thrown overboard or jettisoned
Gaiters This piece of uniform kit designed to keep mud from getting into soldier’s shoes was introduced in the 17th century. They were last worn in the field in 1823. In 1862 short gaiters were introduced. These remained in service mostly as part of ceremonial uniforms.
Guidon A flag which is broad at the end near the staff and forked or sometimes pointed at the other. Guidons were first carried by cavalry units but have spread to all military forces. The word comes from the Italian guida or ‘guide’.
Give them a wide berth The term for avoiding someone or something comes from the practice of giving anchored ships in harbour a wide berth to avoid collision.
Hanky Panky Despite its meaning on land, in the Wardroom it is a drink made by mixing brandy and ginger wine. A slight variation is Horse’s Neck when ginger ale is used.
Hat trick This term reportedly has its origins in cricket in the 19th century when a player taking three wickets with consecutive balls was given a new hat. The term used for scoring three goals or tries in a game comes from the 1940s and the ice hockey team the Toronto Maple Leafs. The owner at the time would give a hat to the player that scored three goals in one game – hence a “hat-trick”.
His Name is Mud This saying for someone whose reputation is dubious came into use after the American Civil War. Dr Samuel Mudd, a doctor in Virginia in April 1865, reset the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, the man who had assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Booth never told Mudd what he had done but Dr Mudd was arrested and sent to prison for six years for his actions in helping Booth.
Hodge Podge A term for a mess comes from a Dutch word that came into English usage for a stew of as many different types of meat as possible.
How the City of Nelson got its name We have the New Zealand company to thank for the town of Nelson. They selected the harbour as a settlement which began in 1842. The leader of the expedition, Arthur Wakefield, had served under Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy who had fought with Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar and the man Nelson was talking to when he uttered the immortal words, “Kiss me Hardy.”
Idlers Is a term for those serving in a ship who are liable for constant duty aboard ship during the day and therefore not called upon to keep the night watches
Imperial Japanese Navy Ship’s Names of WW2 Unlike the Royal Navy and the United States Navy who used words or individuals, and geographical locations for their ship’s names the Imperial Japanese Navy chose more poetical names for their warships e.g. Hiryu – Dragon Flying in Heaven, Kaga – Increased Joy, Fuso – Land of the Divine Mulberry Tree.
In the Black Books In the mid-14th century, maritime laws began to be codified into a book. In time this book became known as the Admiralty’s Black Book. This also included a section on punishment of breaches of the laws. Hence to be in the Black Books is to be in some form of trouble.
In the doldrums This is a term that may have come from the shore into naval use in the days of sailing warships. The doldrums are the equatorial regions of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The weather conditions in these areas result in extended periods of calm or squalls and hurricanes/cyclones.
Know the Ropes On a sailing ship it was important to know what the function and name of each rope aboard ship. Only from the precise position that ropes were secured on deck could they be identified. Hence ‘knowing the ropes’ became the distinction between an old hand and the beginner.
Laid Up This has come to mean being sick and unable to work. It comes from the description of a ship that is taken out of
commission and ‘laid up’ on her keel on large wooden block that provide a safe and level base.
Landlubber A term for someone with little or no sea experience. The term comes from men who were serving in a ship purely due to their physical strength. They were known as Landsmen and were looked down upon by seamen. The term lubber goes back to the 14th century and refers to one who is clumsy or stupid.
Mayday Why do ships and aircraft use ‘mayday’ as their call for help? The answer is that Mayday comes from the French word m’aidez -meaning ‘help me’ — and is pronounced, approximately, ‘mayday.’
Medicine Ball Ever wondered why those balls in the Fleet Gym are call medicine balls? The term comes from the end of the 19th century. The first medicine balls
were large stuffed leather balls designed to be thrown from person to person as part of fitness training. The late 19th Century saw the development of a health and fitness culture of which medicine balls are one reminder. This period also saw the introduction of corn flakes by Mr
Mentioned-in-Despatches This is a commendation for outstanding service, but not such as would qualify for the award of a decoration or medal. This evolved from the practice of naming individuals who had performed well in official reports sent back to the Senior Commanders. Is known as MID.
Money for Old Rope Sailing ships went through a lot of rope, for example Nelson’s HMS Victory needed some 26km of rope for rigging alone. Naturally this rope would become used up and had to be disposed of. Naturally sailors, always on the lookout for extra income would sell the rope ashore for some quick and easy money.
Morse Code Samuel Morse introduced his code in 1837 but it wasn’t until 1905 it was able to be used with radios aboard a warship. Morse Code remained the international standard for maritime communications until 1999 when it was replaced by the Global Maritime-Distress Safety System which uses the spoken word rather than a code.
Nail One’s Colours to the Mast This has come to mean making a public show of one’s stubborn resistance. It comes from the practice of keeping the flag flying so that your enemy did not think that you had struck your colours and to inspire the ship’s company to great efforts to defence the ship. This practice was noted in the log of HMS Foudroyant in 1800 when it engaged with a French vessel.
Notice for Steam This was a request for a ship to be prepared to leave the dock and that steam was to be raised so the engines would operate. Interestingly, this term was used in the RNZN up until 1973 when it was replaced by the term, Notice for Sea.
Pipe Down Aboard a sailing warship, the hammocks that the sailors slept in would be ‘piped up’ in the morning and required the men to unsling their hammocks and take them up on deck for airing out. At the end of the day, the Bosun would signal ‘pipe down’ for the men to take their hammocks our of stowage and hand them up ready for sleeping. The men were expected to go to sleep until their watch, also all lights were extinguished and there was no smoking hence the order ‘pipe down’ was an order to keep quiet.
Piping the Side The boatswain’s pipe or call was in use at sea in the 13th century. It became a badge of rank and by the 16th century it was the symbol of an Admiral. 100 years later it became a tool for use by quartermasters, boatswain or a coxswain. Piping the side is a mark of naval respect and began in the days of sail when a commanding officer would visit another ship at sea. As he was hauled aboard from his longboat suspended in a chair, the boatswain would pipe orders to the men hauling the rope.
Pongo Slang term for a soldier from the name of the mules used on the North Western Frontier (Afghanistan). Say a good morning to your friendly pongo today.
Poodle faking A timeless art of faking interest in a lady in order to improve one’s financial, social or professional position. Junior Officers were known to cultivate the society of women married to their superior officers.
Preserving Admiral Nelson One of Nelson’s dying wishes was that he not be buried at sea. Therefore he was placed into a casket about 1.5m high. The body was shaved of hair, the clothes removed, and folded into the cask. Although the myth has it was rum, brandy was used instead due to its medicinal properties. At Gilbraltar wine was added as Nelson’s body had absorbed some of the brandy. The cask arrived in England in December 1805 and Nelson was laid to rest in St Paul’s Cathedral In January 1806. His casket was lead-lined, filled with brandy mixed with myrrh and camphor.
Prize Money The payment and amounts of prize money for  captured booty, warships, or merchant vessels was only formalised in 1793 and applied to the army as much as the navy. The law stated that the prize or booty would be sold and the funds received and then the money would be paid out according to a scale for officers and ratings. For administrative purposes, the Prize Court of the Admiralty dealt with prizes and the High Court of Admiralty was concerned with booty.
Quote “It takes three years to build a ship – it takes three centuries to build a tradition” – this was a quote from Admiral Andrew Cunningham RN, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet in 1941 when it was proposed that he should withdraw his warships from the waters around Crete due to the losses incurred by German dive bombers.
Red Cross This symbol, formally known as the Geneva Cross, is the reverse of the Swiss Flag and when humanitarian laws of warfare were introduced in 1864 this was selected to identify non-combatants involved in medical and humanitarian work.
Reveille The term for playing of a bugle or the beating of a drum to wake up sailors is an alteration of the French reveillez, or, ‘to wake up’.
Saluting It is thought that saluting with the hand comes down to us from the practice of knights raising their helmet’s visor in order to be recognised. An alternative suggestion is that it replaced the doffing of the hat, which made the hat dirty.
Salvo This is a term for firing the ship’s turrets simultaneously. It comes from the French term salve or the Italian salva which means ‘greeting’. Both have their origin in the Latin term salvus or ‘safe’. This word is also the origin for the words salvage and salute.
Sash Before the introduction of uniforms, sashes were worn in national colours as a means of identification on the battlefield. Infantry wore sashes over the shoulder, cavalrymen around the waist. The sash became a formal part of uniform for some regiments. The origin of the word is the Arabic sas or muslin.
Shanty The custom of singing work songs aboard ship is a custom that goes back to the 15th century. Songs could be of differing tempos depending on the work being performed aboard ship i.e. raising sails or hauling anchors. The word has its origins in the French word chanter -to sing.
Sheer Nasty The old naval slang for the Medway town of Sheerness. After the Dutch navy raided the Medway in 1667 a naval dockyard was ordered to be built there. Sheerness was often called “the last place God made” and a very hasty job at that.
Shrapnel A type of shell that when it explodes sends out bullets or scrap metal. It was invented in 1803 by…Major Shrapnel
Skylarking A common word used for fooling around or playing. The work lark comes from an old English work Lac or to play. In the naval context it was when sailors would rapidly climb to the mastheads and descend back to the deck by sliding down the royal-stays or back-stays. In the days of sailing warships the Admiralty thought this was an essential exercise to teach their ratings the necessary skills
Skyscraper This term was first used in the nineteenth century and used to describe anything that was taller than normal e.g. a horse or penny-farthing bike. This mutated into describing buildings as they sprung up in the early 20th century, for instance the Empire State Building. The term has a nautical origin. The ‘skyscraper sail’ was the highest sail that could be set on a sailing ship – it was so high up it was said to be “scraping the sky.”
Slob This term was used for an unkempt person with untidy habits and comes from the Irish word for a muddy field
Small Arms This term seems to have come into use in the seventeenth century. In 1683 the office Keeper of our Small Arms was instituted in England
Square Meal substantial repast DERIVATION: Sailors ate their food off square wooden plates with a raised edge called a fiddle. This design was to stop food falling off the plate and to set a limit on the amount of food taken. If a seaman overfilled the plate he was said to be ‘on the fiddle’ and he could be punished”
Splice the Mainbrace Is an order given aboard naval vessels to issue the crew with a drink. Originally, it was an order for one of the most difficult emergency repair jobs aboard a sailing ship it later became a euphemism for authorized celebratory drinking afterward, and then the name of an order to grant the crew an extra ration of rum or grog.
Brace are the lines which control the angle of the yards. On the first rate men-o-war, the mainbrace was the largest and heaviest of all the running rigging; the mainbrace on HMS VICTORY for instance was 5 inches (13 cm) in diameter.  Gunners commonly aimed for the ship’s rigging during naval battles, with the mainbrace being the prime target. If the mainbrace was shot away, it was usually necessary to repair it during the engagement; the ship was unmanoeuvrable without it and would have to stay on the same tack. Even repairing it after the battle was a difficult job; the mainbrace ran through blocks, so it could not be repaired with a short splice or a knot. Splicing in a large run of hemp was strenuous work, and generally the ship’s best Able Seaman were chosen to carry out the task under the supervision of the Bosun (Boatswain).  On completion of the task, it was customary for the men to be rewarded with an extra ration of rum. The Bosun would take a
sip from the ration of each of the men he had selected for task. Eventually the order “Splice the mainbrace” came to mean that the crew would receive an extra ration of rum, and was issued on special occasions: after victory in battle, the change of a monarch, a royal birth, a royal wedding or an inspection of the fleet.
Stinkpot This derisive term for how a person might smell bad has its origins in a weapon that was used at sea during the Classical and Medieval periods. A stinkpot was a pottery jar filled with a combustible material. It would be thrown on to an opponent’s ship. It was designed as an anti-personnel weapon. If the mixture contained sulphur there would be noxious stench hence, ‘stinkpot’.
Tattoo In military terms, a tattoo is a drum beat to call troops into action and came to be used as a term for a military display. The term comes from the Dutch word taptoe or ‘tap to’ which was a signal to shut off the tap of beer barrels at closing time in inn and taverns.
To Cut and Run In the days of sail, the hemp cable attached to the ship’s anchor would be cut in order for the ship to get to sea quickly. For example, the Spanish Armada ‘cut and ran’ when they were threatened by fire ships sent by the English.
To Forge Ahead To make progress with strength and determination. This is an old sailing term which meant a ship was moving ahead rapidly under ‘press of canvas’ i.e. all sails set and drawing well.
Trooping the colour A ceremonial parade of the formation’s colours in front of the assembled men. This was originally held to ensure that the soldiers would recognise their colours in the heat of battle and could respond to the call of ‘rally to the colours’.
Waitangi If Captain Hobson had had his way Waitangi Day would have been celebrated on the 7th rather than the 6th. He had intended that the formal signing ceremony take place on the 7th when he would be present in his full dress uniform. However, the signing ceremony began on the 6th and Hobson had to come ashore in his regular uniform.
Warrant Officers Champagne A cocktail of rum and ginger ale also known as Lion’s Neck
Watch our name for a wrist or pocket clock. In 1758 James Harrison perfected an accurate clock (later known as a chronometer) as an aid to calculating longitude. James Cook was one of the first users of Harrison’s invention during his second voyage to New Zealand. He referred to it in his journal as a ‘watch machine’ – watches being the division of time aboard a ship.
Wellington Boot These were leather boots that came to just below the knee and came into use in the British Army at the end of the Crimean War (1854-1856). Named after the Duke of Wellington victor at Waterloo, the name was also used for rubber boots that came into use at the end of the 19th century.
When My Ship Comes In In the 16th century it was a legal contract to state that one would pay any outstanding amounts when the ship one served on reached its home port. Once there a sailor was obligated to settle with his debtors.
Whistle up a/the wind This term is used to describe an activity that is not entirely likely to succeed. In the days of sail, sailors did not whistle aboard ship because it could be confused with the Bosun’s call. However there was one exception. If a ship was becalmed, sailors would whistle in the direction they wish the wind to come from hence
‘whistle up the wind.’
Yacht This word comes to English from a ‘jacht’ Mary presented to Charles II by the States General of Holland for his private use. This was the first
of many Royal Yachts

1 Response to Did you know?

  1. peter maitland says:

    Can anyone tell me how the “Dog Watches” got that name

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