Nautical Terms and Naval Expressions: The Holiday Edition

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

Now that the holiday season is officially underway, we thought we’d get into the spirit of the season by taking a look at a few nautical terms and naval expressions that remind us of the holidays. You’ll be surprised by the origin of some of these widely used terms and maybe even those you’ve never heard before.

Sugar Report

Our Sailors can’t always make it home for the holidays, so families and friends often send them “sugar reports” to raise their spirits. What’s sweeter than getting a letter from that special gal or guy to make you feel loved and missed? Sailors also get care packages filled with goodies from home, and many organizations around the country take collections to send to deployed servicemembers around the world, particularly around the holidays.

Did you know you can send holiday care packages through the United Service Organizations (USO), for military servicemembers serving around the world? Click the picture for more information about this USO Program.

Arriving in San Francisco Bay, California, circa early 1958, after a four and one-half month overhaul at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, Washington. The Lady Lex has the letters USO spelled out on her flight deck by members of her crew, in observance of the United Services Organization fundraising drive then being conducted. Note automobiles parked aft, and a wingless UF Albatross behind the island. The original print has the date 8 May 1958 stamped on its reverse. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Arriving in San Francisco Bay, California, circa early 1958, after a four and one-half month overhaul at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, Washington. The Lady Lex has the letters USO spelled out on her flight deck by members of her crew, in observance of the United Services Organization fundraising drive then being conducted. Note automobiles parked aft, and a wingless UF Albatross behind the island. The original print has the date 8 May 1958 stamped on its reverse. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Mess

One thing that often comes to mind when we celebrate the holidays is getting together with our loved ones to enjoy a nice meal. In the Navy, the term “mess” is often used in association with food. It comes from the Middle English word mes, meaning “a dish.” The mess deck on a ship is where the galley is located and Sailors gather to eat, and messmates are Sailors who eat together in good friendship. Whether you’re going to Grandma’s house for some good home cooking or organizing a potluck for your friends and family, remember that making a “mess” isn’t always a bad thing.

Cuppa Joe

Besides a delicious dessert, nothing tops off a hefty holiday meal better than a nice, strong “cuppa Joe,” or cup of coffee. Did you know that this term, which is widely used in the civilian world, has Navy roots? “Joe,” as we say, is none other than Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels who, in 1914, signed General Order 99, which prohibited “the use or introduction for drinking purposes of alcoholic liquors on board any vessel, or within any Navy yard or station.” Coffee took the place of the daily ration of alcohol. Up until that time, Sailors would have “grog”—the drink of Sailors during times of “ole and gay times.” The term grog is what Sailors called watered-down rum and it likely came from the English Adm. Edward Vernon, who Sailors called “Old Grog” because of the grogram cloak he used to wear. In 1740, he ordered diluted rum to be served out to Sailors in place of the rum being served neat. So, as it had become practice to find terms of “endearment” for their rule makers, Sailors started calling a cup of coffee a “cuppa Joe” in “honor” of Secretary Daniels.

Navy Chest

After enjoying a nice, fine meal and a strong cuppa Joe, it’s only natural that Sailors would develop a “Navy chest.” While it may sound like somewhere Santa hides gifts for the Sailors on his nice list, it’s actually a Navy term that refers to, well, a protruding stomach. A seasoned Sailor will proudly sport one of these, as it is the reward for enjoying an abundant holiday meal.

Tarpaulin Muster

Lastly, we can’t talk about getting into the holiday spirit without looking at the big picture. Not only are the holidays a time to show how much you care for your loved ones, it’s also about helping those in need. In the old days, Sailors would hold a “tarpaulin muster,” the hat passing of many years ago. A tarpaulin was the black tarred hat that was used during the collection. In times of need, crews would hold a tarpaulin muster for the family of a deceased shipmate. The hat was passed around and Sailors would donate whatever they could afford. Today, Sailors hold collections in many ways one way is through the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, especially during the holiday season.

Whatever the reason for your season, we hope you have a safe and wonderful holiday making a mess, drinking a cuppa Joe, reading a sugar report, admiring your Navy chest, or organizing a tarpaulin muster.

(U.S. Navy photo illustration by Annalisa Underwood/Released/HI816)

(U.S. Navy photo illustration by Annalisa Underwood/Released/HI816)