Navy Historical Facts and Trivia

By LTC Daniel D. Smith, Sr. (TN)*

"Heads up" former Sea Services personnel. If, in years past, you've ever been lying around a ship's berthing compartments, dying for a candy bar or pack of crackers, but since the ship was not out beyond the 3-mile limit, the "geedunk" wasn't open. What do you do? Well, about that time a shipmate, passing through your compartment, says "the roach coach is on the pier." Eureka, your hunger pains will be satisfied. Ever happen?

If this all sounds Greek to you, then the following naval glossary and word history may help.

GEEDUNK - To most sailors the word geedunk means ice cream, candy, potato chips and other assorted snacks, or even the place where they can be purchased. No one, however, knows for certain where the term originated, but there are several plausible theories:

1.) In the 1920's a comic strip character named Harold Teen and his friends spent a great amount of time at Pop's candy store. The store's owner called it The Geedunk for reasons never explained.

2.) The Chinese word meaning a place of idleness sounds something like gee dung.

3.) Geedunk is the sound made by a vending machine when it dispenses a soft drink in a cup.

4.) It may be derived from the German word tunk meaning to dip or sop either in gravy or coffee. Dunking was a common practice in days when bread, not always obtained fresh, needed a bit of tunking to soften it. The ge is a German unaccented prefix denoting repetition. In time it may have changed from getunk to geedunk. Whatever theory we use to explain geedunk's origin, it doesn't alter the fact that Navy people are glad it all got started.

GOAT LOCKER - Entertainment on liberty took many forms, mostly depending on the coast and opportunity. One incident which became tradition was at a Navy-Army football game. In early sailing years, livestock would travel on ships, providing the crew fresh milk, meats, and eggs, as well as serving as ships' mascots. One pet, a goat named El Cid (meaning Chief) was the mascot aboard the USS New York. When its crew attended the fourth Navy-Army football game in 1893, they took El Cid to the game, which resulted in the West Pointers losing. El Cid (The Chief) was offered shore duty at Annapolis and became the Navy's mascot. This is believed to be the source of the old Navy term, "Goat Locker."

MIND YOUR P's AND Q's - Nowadays a term meaning "Be on your best behavior." In old days, sailors serving aboard government ships could always get credit at the waterfront taverns until pay-day. As they would only pay for those drinks which were marked up on the score-board, the tavern-keeper had to be careful that no Pints or Quarts had been omitted from the customers list.

CHIEF PETTY OFFICERS - An Executive order issued by President Benjamin Harrison dated 25 February 1893 and issued as General order No. 409 of 25 February 1893 gave a pay scale for Navy enlisted men. It was divided into rates and listed Chief Petty Officers. Both the executive and Circular No. 1 listed Chief Petty Officers as a distinct rate for the first time and both were to take effect on 01 April 1893. It appears that this is the date on which the Chief Petty Officer rate actually was established.

NAVY COLORS- 27 August 1802 the Secretary of the Navy signed an instruction which set a pattern for the dress of the U.S. Navy in Blue and Gold.

UNIFORM REGULATIONS - The first uniform instruction for the U.S. Navy was issued by the Secretary of War on 24 August 1791. It provided a distinctive dress for the officers who would command the ships of the Federal Navy. The instruction did not include a uniform for the enlisted man, although there was a degree of uniformity. The usual dress of a seaman was made up of a short jacket, shirt, vest, long trousers, and a black low crowned hat.

FOULED ANCHOR - The foul anchor as a naval insignia got its start as the seal of the Lord Howard of Effingham. He was the Lord Admiral of England at the time of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. During this period the personal seal of a great officer of state was adopted as the seal of his office. The fouled anchor still remains the official seal of the Lord High Admiral of Great Britain. When this office became part of the present Board of Admiralty, the seal was retained on buttons, official seals, and cap badges. The Navy's adoption of this symbol and many other customs can be directly attributed to the influence of British Naval tradition. The fouled anchor is among them.

THE CPO FOULED ANCHOR - The Fouled Anchor is the emblem of the Rate of Chief Petty Officer of the United States Navy. Attached to the Anchor is a length of chain and the letters U.S.N.

KHAKI - Originated in 1845 in India where British soldiers soaked white uniforms in mud, coffee, and curry powder to blend in with the landscape. Khakis made their debut in the U.S. Navy in 1912 when they were worn by naval aviators, and were adopted for submarines in 1931. In 1941 the Navy approved khakis for on-station wear by senior officers, and soon after Pearl Harbor chiefs and officers were authorized to wear khakis ashore on liberty.

BROWN SHOES - In 1913 high laced shoes of tan leather first appeared in Uniform Regulations and were authorized for wear by aviators with khakis. The color changed to russet brown in 1922. Uniforms exclusive to the aviation community were abolished in the 1920's and reinstated in the 1930's. The authorized color of aviators shoes has alternated between brown and black since then.

BELL BOTTOM TROUSERS - Commonly believed that the trousers were introduced in 1817 to permit men to roll them above the knee when washing down the decks, and to make it easier to remove them in a hurry when forced to abandon ship or when washed overboard. The trousers may be used as a life preserver by knotting the legs and swinging them over your head to fill the legs with air.

THIRTEEN BUTTONS ON TROUSERS - There is no relationship between the 13 buttons on the trousers and the 13 original colonies. Before 1894, the trousers had only seven buttons and in the early 1800's they had 15 buttons. It wasn't until the broad fall front was enlarged that the 13 buttons were added to the uniform and only then to add symmetry of design.

FLAT HATS - First authorized in 1852 the flat hat was eliminated on 1 April 1963 due to non-available materials. The original hats had unit names on the front, however, unit names were taken off in January 1941.

WHITE HAT - In 1852 a white cover was added to the soft visorless blue hat. In 1866 a white sennet straw hat was authorized as an additional item. During the 1880's the white "sailors hat" appeared as a low rolled brim high-domed item made of wedge shaped pieces of canvas to replace the straw hat. The canvas was eventually replaced by cotton as a cheaper more comfortable material. Many complaints on the quality and construction led to modifications ending in the currently used white hat.

JUMPER FLAPS - The collar originated as a protective cover for the jacket to protect it from the grease or powder normally worn by seamen to hold hair in place.

STRIPES AND STARS ON JUMPER UNIFORMS - On 18 January 1876, Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce recommended a collar with stars and stripes as a substitute for the plain collar used on the frocks of seamen. Three stripes on the collar was proposed for all grades, with the stripes on the cuffs to indicated grade. One stripe for E-1, etc.

DISTINGUISHING MARKS/RATING BADGES - In 1841, insignia called "distinguishing marks" were first prescribed as part of the official uniform. An eagle and anchor emblem, forerunner of the rating badge, was the first distinguishing mark. In 1886 rating badges were established, and some 15 specialty marks were also provided to cover the various ratings. On 1 April 1893, petty officers were reclassified and the rating of chief petty officer was established. Until 1949 rating badges were worn on the right or left sleeve, depending on whether the person concerned was on the starboard or port watch. Since February 1948, all distinguishing marks have been worn on the right sleeve between the shoulder and elbow.

RIGHT ARM RATES - Established in 1841 and disestablished 2 April 1949, originally signified men of the Seaman branch. During WW II these rates included Boatswains Mate, Turret Captain, Signalman, Gunners Mate, Fire Controlman, Quartermaster, Mineman, and Torpedomans Mate. Other ratings wore rates on the left sleeve.

MEN'S NECKERCHIEF - The black neckerchief or bandanna first appeared as early as the 16th century and was utilized as a sweat band and collar closure. Black was the predominant color as it was practical and did not readily show dirt. There is no truth to the myth that the black neckerchief was designed as a sign of mourning for Admiral Nelson's death.

NECKERCHIEF SQUARE KNOT - There is no historical significance to the knot other that it being a knot widely used by sailors which presents a uniform appearance.

DUNGAREES - In 1901 regulations authorized the first use of denim jumpers and trousers, and the 1913 regulations originally permitted the dungaree outfit to be used by both officers and enlisted with the hat of the day.

DITTY BAG - Ditty bag (or box) was originally called ditto bag because it contained at least two of everything: two needles, two spools of thread, two buttons, etc. With the passing of years, the 'ditto' was dropped in favor of ditty and remains so today. Before WW I, the Navy issued ditty boxes made of wood and styled after foot lockers. These carried the personal gear and some clothes of the sailor. Today the ditty bag is still issued to recruits and contains a sewing kit, toiletry articles and personal items such as writing paper and pens.

CLOTHES STOPS - A small diameter cord, approximately 12 inches, used to tie laundry to a clothes line -- the early Navy clothes pin. Issued in recruit training until 1973.

ENLISTED WOMEN - The first enlisted women's uniform was comprised of a single breasted coat, blue in winter and white in summer, long gull bottomed skirts and a straight-brimmed sailor hat, blue felt in winter and white straw in summer, black shoes and stockings.

BOATSWAIN'S PIPE - No self-respecting boatswain's mate would dare admit he couldn't blow his pipe in a manner above reproach. This pipe, which is the emblem of the boatswain and his mates, has an ancient and interesting history. On the ancient row-galleys, the boatswain used his pipe to call the stroke. Later because its shrill tune could be heard above most of the activity on board, it was used to signal various happenings such as knock-off and the boarding of officials. So essential was this signaling device to the well-being of the ship, that it became a badge of office and honor in the British and American Navy of the sailing ships.

AVIATION GREEN UNIFORM - In September 1917 the "Forestry" Green uniform of the U.S. Marine Corps was authorized for aviation officers as a winter working uniform. The earliest use of the uniform by enlisted men came in 1941 when chief petty officers designated as Naval Aviation Pilots were authorized to wear the uniform. In November 1985 Aviation Working Greens were authorized for wear by women in the aviation community.

NAVY GRAY UNIFORMS - Gray uniforms in the same style as khaki were first introduced on 16 April 1943 as an officers uniform. On 3 June 1943 the uniform was extended to include Chief Petty Officers. On 31 March 1944 cooks and stewards were permitted to wear the gray uniform. The Navy abolished use of "grays" on 15 October 1949.

COCKED HAT - A hat worn by officers with ceremonial uniforms commonly refereed to as a "fore and aft" hat. During the 1700's the hat was worn parallel to the shoulders, but in the 1800's was modified to be worn with the points to the front and back. Wearing of the Cocked Hat was discontinued on 12 October 1940.

TATTOOS - A tattoo of a pig on one leg of a sailor and a rooster (cock) on the other is a charm against drowning.

ANCHORS AWEIGH - Music written by Bandmaster Lieut. Zimmerman. In 1906, Lieut. Zimmerman was approached by Midshipman First Class Alfred Hart Miles with a request for a new march. As a member of the Class of 1907, Miles and his classmates "were eager to have a piece of music that would be inspiring, one with a swing to it so it could be used as a football marching song, and one that would live forever."


SPLICE THE MAIN BRACE - "Splice the main brace, all hands forward to" is a summons to an extra ration of grog for work well done. From the book A Sailor's Treasury by Frank Shay, Copyright 1951.

DAVY JONES - Davy Jones and His Locker American Sailors would rather not talk about Davy Jones and his infamous locker. They are ready enough to refer to him and his dwelling place, but just leave him an indefinite, unbodied character who keeps to his place at the bottom of the sea. Pressed, they will profess that they do not know what he looks like, his locker is to them something like an ordinary sea chest or coffin, always open to catch any sailor unfortunate enough to find himself in the sea. Some English sailors incline to the belief that his name is a corruption of Duffer Jones, a clumsy fellow who frequently found himself overboard. The only time Davy comes to life is in the ceremony of crossing the line. Then he is usually impersonated by the smallest sailor on board, given a hump, horns and a tail, and his features made as ugly as possible. He is swinish, dressed in rags and seaweed, and shambles along in the wake of the sea king, Neptune, playing evil tricks upon his fellow sailors. Old sailors, rather than speak of the devil, called him Deva, Davy or Taffy, the thief of the evil spirit; and Jones is from Jonah, whose locker was the whale's belly. Jonah was often called Jonas, and as Davy Jones, the enemy of all living sailors, he has become the mariners' evil angel. To be cast into the sea and sink is to fall into his locker and have the lid popped down on one. It is generally agreed that the Christian sailor's body goes to Davy Jones's locker, but his soul, if he is a proper sailorman, goes to Fiddlers' Green. From the book A Sailor's Treasury by Frank Shay, Copyright 1951.

SCUTTLEBUTT - Navy term for rumor. Comes from a combination of the word "scuttle" to make a hole in the ship's side, causing her to sink, and "butt", a cask used to hold drinking water. Scuttlebutt literally means a cask with a hole in it. Scuttle describes what most rumors accomplish if not to the ship, at least to morale. Butt describes the water cask where men naturally congregated, and that's where most rumors get started.

SHOW A LEG - In the British Navy of King George III many sailor's wives accompanied them on long voyages. To avoid dragging the wrong "mate" out of the rack at reveille, the bosun asked all to "show a leg". If the leg wore silk, it's owner was allowed to sleep in. If the leg was hairy and tattooed, the owner was forced to "turn to."

DEVIL TO PAY - Originally this denoted a specific task aboard ship such as caulking the ship's longest seam. The "Devil" was the longest seam on the ship and caulking was done with "pay" or pitch. This grueling task was despised by every seaman and the expression came to denote any unpleasant task.

KEELHAUL - An extreme punishment given in which an offender was tied hand and foot, with heavy weights attached to his body. He was slowly lowered over the ship's side and dragged under the ship's hull. If he didn't drown, which was usually the case, then barnacles usually ripped him, causing him to bleed to death.

SKYLARKING - Originally, skylarking described the antics of young Navymen who climbed and slid down the backstays for fun. Since the ancient word "lac" means "to play" and the games started high in the masts, the term was "skylacing." Later, corruption of the word changed it to "skylarking".

NAVY MASCOTS - the navy mascots name is Bill XXVIII (28), there has been 2 cats, 1 dog, 1 carrier pigeon. Goats have been the mascot since 1904.

TAR - was given to sailors because in the old days they used to tar their clothing to make it waterproof.

OLDEST U.S. MILITARY AWARD - The Navy's Medal of Honor, authorized December 21, 1861, is the oldest continuous use military award in America. Source: US Military Medals: 1939 to Present. Foster and Borts, Medals of America Press.

Navy Glossary:
[Source: Navy Bluejackets Manual (1944)]

ALL HANDS - Entire ship's company.

AYE, AYE, SIR - Used by subordinates to seniors in acknowledging an order or command signifying that it is understood and will be carried out.

BATTEN DOWN - To close or make watertight, usually referring to hatches.

BEAR A HAND - Speed up work, or lend a hand.

BLUEJACKET - A seaman in the United States Navy.

BREAK OUT - To unstow, or prepare for use.

CARRY ON - An order to resume work or duties.

CHARLEY NOBLE - Gally smoke-pipe.

CROSSING THE LINE - Crossing the Equator, at which time there is usually a ceremony during which the pollywog (landlubber) becomes a "shellback."

CUT OF THE JIB - General appearance of a vessel or a person.

DITTY BOX/DITTY BAG - A small wooden box or small canvas bag used by bluejackets for stowing small personal gear.

ENSIGN - The national flag; a junior commissioned officer in the Navy.

FIELD DAY - A day for general ship cleaning.

FLOTSAM - Floating wreckage or goods thrown overboard.

GALLEY - The ship's kitchen.

GRAVEYARD WATCH - The middle (mid) watch from 2400 to 0400.

HAND - A member of the ship's crew.

HEAD - A ship's toilet.

HIGH SEAS - The entire ocean beyond the three-mile limit where no nation has special privileges or jurisdiction. (note: nations now claim 10-mile, 12-mile, or more limits)

HIT THE DECK - A phrase used in rousing men from bunks at Reveille.

IRISH PENNANT - Untidy loose end of a line, [or loose threads on a uniform.]

JETSOM - Goods which sink when thrown overboard at sea.

JUMPER - The blouse of a bluejacket's uniform.

JURY RIG - A makeshift rig of mast and sail or other gear.

KNOCK OFF - To stop; to stop work.

LANDLUBBER - Seaman's term for one who has never been to sea.

LADDER - A metal, wooden or rope stairway.

LIBERTY - Permission to be absent from a ship or station for a period up to 48 hours. [72 hours on three-day weekends.] Anything longer than this is not liberty, but is leave charged to an individual's leave balance.

LUCKY BAG - A locker for the stowage of loose articles of clothing and personal gear found aboard the ship [or station].

MAN - To put the proper number of men on a detail so that the work can be done.

MAST - A vertical spar supporting the booms, gaffs and sails on a sailing vessel; a spar supporting signal yard and antennae on a fighting ship; the term applied to the hearing of cases of offense against discipline, or for requests or commendations.

OFFICER OF THE DECK (OOD) - The officer in charge of the ship during each watch and on deck as the Captain's representative.

PADRE - Affectionate slang for the chaplain.

PASS THE WORD - To repeat an order or information to the crew.

PHONETIC ALPHABET - A way of speaking letters so that they will be clearly understood; for example A is "Alpha," B is "Bravo," etc.

PIPE THE SIDE - The ceremony at the gangway in which side boys are drawn up and the boatswain's pipe blown when a high-ranking officer or distinguished visitor comes aboard.

POLLYWOG - One who has never crossed the Equator.

QUARTER DECK - The part of the upper deck reserved for honors and ceremonies.

RANK - Grade of official standing of commissioned officers.

RATE - Grade of official standing of enlisted men.

RATLINE - A short length of small stuff running horizontally across shrouds.

ROCKS AND SHOALS - Slang for the Articles for the Government of the Navy. [Precursor of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).]

ROPEYARN SUNDAY - A time for repairing clothing. [In the late 1950's Ropeyarn Sunday, when it was held at all, was often held on Wednesday afternoons]

RULES OF THE ROAD - Regulations prescribed to prevent collisions of ships.

SCUTTLE BUTT - A container of fresh water for drinking; a rumor.

SEA BAG - A large canvas bag for stowing the gear of a bluejacket.

SEABEES - Construction battalions (CBs); nickname for bluejackets in a construction battalion.

SEA LAWYER - A seaman who is prone to argue, especially against recognized authority.

SHAKEDOWN CRUISE - Cruise of a newly commissioned ship to test out all machinery and train the crew.

SHELLBACK - One who has crossed the Equator and been initiated.

SHIPSHAPE - Seamanlike and neat.

SHORE PATROL - Same as the Army's Military Police.

SHOVE OFF - Slang for leaving.

SICK BAY - Ship's hospital or dispensary.

SKIPPER - Slang for the Captain.

SKIVVIES - Slang for underwear.

SMART - Snappy, seamanlike [i.e. "Look Smart!"].

SQUARE AWAY - To get things settled down or in order; to complete a job.

STAND BY - A preparatory order meaning "get ready."

STOW - To put gear in its proper place.

STRIKER - A non-rated [sailor] who is qualifying for a petty-officer's rate.

SWAB - A rope mop.

TRICE - To haul up. [Shipboard bunks used to be "triced" up]

TURN TO - An order to begin work. ["Turn to" starts the working day; "Knock off" ends the working day.]

UNCOVER - Remove hat.

VERY WELL - Reply of an officer to a subordinate to indicate that the information given is understood.

WARDROOM - Officer's assembly and mess room aboard a Navy ship.

WATCH - A post or period of duty. [e.g. Quarterdeck watch; phone watch; dempsey dumpster watch; after lookout watch; sounding watch, etc.]

WEIGH - To lift the anchor off the bottom.

*LTC Daniel Smith (TN) is a Military Historian, a member of the Society for Military History, and is a member of the Board for the National Medal of Honor Museum of Military History. If you have special areas of American military history you would like to read about, contact LTC Smith via internet e-mail at or U.S. mail at 150 Truman Drive, Chattanooga, TN 37343.

Source for most of the foregoing information: Internet website for U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Selectees. Those who have been selected for CPO but have not been "initiated." The most prideful moment in an enlisted Sailors life is when he or she becomes, in addition to a Sailor, a Chief Petty Officer - able to enter the CPO Mess without knocking - and really belonging to the mess

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