Nautical slang

Tall tales, salted meat residue and illegitimate sprogs: the history of seafaring slang reveals as many dubious habits as strange sayings, as Duncan Wright discovers

dogsbody, n 

Usage: colloq. A person who is given menial tasks, esp. a junior in an office. 

Etymology: During the Napoleonic wars, the navy supplied a notoriously poor diet for sailors, the worst of which was a pease pudding called ‘dogsbody’.The term soon became amalgamated with those who had to eat it; the lowest class who were tasked with menial and arduous tasks.


far-fetched, adj 

Usage: An argument of strained pedigree or questionable relevance. 

Etymology: 15th-century explorers brought home bizarre produce from previously unknown locations.These novel items became known as far- fetched goods.The explorers also told stories of the people and places they had seen, which were heavily embellished and treated with scepticism.


slush fund, 

Usage: A fund used to supplement the salaries of government employees. 

Etymology: Before refrigeration, salt was the primary means of preserving food on ships. Salted meat was kept in barrels below decks. Once eaten, a mixture of meat residue, salt and fat remained.This foul slush was commonly sold and the proceeds or ‘slush fund’ used to buy luxuries for the officers.


son of a gun, 

Usage: colloq. An epithet ascribing contempt, esp. toward males. Also used to convey shock or dissatisfaction. 

Etymology: One of questionable paternity conceived or delivered on the gun deck. It was not uncommon for prostitutes to live aboard ships. If the father of a baby was unknown, the ship’s log would detail the newborn a ‘son of a gun’.


turning a blind eye

Usage: idiom. Conscious disregard or ignorance of a situation or information. Etymology: When engaged with the Danish-Norwegian fleet at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, the commander of the British forces sent a flag signal to Nelson, ordering him to withdraw. Nelson is said to have raised his telescope to his blind eye and claim that he could see nothing of the sort.


Read more curious tales, including the quest for our forgotten sea monsters and the history of the magnetic compass in print issue 1 and iPad issue 2 of Ernest Journal, on sale now