By Annalisa Underwood, Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division
Have you ever wondered why a “peacoat” is called a peacoat? Why in the world is the bathroom called the “head”? How did the term “ensign” come to be used to refer to both a flag and an officer?
The language of the Navy can leave you wondering where Sailors came up with these terms and expressions. The second installment in our series explores five more terms that just might answer those questions.
Almost as iconic as the American Sailor’s dixie cup is the Sailor’s peacoat. But just how exactly did this article of clothing come to be named as such? In their book Naval Customs, Ceremonies, and Traditions, Connell and Mack conclude that the term possibly comes from the Dutch word pij meaning a coarse, woolen cloth. Another possible source also refers to the material used for the peacoat. “Originally, the peacoat was made of a material called pilot cloth, which has also been viewed as a possible source of the name: pi(lot) coat,” write Connell and Mack. Whatever the source, Sailors have been wearing this topcoat in cold weather for more than 200 years. Its double-breasted fit, warmth, and shortness have made it practical for movement and foul-weather use.
Toe the Line
To “toe the line” is a literal phrase where one actually places his toes on the line. In the days of wooden ships, the spaces between the deck planks were packed with oakum and sealed with a mixture of pitch and tar. This sealant would create a series of parallel lines about six inches apart that ran the length of the deck. When the ship’s crew was ordered to fall-in at quarters, they were directed to stand with their toes just touching these lines so as to ensure a neat and orderly alignment. As punishment, unruly young Sailors aboard were sometimes required to toe the line in silence, under fair or foul weather, for a designated amount of time. The hope was that the youngsters would learn to behave themselves rather than suffer this punishment. When today’s Sailors hear the phrase they know they must meet a standard level of performance.
The term “head” is one of those terms from the age of sail that has stuck around until now. The head is the bathroom, and the term comes from the fact that in old square-rigged sailing ships, the wind was almost always from astern (Connell and Mack). Therefore, Sailors would go to the “head” of the ship so as to not relieve themselves “into the wind.”
Bravo Zulu is a phrase meaning “well done” and comes from the Allied Naval Signal Book (ACP- 175. Signals are sent as combinations of letters and/or numbers that have specific meanings.Thomas J. Cutler explains in his book A Sailor’s History of the U.S. Navy, that the signals were organized in ACP 175 by the number of flags used. The two-flag signals represented specific subjects. The B signals referred to “administrative” and the last signal in that series, BZ, meant “well done”.
The term ensign is taken directly from the old Norman word enseigne but has roots in the Anglo-Saxon word segne, which means “flag,” and signum, Latin for “sign.” The Royal Navy borrowed the word from land service in the 16th century when the large flag was hoisted on the poop deck of sea vessels. Ensign not only refers to a flag but also to the lowest officer rank of the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. This usage comes from the French army rank of ensign bearer, shortened to ensign, to refer to a young officer. Later, the rank was picked up by the French navy, and the U.S. Navy ultimately adopted the rank of ensign in 1862.
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.
Find more nautical terms and naval expressions, check out the collections on Naval Heritage Infographics at: http://www.history.navy.mil/news-and-events/multimedia-gallery/infographics/heritage.html