By David Flin
Alternate History will often present modified terminology for things, to demonstrate how the world is different. Tom Anderson has described some of these in his articles on alternate terminology. Different countries, different histories, and so on.
What is equally apparent is that a lot of communities will develop their own terminology, to the extent that they are completely incomprehensible to outsiders. Conveying such things to the readership such that they can follow what is being said, while conveying the strangeness of it, I’m leaving as an exercise for the author.
Those of you who know my work will now that I’m an East End boy from way back when, and the East End phrases (as they were; things change over time) are familiar to me. If you say Gentlemen, Pony, Boracic, Dagenham Smile, or Boat Race, I’ll know whatcha mean.
You’ve got similar dialects, some as Geordie, which are equally incomprehensible to outsiders, despite being – technically – English.
But professional jargon is another matter. Not merely the technical jargon, such as described in Tom Anderson’s articles on naval technology, but the day-to-day things.
In this article, I’m going to be looking at Jackspeak, or slang used by members of the British Royal Navy. It’s a bit specialised, and thoroughly impenetrable, and, quite frankly, it may as well be another language. I’m sure that other Navies have their own version, but I’m familiar with the RN version. I should note that what follows is by no means complete. Rick Jolly, a former Surgeon Captain with the has the unusual record of being decorated by both Britain and Argentina for his work during the Falklands War of 1982; Britain awarded him an OBE, and Argentina the Orden de Mayo for his work at the field hospital in San Carlos Bay, treating casualties of both sides under difficult working conditions, and in close proximity to two unexploded bombs. I’ve no idea how many people owe their lives to him, but I’m one of them. He wrote a book, Jackspeak, in which he identifies over 4000 words, and this is not even close to be a complete list.
I have to say that the language seems at times to be designed to confuse outsiders. For example, “Port and Starboard scran spanners” may not have an obvious meaning. It becomes a bit more apparent when you know that port and starboard is left and right, respectively, and that scran means food. Spanners is self-evident, so port and starboard scran spanners translates into English as “knife and fork.”
Sometimes the meaning is clear. “Couldn’t organise 50% leave in a 2-man canoe” is self-evident.
Sometimes there is a disconnect. For example, scran means food, so one would assume a scran-bag is a container for food. That would be logical. It’s also wrong. It’s actually a receptacle for Naval lost property. “I can’t find my socks.” “Have you looked in the Mess scran-bag?”
It’s worth noting that Jack tends to be somewhat on the direct side, and there are a whole range of words and phrases relating to sex. When a male sailor arrives at a foreign port (back in my day, there were no female sailors who went to sea), there is a good chance he would go on a run ashore to seek out female companionship. If successful, he may very well engage in counterpane hurdling, or give the ferret a run. Under such circumstances, he would be well advised, for health reasons, to wear a franger. A condom is also known as a wellie, a Fred, or a forget-me-not.
You remember I mentioned earlier that there’s sometimes a disconnect? Well, while a franger is a condom, a franger-sanger is a fried egg sandwich. It’s very important not to get the two confused. Trust me on this.
A pusher, abbreviated from pram-pusher, is a wife or girlfriend.
If Jack doesn’t have a franger, his partner may well insist that he gets off at Fratton. This is an expression that means coitus interruptus, and derives from the fact that Fratton is the last railway station before Portsmouth Harbour and the Naval dockyard.
When Jack is on deployment, a pusher is likely to write to him. The letter may very well contain some romantic endearments, often descriptive of a physical nature. These are known as sports pages. The name derives from a British newspaper, the Daily Sport, which is notorious for carrying pictures of young ladies in a state of advanced undress.
Failure to either use a franger or to get off at Fratton may well, in nine months, produce a sprog. There are tales of a sailor on deployment who received a message: “Sprog delivered. Displacement 8lbs, length 14”. Power unit functioning normally.”
There are other past-times. Uckers, for example, bears a passing resemblance to Ludo. It is, however, competitive to a surprising extent, and though the rules don’t indicate it, Uckers can become a contact sport.
These are phrases that are very familiar to anyone in the Grey Funnel Line (Royal Navy). It doesn’t matter if you are part of the Green Death, a mere snotty, an airey-fairy, a Pontius, or a pickle-jar officer, you’ll know these phrases.
(Green death: Royal Marine. Snotty: Midshipman, due to the rank markings on the collar. Airey-fairy: Fleet Air Arm. Pontius, Navigating Officer, known as a Pilot, hence Pontius the Pilot. Pickle-jar officer: university graduate – able to tell you the square root of a pickle jar lid, but unable to get the lid off of the jar).
In addition to being impenetrable to outsiders, a lot of expressions originating from the Andrew (Royal Navy) have entered common usage.
There’s not enough room to swing a cat comes, obviously enough, from the cat of nine tails, a multi-tailed whip used to administer punishment.
Piping hot. This term originates from the fact that when food was ready in the galley, a pipe would be sounded to the mess-decks (communication was generally by a series of different pipe calls), and a member of a Mess would go to collect food for their Mess. If they arrived while the pipe was still sounding, the food would still be “piping hot”.
Freeze the balls off a brass monkey. During the Napoleonic period, warships fired iron cannon balls, some of which were stored nearby. The cannon balls were stored in a square pyramid, with one ball on top, resting on four, resting on none, which rested on sixteen. To prevent the sixteen balls from rolling away, a metal plate called a monkey with sixteen round indentations was secured near the cannon. As iron rusts quickly, the plate was made of brass. This solved the rusting problem, but led to an issue in cold weather. Brass contracts much more than iron at low temperatures. As a consequence, when it was extremely cold, the brass indentations would shrink and mover closer to each other, and the cannon balls would roll off the monkey. Under such conditions, the temperature is cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.
As for individual words, well, they are numerous. Jolly identified over 4000, and that’s an incomplete sample. I’ll present a few, but bear in mind that I’m only scratching the surface.
ABC: Abbreviation of All Been Changed. Acorn planter: Someone with strong beliefs. Andrew: Royal Navy. Blacks: Duct tape. Blind Horse: Recruit. Once the media realised that Wink was being used to describe recruits in what is described as a derogatory fashion, blind horse came into vogue. Boat: Submarine. Bootnecks: Royal Marine. Apparently derived from the time when leather stocks were worn around the neck. Bravo Zulu, or BZ: Well done. Bunts, Bunting Tosser: Member of the Communications Branch. Chuck up: Salute; or Praise; or Smell badly. Context is important. Chunter: Complain. Crabfat: RAF. Crows in working rig: Seagulls. Dhobi: Washing. Term originating from India. Ditch: Throw away. Dog robbers: Jacket and tie. Drip: Complain. Essence: An attractive member of the opposite sex. Gash: Rubbish. Gen dit: Genuine story. Glop: Complain. Also to drink in a hurry. Goffer: A salt-water wave. Or a cold drink. Or a punch with a fist. It’s confusing, OK? Gonk: Sleep. Hanging out: Suffering, exhausted. Heads: Toilets. Hoofing: Amazing, very good. Icers and Redders: Very cold and very hot respectively. Ickies: Money. Jenny: A female sailor. Kag: Useless equipment. Laughing kitbags: Something that’s very amusing. Mankey: In a bad state, messy. Neaters: Undiluted Pusser’s Water. Nod: Recruit. Note, under pressure from the media for the implication of it being bullying to call recruits “Nods”, the phrase has been outlawed. See Wink. Nutty: Confectionary. Oggin: The Sea. Party (also Pusher, Pash, Apache): A female with whom a Royal Marine has formed a more than casual relationship with. Pompey: Portsmouth. Also dehydrated mashed potato. I’m sure there’s a connection. Pongoes: Army. “Wherever the Army goes, that’s where the pong goes.” Pusser’s: Provided by the Royal Navy. Pusser’s Water: Navy Rum. Rabbits: Gifts. Sippers: Allowing a colleague to share a drink in exchange for previous favours. Snurgle: To advance cautiously. Sprog: Child, baby. Targets: Submariner’s term for surface ships. Threaders: Fed-up. Wet: Warm beverage. Sometimes an alcoholic beverage. It’s context dependent. Wink. A recruit. After pressure from the media to discontinue the use of Nod to describe a recruit, the term Wink was introduced. See Blind Horse. Yomping: Cross-country march.
This is just scratching the surface of the language. The words are English, in a manner of speaking, but they form an impenetrable code. I would note that it’s a language that adapts faster than might be expected.
“The kag’s all mankey and chucked up, so I had to ditch the gash, and I’m threaders,” he dripped. The nod will learn.
David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow and the Editor of Comedy through the (P)Ages