Jack Speak

By Robert Brunner (Lieutenant Commander, Royal Canadian Navy)

The historical significance of the sea is easy to see when one looks at our language.  Many words and expressions originate from our relationship with the sea. Western civilization has its roots in the areas surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. From the earliest Phoenician and Greek cultures, over two thousand years ago, the Mediterranean Sea was not only essential for survival, providing food, but also in maintaining economic and social ties between the people living around the sea. The language used from these early times became permeated with nautical terms. The nautical terms became the one universal language understood by different cultures. Throughout the ages, new words and phrases have entered our language from this continuing tie to the oceans. The English language gained many additions during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when British naval and merchant ships traveled the seas.


Jack Speak – Sailor talk. Jack was a nickname of the British sailor. Jack Tar was a common descriptor as the sailor wore his hair in a que (ponytail) down his back, soaked in tar.

Above board – Able to see the crew. Pirates would often hide much of the crew below the deck. The ships that displayed the crew openly on the deck were thought to be honest merchant ships known as "above board".

All sewn up - Dead sailors were “all sewn up" in a bit of canvas with a weight attached to make sure that the corpse sank deep in the water. Today this expression is used to describe something that is "all done" or completed

Any port in a storm – Any help welcome. When trouble struck at sea, sailors would navigate the vessel to the nearest port for safety.  Used when we have problems and any and all help is welcome.

As the crow flies - Most direct route from one place to another without detours.  Before modern navigational systems existed, British vessels customarily carried a cage of crows. These birds fly straight to the nearest land when released at sea thus indicating the direction of the nearest land was.

At a loose ends - A nautical term for a rope when unattached and therefore neglected or not doing its job. Thus 'tying up loose ends' indicates having done a complete job or having dealt with all the details.

Batten down the hatches – To get ready. The term originates from the act of securing the hatches and tarpaulins covering them on a boat with use of battens (long flat blades made of wood) in preparation for a coming storm.

Bear down - To approach something from upwind, to bear down is to sail fast, often towards the enemy in a threatening manner.  Today to bear down is still used to describe "making a rush at", as well as exert strength or pressure upon something or to pay special attention in some situation.

Bigwigs - Senior officers in the English Navy were known as "bigwigs" because they wore huge wigs. Bigwig officers aboard ships were often disliked. Today it is still used to refer to the most important person in a group or undertaking and is often used in a derogatory manner.

Bitter End - The last part of a rope or final link of chain. The end attached to the vessel, as opposed to the "working end" which may be attached to an anchor, cleat, other vessel, etc. Today the term is used to describe a final, painful, or disastrous conclusion (however unpleasant it may be).

Black Book – In trouble. Beginning in the 1300's, a collection of maritime laws and conduct became known as the Black Book of the Admiralty. The punishments for offenses were often harsh. Today, if you're name is in someone's black book, they believe you have offended them in some way.

Clean Slate - It was the custom in sailing ships to record courses, distances and tacks on a log slate. The new watch would always start with a clean slate if things had been growing fine, disregarding what had gone before and starting anew. In a similar way, today we refer to a new beginning as starting with a "clean slate."

Cup of Joe – Cup of Coffee. From American Navy lore Josephus Daniels (1862- 1948) was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913. During his time as Secretary of the Navy, "Joe" Daniels abolished the officers' wine, after which the strongest drink aboard Navy ships was coffee.  A cup of coffee became known as "a cup of Joe".

Dressed to the nines - A person who is dressed in fancy clothing. To celebrate victories, a returning ship would approach her home waters or port "dressed" in bunting and flags.  As many of the crew as possible would line up on the nine primary yards as a salute to their monarch. Now applied to someone dressed up.

Footloose and Footloose and Fancy-Free - Acting without commitment. The word comes from the term for the bottom of the sail that is known as the foot of the sail which must be attached to the boom.  If it is not properly attached it may become footloose causing the vessel not to sail properly.

Hard and fast - To describe inflexibility, such as, a hard and fast rule.  Used to describe a ship grounded on the shore; 'hard' meaning firmly and 'fast' meaning fixed.

Hard up - Short of money. Originally when a sailing crew was ordered to tighten the sails, the blocks would be "hard up" meaning hauled together as close as possible. Now means nothing left extra in resources such as money.

Hasn't got a clue – Not understanding. With nautical origins, the clew refers to the corner of the sail where a brass ring is sewn into the fabric of the sail in order to properly hold the sail in place. If a clew should rip, the sail would loose shape and the vessel will not sail in a controlled manner. Until it is refastened, it "hasn't got a clew," or needs to "get clewed up" again. Today if someone "hasn't got a clue" then they do not understand or are not knowledgeable.  To "get clued up" is to learn about or to come to fully understand something.

Spinning a Yarn – Telling a story, perhaps exaggerated. Sailors were not allowed to gather just to chat and there was always work to be done. One opportunity to tell stories was during the weekly unraveling the strands of old line.

Smoking Lamp – Lamps used to light tobacco. With the introduction of tobacco, sailors wanted to smoke at sea as way to improve morale. As open flame is dangerous at sea, oil lamps were rigged in the focsle (fore castle) in an area away from other combustibles for the purpose of lighting. During the days of smoking on ship, the pipe is made throughout the ship that the “smoking lamp is lighten in all authorize spaces”.

Scuttlebutt – Rumour. Combines the word ‘Scuttle’ which is sinking a ship through sabotage or deliberate action by knocking a hole in the side and ‘Butt’ which is a cask used to hold drinking water, especially during gunnery action. Scuttlbutt was when crew met at the butt for a drink of water and exchanged rumours of the activities on the ship. Now used to mean any rumour that could degrade morale on the ship.

Chewing the Fat – To exchange stories. Another term used to describe sailors telling stories while they ate.

Letting the Cat out of the Bag - When the Cat o’ Nine Tails would be removed from the blaze red bag for flogging the offender.

Rubbing Salt into his Wounds - Increasing a punishment or injury after the fact. Based on when after a flogging was carried out it was common for the Ship’s Doctor to wash the wounds with salt sea water or brine, believing the salt would prevent infection. This was unbelievably painful and actually may have caused more damage as microbes in salt sea water could actually cause the infection.

Flogging a Dead Horse - Many sailors were paid in advance for their first month's work and sail from port with nothing. At the end of the first month the ship’s crew would have a ceremony to signify that the horse, the symbol of hard work, without money for motivation, was flogged dead and wages would soon resume.


The confused sailor

The simple sailor was mostly uneducated but was very worldly. He had seen much of the world and while not understanding how much of it worked, he accepted some things, became superstitious about some others and was just plain confused about much of it. Therefore, sailors had many sayings for being confused or simply missing the point of something. These are some of the most notable phases, some still used in modern times.

Can’t make head nor tail of it - Not understandable. An expression used by the Yeoman (signalman) when unable to make any sense out of a distant hoist of flag signals. The top line of a signal flag is called the head and the bottom line is called the tail.

Codswallop - A load of nonsense.  From Hiram Codd who in 1875 created a process for bottling carbonated water which remained drinkable for longer than water stored in casks. Wallop was slang for beer, which previously stored longer than water due to the alcohol content. A sailor felt hard done by if the carbonated water was all that was left after the beer expired and was forced to drink Mr Codd’s wallop in substitution.

Hard to Fathom – Hard to understand or solve. If while taking soundings a sailor could not find the exact depth, it was ‘hard to fathom’. A fathom is an old nautical measurement used for distances and depths (approximately 6 feet).

Backing and Filling - Constantly changing position in a decision or argument. To back a sail was to take the force of the wind from ahead which made the ship move backwards. To fill was to take the force from a direction that would make the ship move forward.

Taken Aback – Taken by surprise or given a shock. A ship is said to be taken aback when through a sudden wind shift or careless steering the sails would back and the ship is forced backwards.

Bucket of fog - A situation that is illogical or incomprehensible. Ever try to fill a bucket with fog?



In the 18th Century illegal importing of goods across the English coast exploded. Before this time smuggling was small scale to avoid paying customs and excise taxes. Customs were a long-standing tax on all imported cargo going to the English Crown. Starting during the English civil war an excise tax was placed on many items to pay for the war. All the people knew was that they were paying more for not just luxury goods but what they needed for day to day life. Many mariners such as fishermen, turned to the lucrative, but risky work of the smuggler.


“Free Traders” – Noble, self-labelled title for smugglers

Crop – Smuggled cargo.

Owlers – Smugglers specializing in smuggling wool.

Flaskers – Smugglers specializing in smuggling liquor.

Smug-Boats – Contraband traders off the coast of China, usually smuggling opium.

Cousin Jacky – Smuggled cargo of Brandy

Stinkibus – A bottle/case of brandy left underwater too long and spoiled.

Landers / Tubmen – Land side members of the smuggling network.

Duffer – Disreputable seller of potentially stolen goods. Also women who assisted smugglers.

Rummaged – The act of searching a smuggler’s vessel.

Nicknames for customs and excise officers: Preventers, Watersharks, Pickaroons, Gaugers, Gobloos and Shingle Pickers. 


The Yellow Jack - The history of quarantine in the maritime world

The practice of quarantine began during the 14th Century to protect port cities from plague epidemics. Ships arriving in Venice from infected ports, or suspected ports, were required to stay at anchor for 40 days before disembarking cargo and passengers. This procedure, called quarantine, was based on the Italian words quaranta giorni, meaning 40 days.


A vessel would hoist a yellow flag in place of the jack while in harbour to signal that the vessel in was in quarantine. The origin of the yellow flag can be traced back to the Middle Ages when the colour yellow was considered a negative colour. Yellow representing hell fire, betrayal, jealousy and treachery.


In modern times the yellow flag is included in the international signal code, phonetically named Quebec. Today it means the opposite and when hoisted it indicates: "My ship is healthy, and I require the free pratique." It is mostly used to require the inspection by the customs authorities,

Yellow Jack – Yellow fever. Nickname given by British sailors to the contagious fever illness caught in the Caribbean and Mediterranean as the fever made you jaundice (skin and eyes became yellow in appearance) and required the vessel to quarantine and hoist the yellow jack .

Free Pratique – Clearance granted that the vessel is free of infection or contagious disease.

Clean Bill of Health - A widely used term which originates from the "Bill of Health", a document issued to a ship showing that the port it sailed from suffered from no epidemic or infection at the time of departure.


Rob Brunner contributes articles on maritime terminology to the Canadian pirate magazine “L’Echo des Mers” available at: http://fliphtml5.com/homepage/gybp


Admiralty Manual of Seamanship, Vol 1, Admiralty Press, Revised 1979

The American Practical Navigator 9th edition, Nathaniel Bowditch, Paradise Cay: 1995.

The Sailor’s Word-Book, Admiral W.H. Smyth. Classic Reprint Series, 2004 (original 1867)