Jackspeak: scuttlebutt


Scuttlebutt is a commonly used term with a naval origin. As far back as the 17th century, a scuttled butt was the term for a barrel that had been breached to provide a source of fresh water for the crew. Much like a modern water cooler, rumours and gossip were often shared, and these tidbits of information were referred to as scuttlebutt.

In naval vernacular, scuttle refers to a breach, as in the verb scuttle, where a ship’s hull is breached to sink the vessel deliberately. As a noun, scuttle refers to a round opening or ‘window’ in the side of a ship, something customarily referred to as a porthole in non-naval circles. On a warship, a scuttle comes with a battle cover – a metal cover (shade) which may be closed when the order ‘darken ship’ is given. An uncommon term related to a scuttle is the rigol, a raised rim above the outside of a scuttle resembling an eyebrow.

While the term scuttlebutt still finds plenty of uses in a naval context, there is no longer a physical place for it aboard HMC ships. In more modern times, rumours might emanate from anywhere the ship’s company may gather, such as a breezeway, quarterdeck, lounge, or smoking patio. In the past, the galley was where sailors gathered and talked, as smoking was allowed there. The term galley packet originated from this situation. Even today, a galley packet may refer to a juicy rumour, whether created in the galley or not, i.e., “I heard the juiciest galley packet just now on the quarterdeck”.

Dit can refer to rumours, i.e., “Bloggins has all the best dit”. More explicitly, ‘dit’ can be modified to ‘no sh*t dit’, a rumor confirmed as being true, or ‘bad dit’, a rumour confirmed as false. In a more general military context, rumours can be called buzz. The unflattering term white rat might refer to a junior sailor who a senior sailor uses to spread rumours. Rumour Control refers to a fictitious entity in every ship that seems to be involved in scuppering rumours.

Scupper, a term widely used outside the military, can refer to something being thwarted or ruined, i.e., “The weather scuppered Bloggins’ trip to the beach”. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us the term ‘scupper’ originated in the late nineteenth century as military slang, meaning ‘to surprise and exterminate’. In more modern times, it came to mean ‘To defeat, ruin, destroy, or put an end to’.

Often interchanged or confused with the term scuttle, scupper in naval context refers to a deck drain meant to carry water overboard. A scupper is described to neophytes and young sailors as a ‘hole’ in the deck and a scuttle as a hole in the ship’s side.

You will find over 4,000 examples of Jackspeak in my book Jackspeak of the Royal Canadian Navy (2nd ed.).

The author of ‘Jackspeak of the Royal Canadian Navy’ and ‘Whiskey 601’, Mark Nelson developed a love of the Navy’s language and lifestyle over his 26-year career in the service. After retiring as a Chief Petty Officer Second Class, he now works as a Library Systems Specialist at Red River College Polytechnic in Winnipeg, Man.

Follow Mark on Twitter @4marknelson

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