Words From The Sea: Scuttlebutt, Fathom, Son of a Gun

Did you know Scuttlebutt, Fathom, Son of a Gun were words from the sea?

Scuttlebutt – The cask of drinking water on ships was called a “scuttlebutt” and since Sailors exchanged gossip when they gathered at the scuttlebutt for a drink of water, “scuttlebutt” became U.S. Navy slang for gossip or rumors. A “butt” was a wooden cask which held water or other liquids; to “scuttle” is to drill a hole as for tapping a cask.

Fathom – Although a fathom is now a nautical unit of length equal to six feet, it was once defined by an act of Parliament as “the length of a man’s arms around the object of his affections.” The word derives from the Old English “Faethm,” which means “embracing arms.”

Son of a Gun – When in port, and with the crew restricted to the ship for any extended period of time, wives and ladies of easy virtue often were allowed to live aboard along with the crew. Infrequently, but not uncommonly, children were born aboard the ship, and a convenient place for the birth was between guns on the ship’s gun deck. If a child’s father was unknown, they were entered in the ship’s log as “son of a gun.”

Words from the Sea: Down The Hatch, Mayday, Fly by Night

Down The Hatch – Here’s a drinking expression that seems to have its origins in sea freight, where cargoes are lowered into the hatch. First used by seamen, it has only been traced back to the turn of the century.

Mayday – The distress call for voice radio, for vessels and people in serious trouble at sea. The term was made official by an international telecommunications conference in 1948, and is an anglicizing of the French “m’aidez,” (help me).

Fly-by-Night- An easily set extra sail used temporarily when running before the wind (wind coming from behind). Has come to mean ‘here today, gone tomorrow’, or less-than-stellar.

Word from the Sea: Cup of Joe

Cup of Joe: Navy lore has it that Josephus Daniels (May 18, 1862) – January 15, 1948) was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913 and, among his reforms of the Navy inaugurating the practice of making 100 Sailors from the Fleet eligible for entrance into the Naval Academy, the introduction of women into the service, and the abolishment of the officers’ wine mess. From that time on, the strongest drink aboard Navy ships could only be coffee; and over the years, a cup of coffee became known as “a cup of Joe.”