Jackspeak: Up Spirits!

Mark Nelson

Up Spirits is the traditional pipe tune used to inform a ship’s company to prepare to receive a daily rum ration. Historically, sailors have been given rum to keep them vigorous and able to ward off the chills of the sea environment. Although rum was consumed in the Royal Navy for centuries, the tradition of issuing a tot, the term for the daily half-gill issue of rum, began in 1850.

Once one of the most welcome pipes in a daily routine, the general call followed by the words ‘up spirits’ was normally heard at six bells in the forenoon watch, or 1100, although it could be heard anytime between 1100 and noon depending on circumstances. Each sailor was issued one tot of rum measured as a half-gill, a gill being five imperial fluid ounces, and half-gill being 2.5 ounces.

July 31, 1970, is known as Black Tot Day as it was the last day the Royal Navy issued sailors a daily rum ration. For the Royal Canadian Navy, Black Tot Day came two years later, on March 30, 1972. The Royal New Zealand Navy was the last Commonwealth Navy to abolish the practice on Feb. 28, 1990.

Sailors would drink their tot neat, meaning undiluted, or mixed with cola or water. It was also common for sailors to owe a part of their rum issue to a fellow sailor, possibly to settle a debt. They might pay their debt by sharing their rum in a measurement of sippers (take a sip), gulpers (take a gulp), or sandy bottoms (drink it all). Unofficially, three sippers equaled one gulper, and there were three gulpers in an entire tot.

The tot may be gone, but the Navy still occasionally makes a special issuance of rum, referred to as Splice the Mainbrace. Done on special occasions, and marked by the traditional pipe of Up Spirits, the name of this practice is derived from the notion that if the mainbrace on a sailing ship required repair, the sailor who made the repair (splice), was rewarded with an extra ration of rum. The signal hoists for Splice the Mainbrace are the flags Bravo and Xray.

By definition, grog is rum mixed with water, usually one part rum mixed with two parts water. The term was derived from ‘Old Grogram’, the nickname of Admiral Edward Vernon who was known for wearing a grogram coat. Vernon became notorious in 1740, when he ordered the Royal Navy to water down the rum before it was consumed by sailors. The common English word groggy, which means to be dazed, weak, or unsteady, was derived from the condition of having consumed too much grog.

An oft-used nickname for rum is Nelson’s blood, derived from the story of how Admiral Horatio Nelson’s body was preserved in a cask of rum aboard HMS Victory after he perished at the Battle of Trafalgar. As the legend states, when the cask arrived back in England, it appeared that the sailors had drilled a hole in the bottom of the cask and the rum had been consumed. Hence, the origin of the term ‘Nelson’s blood’. This tale is widely told, but the details are often disputed, as many historians claim Nelson’s cask contained French brandy. Quel scandale!

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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