Warrior Ways: Explorations in Modern Military Folklore

By Eric A. Eliason; Tad Tuleja | Go to book overview

6
Sea Service Slang
Informal Language of the Navy and Coast Guard

Angus Kress Gillespie

One of the qualities that ensures the sanity of a sailor is a sense of humor.

—W.A.B. Douglas, former navigation officer, Canadian Navy

One function of an occupational folk group’s slang is to distinguish the members of the group from outsiders, and thus to nurture a linguistic cohesion among those “in the know.” Carol Burke alludes to this fact when she comments that the military’s “informal vocabulary” serves, at the most basic level, to distinguish members of the armed services from civilians (2004, 106). In the maritime services, this distinguishing element is perhaps most evident in the specialized lexicon used to name parts of a ship. Anyone who has seen popular films such as The Caine Mutiny, Mr. Roberts, or The Hunt for Red October will be aware that, in the US Navy, no ship has a front or back, floors, or a bathroom; it (or rather “she”) has a “fore and aft,” “decks,” and a “head.” That sailors utilize this vocabulary and landlubbers do not constitutes an important distinction between the two groups.

But the distinction between sailors and civilians is only one of many that are reflected in “sea service slang.” Equally important differentiations are made between new recruits and older hands, seamen and petty officers, Naval Academy graduates and ROTC graduates, the Navy and the Coast Guard—these are among the many binary distinctions that are embraced by members of the seagoing services, sometimes as a means of humorously disparaging other members and sometimes as a way of grousing about the service itself. In this chapter, by focusing on some of the more colorful

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