Digest>Archives> September 2010

Things Old Salts Used to Say

By Richard W. O’Donnell


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What is an Old Salt? Despite what you might have heard, you don’t have to be old to be an Old Salt. An Old Salt is a vintage nautical slang expression meaning a sailor of any age. How about that?

Catch the Tide is another way of saying “to seize an opportunity.” B & W is what they used to call bread and water long, long ago. The Binnacle List is a sick list.

Modern seafarers may have their own slang, but the language used years ago was more imaginative, probably less technical, and certainly a lot more fun.

For example, how about Up Anchor? That meant to get out; to get moving or underway. It still does.

A Tall Water Sailor was one who had crossed the ocean several times. Straight as a Deck Seam meant honest, reliable. Sparks operated the wireless, if you had one on board. Stamps handled the ship’s mail when you hit port. Queen was one of those attractive females who were always around when you went ashore.

Muck Up meant to clean up. Nitty was an argument, possibly one during which there was some brawling. If you had an Oil Burner in the crew, you had a tobacco chewer as a mate. Members of the Rail Squad were seasick sailors. Red Mike was a woman hater. Every ship had at least one.

A Rope Yarn Holiday was a half day off while in port. Sandpaper the Anchor was to do unnecessary work, primarily to keep busy when there was nothing important for you to do.

How about Sea Dust? That’s what they called salt. Sea Legs meant freedom from sea sickness. Crumb was a shipmate who seldom washed. Five for Six was the ship’s money lender. Every ship had one of those too.

Floating Coffin was a boat in poor shape. Dynamo Buster was the ship’s electrician. French was to go ashore without permission. O.A.O meant your one and only girl friend. Every Old Salt is supposed to have one in every port.

Pills was the crew member who took care of medications. Misery Hall was the quiet corner where the sick rested. To Hit the Beach was to go ashore foe a while. Johnny-come-lately was a new member of the crew. Have Legs meant you worked and moved quickly.

Originally, a galley was a word used to describe a seagoing vessel propelled mainly by oars, sometimes with the aid of sails. Over the years, the definition changed. Nowadays, most people, both at sea and on shore, think of the galley as the ship’s kitchen, the place they prepare the food for the crew which in itself has inspired quite a bit of vintage slang.

Who is the Dough Puncher? He is the one who does the baking. The ship’s cook is called Slushy. He is also known as the Grub Spoiler, the Biscuit Shooter, Grease Burner, Greasy, Grease Spot and Stomach Spoiler.

Among other things, these people served S.O.S, which meant the Same Old Stuff, (beef on toast), Punk, which is bread and seaweed. The latter is another name for spinach.

Red Eye is ketchup. Shivering Liz is gelatin and Shivering Liz in the Snow is gelatin with whipped cream. Collision Mats are waffles. Commissary Bullets are better known as beans. If you were having Worms for dinner, you were having spaghetti or macaroni. Jamoke is black coffee. Horse was served on St. Patrick’s Day; it is corned beef.

Then there’s Cackleberries and Grunts. That’s what they called bacon and eggs, when it was available.

How about a Sea Gull Feast? That’s a chicken dinner. Deep Sea Turkey is what they called salmon.

Some of those nicknames make good old B & W sound positively delicious.

The Black Gang was the team in the engine room. The Brig was the ship’s jail, if your ship was big enough to have one. Otherwise, you were Confined to Quarters.

If your shipmate was Cozy, he was stingy with his money. If he was a Doozy, he was a friendly chap and might lend you a few dollars.

Last, but not least, what was the Radiator Club? It was a gathering of crew members in a quiet corner when not on duty to Chew the Fat. That’s what they called a Bull Session in those days.

Let’s have a quiz of nautical slang. See how many you recognize. Match up numbered words or phrases with the correct answer.

1. Skag

2. Limejuicer

3. Sand and Canvas

4. Pot Walloper

5. Java

6. Briny

A. Another name for the cook

B. British sailor

C. Coffee

D. A cigarette

E. The ocean

F. To clean up

Answers: 1D; 2B; 3F; 4A; 5C; 6E.

This story appeared in the September 2010 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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