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Get the Gouge: Naval Terms with History & Mystery

Dec 28, 2023 10:00:00 AM

Nstar blog update


After an earlier Navy slang blog for April Fool’s Day, we got some great feedback on naval terms and meanings. One of the most popular was—how could you forget “the gouge?” That’s a great question. It’s one that deserves a post of its own, for sure. Thank you for letting us know. You asked for the gouge, and you got it. 

So what does the gouge mean in the Navy, for those not yet in the know?

By all accounts, it’s the scuttlebug, the inside scoop, the way things are done around here—once you’ve been around here long enough to pick them up. Older Navy veterans often hand down the gouge to younger ones, giving them the critical tips and tricks to help them become successful old salts. Midshipmen share the gouge to help their fellow midshipmen get through the rigors and learn the ropes of the Naval Academy. In many Lucky Bag (The Naval Academy’s yearbook) tributes to  midshipmen, you’ll see them being thanked for “giving the gouge” to others, or being admired as the “foremost obtainer of the gouge” or the one to “turn to for the gouge.”  

Related: Impress Your Midshipman with Your Knot Knowledge.

Whatever you call it, it’s uniquely Navy. In our search for more of the gouge, we came across some other seaworthy Navy terminology and their fascinating origins. So if you’re looking for the gouge on a few more terms, pull up a captain’s chair, set down your grog and have a read:  

Bamboozle: Nowadays, this term refers to being fooled. However, when ships sailed before they were powered by steam or fuel, “bamboozle” was trickery of another sort. Crews would fly an ensign (flag) that was not their nationality or origin in order to trick another passing ship. As you might imagine, pirates were often the bamboozlers.

Batten Down the Hatches: This term arrived in the early 1800s as a call from a captain to secure the ship for a pending storm by “battens down the hatch,” to keep water from getting in. The crew would close all the hatches (wooden grate doors) on the ship's decks and use lengths of batten (rods) to secure tarpaulins over them. Admiral W H Smyth’s 1867 encyclopedia The Sailor's Word-Book: An alphabetical digest of nautical terms describes this action, which evolved to refer to getting ready for imminent danger.

Binnacle List: No, this is not barnacle related, although many new sailors have understandably confused the two. Binnacle refers to the ship’s compass housing, which perches on the ship’s bridge. In past times, each morning the corpsmen would lay the ship’s sick list here for the captain; hence the sick list became known as the “binnacle list.”

Bitter End: We’ve all heard this phrase, but probably never have heard the original  story. Sailors call a turn of the line around a bitt (a wooden or iron post sticking through a ship’s deck), a bitter—and the end of the line that’s attached to the bitts was called “the bitter end.” These days, the Navy calls the end of any line “the bitter end.” The widely used phrase “there till the bitter end” shows the foolishness of someone following through with something without considering the possible fallout.

Bully Boys: This term translates into “beef eating sailors,” and recurs often in Navy poems and shanties. Bully beef was the affectionate name for chewy beef jerky, ever-popular foodstuff that also renamed the men that were forced to dine on it. This “beef” was also called “salt junk,” since its texture brought to mind the rope yarn used for caulking ship seams (see “chewing the fat” below).

Chewing the Fat: You might imagine how the type of beef that could survive long voyages would taste. It was tough and needed to be chewed for long periods before swallowing, sometimes for hours. Sailors would chew this meat like chewing gum. Thus, “chewing the fat” was born, a notion that easily aligned with time spent conversing.

Charley Noble: Legend has it that an old merchant captain, Charles Noble, realized the galley’s smoke stack was copper and needed a daily polishing to stay in tip top shape, so he ordered it be done regularly. Sailors started to refer to the stack itself as “Charley Noble.” Since then for fun, Navy elders liked to send newbies to find Charley Noble, a source of unending entertainment for the higher ups, when these green sailors went searching for a person and not a smoke stack. 

Chow: Everyone knows that chow time is time to eat. Whether it’s bully beef or (thankfully now) a much more palatable meal, sailors love chow time.

Davy Jones’ Locker: You may have heard this term before. There are many different legends about whether Davy Jones was a sailor, pub owner, captain of the ghost ship, “Flying Dutchman” or more—but the general idea is that Davy Jones is the epitome of the devil for sailors. The bottom of the sea is known as his locker, where many sailors and their vessels come to rest after drowning at sea.

Ditty Bag: Today’s recruits receive a ditty bag (or box) with a sewing kit, toiletry articles and other items like pens and paper. Originally, this was dubbed a "ditto bag" since it had at least two of everything: two needles, two spools of thread, two buttons and more. Over time, "ditto" became "ditty.”

Jacob’s Ladder: These temporary ladders are constructed with rope or metal and are used to help board a ship. Named for the biblical Jacob that dreamt he climbed a ladder to the sky, “Jacob’s Ladders” started as a network of lines that brought the climber to the skysail in similar fashion.

Mind Your Ps and Qs: This phrase is common in the American lexicon, especially when many of us were younger and needed encouragement to be on our best behavior. It’s ironic, however, that a mark for good behavior had its beginnings in the taverns at ports. Here, sailors often drank on credit from the pub owner, and received chalk tally marks under “P” for pints and “Q” for quarts consumed. Upon receipt of pay, the sailor would need to settle his debts, or “mind his Ps and Qs,” or he would face financial consequences. Smart sailors stayed sober to make sure no extra marks were made by scheming keepers; this better behavior became synonymous with “minding your Ps and Qs.”

Pollywog: A sailor that hasn’t yet crossed the equator. For at least 400 years, the ritual of a pollywog crossing the equator is celebrated with a visit from “King Neptune” and his “court,” all played by high ranking crew. They decide if the novice is fit to become a “shellback” (see below). This tradition includes a day-long celebration meant to build comradery among the crew.

Shellback: The shellback name is simple enough: A sailor on official duty “crosses the line” of the equator. They’re then called a Daughter or Son of Neptune. A Golden Shellback is more impressive; it means they’ve crossed the International Date Line. Sailors that cross at the Prime Meridian join the Order of the Emerald Shellback, and those crossing the equator in Lake Victoria receive the moniker of Ebony Shellback. Finally, submariners crossing the equator at a “classified” degree of longitude, earn a top-secret shellback.

Scuttlebutt: Back to gouge. The scuttlebut is both a rumor and a drinking fountain. When you "scuttle," you make a hole in a ship's side and sink her. When there were wooden ships, a “butt” (cask or hogshead) provided drinking water. Put the two together and you get a cask with a hole. Since rumors could sink ships and people, the “butt” also referred to the (still in vogue) water cooler where they started. So the two words together made the idea of rumor. Similarly, "galley yarn" and "mess deck intelligence" refer to rumors too.

Spinning a Yarn: We all know good storytellers who can spin a yarn, and more recently this term has taken on the meaning of an exaggerated story. Since officers and mates felt  sailors who took the time to tell stories often shirked their work, they strongly discouraged this behavior. Still, many sailors still had the unenviable task of unraveling the strands of old line. By nature, this mindless task required time and people, so tales were spun and this time began known as “spinning yarns.” After that, those telling sea stories were affectionately known as spinning a yarn, which has over the years become a cherished naval tradition.

Source: Origin of Navy Terminology

There aren't many "old salts" in today's Navy who haven't been required sometime in their career to heave around on a length of hawser in order to tie up a ship. Hawser used in this backbreaking task is called mooring line and gets its name from a combination of two terms used in the early days of sail. The Middle Dutch word "maren" meant "to tie," and the Middle English words "moren rap" meant "ship's rope." Through the years the terms merged and were Americanized, hence any line used to tie a ship to the pier is called "mooring line."

Learning the Language

The Navy has boatloads of interesting terms and histories. The Yard is a colorful place too, with its own unique history and heritage (and language). A special thank you to the USNA Museum, who has the gouge on all things USNA and gave us thousands of terms to contemplate! There are many many more terms we can explore in future posts. In the meantime, come get the gouge for yourself and enjoy your own Naval Academy experience! 

The NABSD supports the Brigade of Midshipmen by helping fund extracurricular activities like cultural arts, theater, music, club sports and more. When you shop at Navyonline, take a USNA tour, visit the USNA Museum and dine at the restaurants and shop at the stores on the Yard, your proceeds go directly to the Brigade. We look forward to welcoming you aboard, whether you’re a pollywog or a shellback!

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Bill the Goat
Written by Bill the Goat

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