Tiffies, Shipwrights and Bosuns: even trades have nicknames

Mark Nelson

Mark Nelson, 

Everyone in the Navy has a ‘trade’, which is considered to be their job or specialty. A traditional way a specialist might be identified is through the title artificer, which indicates a skilled sailor. Historically the most common artificer is an Engine Room Artificer, a specialist within a ship’s engineering branch. In modern times, only the senior engineer in a warship, the Chief Engine Room Artificer, retains this specialty indicator.

Artificer may be shortened to tiffy, as in Sick Bay Tiffy, which refers to a sick bay’s medical attendant. A Sick Bay Tiffy may be known by other names, almost always referring to the least fulfilling jobs they perform. For example, a medical attendant is never referred to as a ‘blood pressure checker,’ but check a certain body part, and you have a forever nickname.

Sailors are sometimes referred to using the traditional title of Shipwright. Generally, ‘shipwright’ is used for a person who designs, builds, and repairs boats and ships, and in this case, used for the sailors who facilitate important repairs of the ship, especially when away from home port.

Toothwright is a popular nickname for a dentist who can also be referred to as a molar mangler or a fang farrier, somehow leaping from fixing a sailor’s teeth to trimming horse hooves. Even more popular is the nickname fang bosun, which refers to the professional sea trade of a dentist.

A bosun or bos’n is a shortened version of the boatswain, which generally refers to a sailor responsible for the ship’s ropes, rigging, and boats. Boatswain is derived from the old English word ‘batswegen,’ meaning the boat’s ‘swain,’ or husband. In today’s Navy, ‘boatswain’ refers to the professional seaman trade. The name is popular and gets reused in many ways. For example, a sin bosun is a nickname for a Chaplain or a Padre, muscle bosun, referring to physical fitness staff or a muscle-bound sailor who enjoys weightlifting, or ping bos’n, another name for a sonar operator. Rum bos’n was a term used for someone who might be willing to share their contraband stash of liquor, especially back in the day when a daily rum ration was issued to the crew.

Some refer to members of the Boatswain trade as super sailors because they are specialists in all seamanship evolutions. Another tongue-in-cheek way to refer to a boatswain would be ‘boat swan,’ appropriately combining two of their favourite things, boats and swans. Who doesn’t love a good swan!

In this context, the swan would refer to a side trip or attendance at an event that may be perceived as more fun than work, i.e., ‘While we were de-storing ship, Bloggins was away on a swan to Montreal’. Some might even refer to such a trip as a jolly, especially if it was a work-related journey that involved little work and more pleasure. Lucky Bloggins!

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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