“Fill yer boots” with the colourful language of the Royal Canadian Navy

“Fill yer boots” with the colourful language of the Royal Canadian Navy

Posted on October 17 by Mark Nelson in Non-fiction, Recent Releases
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I was introduced to Jackspeak when I began my 26-year naval career in HMCS CHIPPAWA on July 1st, 1980. I quickly learned my training base was called a stone frigate, floors were decks, the ceiling was a deckhead, walls were bulkheads, and the upper ridge of my boot sole was called catwalks.

Unfortunately, my catwalks were dirty, so I had to turn to at birds, which was a quaint way to say I had to stay late and polish brass. From that day forward, aside from having perfectly clean catwalks, I became engrossed with the language of the Navy.

To a newcomer, the jargon can be a gateway to a fascinating world – but it can also be rather confusing. For example, there is more than one way to refer to a lazy person, as they can be called a skiver, skate or be described as swinging the lead. The same goes for sleeping arrangements, as a sailor might sleep in a pit, cart, or rack, but only occasionally in a bunk.

Nuances must be learned. The term mess carries no less than three different meanings in a Canadian warship. Whistling is frowned upon, unless you’re a cook, then you are allowed – just as long as you don’t whistle up a wind

Every ship is represented by a uniquely designed badge, but you should never refer to the badge as a “crest.” Doing so will certainly be met with admonishment. Also, if you really want to live life on the edge, just say you were “on a ship.” You will be quickly told that sailors always say in a ship and never “on a ship.” If you were to make this mistake more than once, your keelhauling will likely take place in half a dog watch.

Any dessert (pie, cake, ice cream) is called duff, a name taken from the traditional rice pudding “figgy duff.” Of course, it only makes sense that tinned fruit is called armoured duff. You’d think no duff was a lack of dessert, or maybe a diet – it actually means “for real” or “not an exercise,” i.e., “Fire in the galley, no duff!” is a pretty serious statement.

Some terms are far more colourful. You'll find Nelson's balls up top on the bridge, and Nelson’s blood down below in the mess. A sailor might moan and drip when they see Newfie steak on the menu for the second time in a week. You learn how you can call a fellow sailor a winger, or refer to them as a hairy bag, but you would never call their party a nice piece of trim, or try to cut their grass. That would certainly lead to a parting of brass rags.

A ship’s cook can be called a cabbage mechanic. The person that works in the storeroom is formally known as a “supply technician,” but they are more commonly referred to as a blanket stacker or a box kicker. The ship’s engineers are far more commonly referred to as stokers, even though no ship’s engineer has stoked a coal-fired furnace for many decades. Also, on most ships the stokers have their own table in the main cave (main cafeteria) called the stoker’s table. Nobody else sits there (because nobody else wants to sit there!).

The Canadian Navy's unique language can be traced back to its Royal Navy roots. In fact, commonly used words such as Pusser, and nicknames such as Nobby are directly derived from British Navy forefathers. Many other terms have been formed directly from use in the Canadian Navy, such as CDF (Common Dog F--k) and navy gravy (ketchup).

I can recall the first time I heard many of these colourful terms used. When I was a very young sailor working on the left coast, I was employed among rubber freaks as a deckhand on a Navy diving tender that was salvaging a barge in beautiful Nanoose Bay, near Nanaimo, B.C. We were working in an isolated location, away from any social amenities. When the salvage job was finished, the chief diver rewarded us by taking us to a Nanaimo bar and treating us to a round of beer. As he was driving us to town, he said, “Tonight, don’t call me Chief – you can call me by my first name.” I replied, “Chief, are you sure we can call you by your first name?” He responded, “Fill yer boots!” I soon learned fill yer boots meant “have as much as you want.” 

In the spirit of the chief diver, I offer you Jackspeak of the Royal Canadian Navy (2nd ed.). Come alongside and fill yer boots with the colourful language of the RCN!

Mark Nelson

Posted by Dundurn Guest on December 5, 2017
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Mark Nelson

Mark Nelson developed a love for the language and lifestyle of the Canadian Navy over his 26-year naval career. After retiring as a Chief Petty Officer 2nd Class, he now works as the systems and services coordinator at the Red River College Library in Winnipeg, Manitoba.