Knowing The Ropes - Navy History/Trivia

Marine Speak

So let's see how many of you sea dogs know any of these (and be honest).

Hey, you son of a gun, want to swing by for a square meal and a cup of Joe? If you understood that sentence, you're either a Sailor or you sound like it. Naval expressions like these date back decades or centuries with surprisingly practical origins. So why is Navy lingo so popular? "People like works that make sense," says Thomas Cutler, a retired lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, editor at the U.S. Naval Institute and co-author of Dictionary of Naval Terms. "You hear these expressions and there's something colorful about them. You want to adopt them yourself." Here are a few naval terms that have migrated into popular usage:

ABOVE BOARD: This phrase for an honest person originated in the days when pirates would hide their crews behind a ship's bulwarks (below board). Legitimate captains, in contrast, commanded their men to stand on the open deck, "above board."

BITTER END: Known today as a painful finale, the term originally referred to posts on sailing ships, called "bits," around which the rope was coiled. The end of the rope closest to the bit was the "bitter end."

CUP OF JOE: In 1914, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels banned alcohol on U.S. Navy ships. From that time on, the strongest drink permitted aboard Navy ships was coffee. Hence, a cup of coffee became known as a “cup of Joe.”

KNOW THE ROPES: This was a phrase printed on a seaman’s discharge papers to indicate he knew the functions of all the rope lines on the ship.

KNOCK OFF WORK: The galleys of sailing ships were once filled with men rowing to the rhythm of a mallet striking a wooden block. It was only time to quit rowing when the knocking stopped.

MIND YOUR P’s AND Q’s: Today, this means being on your best behavior. In the old days, this was how waterfront tavern keepers marked pints or quarters of ale on a sailor’s tab as a way to say, “be careful how much you drink.”

SCUTTLEBUTT: A water barrel where sailors would gather to drink and exchange gossip gave rise to this term.

SON OF A GUN: Children were sometimes born on ships, often between canons on the gun decks. If the father of a baby boy was unknown, the infant was recorded in the ship’s log as a “son of a gun.”

SQUARE MEAL: Meals on a ship were dished up on a square board that served as a plate. The board’s shape and the regularity of the meals suggested the concept of three “square’ meals a day.

POOP DECK: No, this term does not come from sailors hanging off the stern of the ship, relieving themselves. Rather, it is from the Latin puppis meaning stern. So the poop deck is the aft deck of a ship.

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