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Nautical Terms and Naval Expressions

By Annalisa Underwood, Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division

Have you ever wondered what a “field day” isor why “side boys”are named as so? What exactly is a “ropeyarn Sunday?” How did the term “scuttlebutt”come to be used to refer to gossip?

The language of the Navy can be just as interesting as its origins. In the first of this series of blogs and infographics, we’ll explore some of the more common and more peculiar nautical terms and naval expressions of your U.S. Navy.

Side Boys

In the days of sail, distinguished visitors were hoisted aboard the flagship in a boatswain’s chair for conferences, dinners, or ceremonies while at sea. The members of the crew who did the hoisting were called side boys, and it became custom to always have a certain number of men tending the side for this duty. Today, side boys are used in quarterdeck ceremonies when distinguished visitors come aboard the ship or as part of other naval ceremonies such as retirements and changes of command.

Ropeyarn Sunday

In the days of the old Navy, a ropeyarn Sunday was a half-day off to sew and perform personal tasks. Today, it simply refers to a half-holiday.

Field Day

Field day is a phrase that means a day for cleaning up all parts of the ship, or a day of general cleaning. The term originated in the mid-18th century to refer to a day when military units would stand parade for the public. It is unknown how the term field day went from being a military parade to a day of cleaning the ship—two extremely different meanings!

Scuttlebutt

A butt is a wooden cask which holds water or other liquids and to scuttle means to drill a hole, as for tapping the cask. So, the scuttlebutt was the drinking fountain on the ship and when Sailors gathered around the scuttlebutt they would exchange rumors of the voyage. Thus, the term scuttlebutt is Navy slang for rumors or gossip. And just like during the days of sail, today’s scuttlebutt takes place around the water cooler.

Boatswain

The term boatswain is perhaps one of the most commonly mispronounced nautical terms amongst the general population. Pronounced “boh-suhn,”the term finds its roots in the Saxon word swine meaning, “boy,”according to Royal Connell and William Mack’s book “Naval Customs, Ceremonies, and Traditions.”In the eleventh century, batsmen, as boatswains were called, usually commanded ships (Connell and Mack). Boatswain’s Mate (BM) is the oldest enlisted rate in the U.S. Navy still in existence today, dating back to the American Revolution. With a rich history of honored traditions, BMs are the leaders and backbone of every ship’s crew and are considered the jack-of-all-trades Sailor. Boatswain’s mates do everything from maintain the ship, handle machinery, and operate small boats to supervise various crews, serve as search and rescue swimmers, and act as a mentor to other Sailors.

Find more nautical terms and naval expressions on how the Navy talks on the Naval History and Heritage Command website, and let us know what phrases you’d like to see in our next release.

U.S. Navy Graphic Illustration by Annalisa Underwood/Released
U.S. Navy Graphic Illustration by Annalisa Underwood/Released

2 comments

  1. Enjoyed Ropeyarn Sunday. We shortened it to Ropeyarn. Probably because we used it for half day off during a normal work day.

  2. Fieldday, was cleaning in prep for showing off the area: Thus, when doing a parade field display, you picked up/cleaned the field to make a good impression. Not a difficult swing over to just cleaning up the area. But, as I remember, we also meant this to mean ‘make the area presentable for a presentation’ thus in tune with the original history/name.