Every hobby, like every business, seems to have it’s own language, and boating is no different. There are literally dictionaries filled with nautical terms. One of my favorites is the Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations, otherwise knows as the DICNAVAB. (You can buy it on Amazon! ) But many of our favorite nautical terms are steeped in history. Here are some of my favorites:
Port and Starboard
The origination of the word starboard comes from old style (think Viking) sailing vessels that were maneuvered with long wooded oars on the right side of the ship towards the stern. This oar was named from the combination of the words “steor” for steering and “bord” for board. Put them together, and the right side of the ship became knows as the “Steor bord” side, which was eventually shortened to starboard. Since the ship has a long oar on the right side, it had to pull up to piers on the left side. This side was called the “lar” (meaning load) bord side, or lar bord, which became larboard. Unfortunately, Starboard and Larboard sounded too confusingly similar, especially when screamed during battle, so the British Admiralty changed the larboard side to “Port” side. The U.S. Navy adopted the term in 1846.
The word “scuttlebutt” today is a common term for rumors or gossip. But the origin of the term comes from old sailing ships that used wooden casks for water (or grog!) The cask (or barrel) was called a butt. To open the butt, you would put a hole (scuttle) in the top to allow water to be scooped out with a ladle or pot. Thus a open barrel became a “scuttled butt”. Since sailors would gather around the water barrel for their breaks, the stories they swapped eventually became known as “Scuttlebutt”!
Going to the Head
We all know that the “head” is a nautical term for a toilet. But going to the “head” originates from the days of old sailing ships. While the captain and officers had chamber pots in their cabins, the regular sailors had boxes or even just planks with holes in them located up at the bow of the ship. (Some ships had canvas tubes attached to the holes). Wave action would periodically clean the area. Old sailing ships had figureheads on them, so the area around the bowsprit was known as the head of the ship. When regular sailors needed to relieve themselves, they would go up to the “head” of the ship. Thus “going to the head” became the nautical term for using a toilet.
It’s always nice to have a little extra money lying around, and in business, some unallocated reserves are often referred to as a “slush fund”, a popular nautical term. In old sailing ships, meat was salted and stored in wooden barrels. When the barrel was empty, there was often a slurry of fat remaining that could be scraped or boiled out. The fat, called “slush”, was sold (usually by the cook) for extra money that would benefit him and sometimes his shipmates, thus creating a “slush fund”. The term “scraping the bottom of the barrel” has the same origin.
This is just the tip of the iceberg (another nautical reference) when it comes to nautical terms. “The Sailors Word Book”, first published in 1867, contains over 14,000 nautical terms. Before I let the cat out of the bag on any more terms which you might not be able to fathom, find a great nautical book that will fit the bill, but make sure you don’t go overboard on using the terms, or you might find a lot of people griping!
Be safe out there!