Making sense of Naval lexicon

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Cmde Arun Kumar (Retd)
Cmde Arun Kumar (Retd)
Cmde Arun Kumar is the Author of the book S71 INS Chakra - The Pioneer and her men. He graduated from the National Defence Academy in Dec 1971 and was joined the Navy in 1973. He joined the submarine arm in 1975. He was part of the commissioning crew of India's first nuclear submarine INS Chakra. He served on Chakra as the operations officer and later the executive officer. He has held many important land and sea-based positions of the Indian Navy. He also graduated from Defence Services Staff College and Naval Higher Command Courses with distinction. His last appointment was Principal Director Submarine Acquisition (PDSMAQ) at the NHQ. He was decorated twice by the President of India with Nausena Medal and Ati Vishisht Seva Medal.

All over the world, naval personnel have been and are found attractive to the fairer sex, (No wonder there is an adage that a sailor has a wife in every port) in their snow white uniforms in the summer as also in the naval blue uniforms in the winter. In a sense both the colours, despite their inherent simplicity, are universal in their appeal. One would imagine that the naval lexicon would also be equally simple and easy to decipher. However, in this respect navies across the world paint a crazy kaleidoscopic picture where in the blocks do not fit into their slots with ease.

In the navy you do not wake up to an alarm on the clock, but are ‘shaken up’ with the call of ‘Reveille’ on the bugle sounded on the main broadcast of the ship. The greeting exchanged is not ‘Good morning’ but ‘Top of the morning’.  After lightening their intestines in ‘Heads’ (WC) and on completing their ‘ablutions’, the ships company (not crew), ‘muster’ by part of ship. Thereon, they are ‘detailed’ for ‘cleanship’ to keep the vessel ‘ship shape’. A ‘grease monkey’ is not an avatar of ‘hanuman’ soiled in grease but a ‘stoker’ or an engine room sailor, who engages in maintenance of the mechanical machinery.

The ships company (Not a corporate entity) does not perform its duties but closes up on a ‘watch’, to discharge its tasks. Acknowledgement of orders is not a simple “yes sir’ but a more emphatic ‘Aye Aye sir’. That is so, till one comes across a ‘Dodge Pompeye’. No I am not referring to a model from the Dodge Motor company but to a ‘Jack’ (sailor) who finds excuses to evade work. To achieve his goal, he may resort to being ‘sick in quarters’ and ‘sham’ away (malinger) his ‘detail’. A more intelligent ‘hand’ may try becoming a ‘sea lawyer’, who does not believe in the dictum “Yours is not to question how and why, but to do and die”.

Whilst the ships company is closed up on watch, the ship’s cook(s) prepare the meals in the ‘galley’ (Kitchen) and at mid-day 1200 h they are beckoned by a call on the Botswain’s pipe (Bosuns pipe in short) “Hands to Dinner” (lunch in the civvy street). The meal in the evening is piped as ‘Hands to supper’ at 1830 h. Announcements on the ship’s broadcast are not made but ‘Piped’. ‘Galley packet’ is not a take away food item but means a ‘rumour’.

The timekeeping on board is done by ringing the ship’s bell. The day is divided into 7 watches as follows:-

0001-0400 – Middle watch.

0401-0800 – Morning watch

0801-1200 – Forenoon watch.

1201-1600 – Afternoon watch.

1601-1800 – First Dog watch.

1801-2000 – Second Dog watch.

2001-2400 – First watch.

The Dog watch is split into two to avoid the same lot of ships Company closing up in middle watch successively. The ships company is divided into three watches; Red, White and Blue. Accordingly, when the ships company is mustered the pipe is ‘Both watches fall in’ because one watch is closed up.

To mark the time in each watch the bell is struck in increasing numbers of strokes till the end of the watch and the cycle is repeated in each watch. Thus, at 0030 there will be one stroke, at 0100- 2 strokes, 0130- 3 strokes and so on till at 0400 there will be 8 strokes marking the end of the watch. However, there is a nuance in the second dog watch wherein at 1830 – 1 stroke 1900- 2 strokes, 1930-3 strokes and at 2000 – 8 strokes are sounded. The ship’s clocks are not adjusted for changes in time zones but are ‘Advanced’ when steaming East and ‘Retarded’ when sailing West.

At sea daily at 1600 h, the ships company is mustered at ‘evening quarters’ except for those on watch and on completion of the head count, is detailed on seamanship and professional tasks. Completion of the day’s routine is marked by piping ‘Secure’. In harbor, on ‘secure’ the ships company is allowed to proceed ashore with the permission of the Officer of the day (OOD) on ‘liberty’ a shore leave of less than 24 hours duration. Usually the ‘liberty’ expires at midnight when the ‘gangway’ is closed. Officers have an ‘open gangway’ which means that they may return anytime in the night. Gangway is the platform which is placed between the jetty and the ships deck enabling embarking or disembarking from the ship. The term is also used to request walking past a person ahead in the narrow passageways on the ship. Going ashore without permission is ‘jumping ship’. A person absent without leave (AWOL) for more than 72 hours is ‘marked run’. At ‘pipe down’ sounded at 2200 h, the sailors don’t get into bed but ‘turn in’ their ‘bunks’ for the night. There are other forms of musters.  ‘Lower Decks are cleared’ (Signifying all personnel living below the upper deck) either in an emergency or when all except those on essential watches are required to be mustered. Once a quarter, the lower decks are cleared for ‘Muster by open list’ which is presided over by the Captain and the particulars of each officer and sailor is verified. The concerned person marches up to the Captain and speaks out his data. Particulars of those who are unable to attend, due to being on a watch/other valid reasons, are checked at a mismuster taken by the XO. Ships also “Out of routine” at times like, when ammunitioning. It signifies suspending the daily working regime and working without a time table till the task is completed.

In the officers rung, a cadet is treated as the lowest form of marine life and is called a ‘monkey’. He graduates to midshipman or a ‘Snorty’ who is halfway between an officer and a cadet. The combined training duration for cadets and midshipmen may vary from a year to 18 months on completion of which, one gets commissioned as a Sub Lieutenant.  A snorty may be assigned to the Captain to be at his beck and call to render assistance as ‘Captain’s doggy’. The captain of the ship irrespective of his age and rank is called ‘old man’. The senior most sailor on board is known as ‘sea daddy’. An experienced mariner is called a ‘sea dog’.

Among the specialist officers, the navigating officer is the ‘pilot’, the gunnery officer is ‘guns’, the signal and communication officer is ‘flag’ and the anti-submarine warfare officer (ASWO) is called ‘pings’. A ‘salt horse’ is an executive officer who has not specialized. The Executive Officer (Second in command) on a capital ship (Cruiser and above) is the ‘Commander’ and on a private ship, he is XO or No. 1. The first lieutenant on capital ships is No. 1. ‘Chief’ is the engineer officer and ‘sparks’ the electrical officer.

Among the sailors too there are key personnel. ‘The chief boatswain mate’ also called ‘Bosun’ is the senior most sailor from the seaman branch. He reports to the Commander/XO of the ship and is responsible for the ship’s upkeep and management of the ships company. He also makes the watch and station bill. On submarines he is known as the ‘coxswain’. The ‘yeoman’ is the most important communication sailor and is virtually the right hand man of the Captain on the bridge in management of the communication traffic. The Chief Quartermaster mans the ship’s helm (Wheel) in the ‘Wheelhouse’. The ‘Chief ERA’ (Engine Room Artificer) takes charge of the machinery control room (MCR).

The sailors live and eat in their ‘messes’.  On capital ships there may be dining halls for senior/junior sailors separately. Officers reside in cabins. Junior watchkeping officers usually, are accommodated in a ‘cow shed’. Cadets and Midshipmen are put up in ‘chest flats’. Officers dine in the ‘Ward room’ where as cadets and midshipmen do so in the ‘Gun room’. There are no guns in the gun room.

Officers are allowed consumption of hard drinks on board in the ward room. Midshipmen may have only beer and wines on ships where they are members of the ward room, or in the gun room on capital ships, till they cut their teeth as officers. ‘Horse’s neck’ does not refer to an anatomy of a stallion but is a cocktail of brandy and gingerale. Similarly, ‘Bloody Mary’ is no loose/cussed damsel but vodka laced with tomato juice. Those officers who bum on others are called ‘freeloaders’. Although, sailors are not allowed alcoholic drinks on board, the Captain may, on special occasions, authorize rationed issue of a ‘tot of rum’ or ‘grog’.

On Wednesdays and Saturdays, ships are usually called on to observe a ‘Make and Mend’ which literally means time given to tend to one’s uniforms. However, in practice it has come to be accepted as a half working day. In appreciation of the good work done in an evolution or an inspection, the senior officer afloat or the Captain may award a ‘Make and Mend’ even if it were to be on any other day than Wednesday/Saturday. Sunday is the sabbatical day and a day of rest. Ships usually observe ‘Sunday routine’ and other than essential watch keeping there is no work carried out and the ships company may proceed on liberty. After a satisfactory inspection of a ship by the senior officer carrying out the inspection (CinC, Fleet Cdr. etc.), a signal may be made in appreciation, awarding a Sunday routine to the ship. A job well done is acknowledged by a verbal/signal appreciation by a phrase ‘Bravo Zulu’.

The vocabulary to describe parts of a ship is also unique. The left side of the ship when looking ahead (Stem) is known as ‘Port side’ whereas the one on the right is ‘Starboard side’. The forward part of the ship is ‘forecastle or foc’sle. Aft is called ‘quarter deck’. The centre part is  ‘midship’.  On large ships there may be further subdivisions such as ‘forward midship’ and ‘aft midship’. In older days, the exhaust chimney from the galley was called ‘charlie noble’, however in modern ships the complete exhaust from all sources is channeled through the ‘funnel’. ‘Sponson’ is not a spoilt son but an overhang of a platform over the shipside. This is, usually, to be seen on aircraft carriers. A ‘crow’s nest’ is a shielded niche for a look out and is generally, hallway up the fore mast.

 The ship is ‘conned’ from the ‘bridge’. There are no conmen sitting by a bridge as would be understood in the civilian parlance. It simply means that all maneuvers, functions, orders and reports in execution of various tasks and functions are managed from here. The bridge has all the control systems, equipment, mechanisms and gauges to handle and manage the ship in discharge of all her functions and tasks.

The ropes to ‘make fast’ the ship to the jetty are collectively called ‘berthing hawsers’. ‘Springs’ are not metallic coils but wire/manila ropes to regulate the ship’s motion forward/astern when alongside. Similarly, the head and stern ropes are to keep them tied to the jetty. The head rope is often passed through a ‘bull ring’ at the nose of the ship. The command ‘single up’ is no prelude to a divorce but an order to reduce the berthing hawsers to a single ‘bight’ in preparation to ‘cast off’ from the jetty. ‘Belaying/bending a rope means to fix or to tie a rope to a ‘cleat’ or a structure meant to secure it. ‘Belay the last’ also means to cancel a previous order or instruction.

Ships ‘come to an anchor’ by ‘laying’ the anchor cable on the sea bed. The anchor is ‘weighed’ when recovering it to get ‘underway’. A ship is underway when it is not made fast to any structure and when its anchors are ‘housed’. ‘Anchor away’ is not the famous score played by naval bands or the famous Hollywood comedy of the mid 1940s, but signifies the instant when the anchor is just clear of the sea bed/bottom. ‘Bitter end’ is not a fight to the finish but that end of the cable which is secured in the ‘cable locker’ and is never exposed. The cable is changed end to end only during a dry docking. ‘Swallowing an anchor’ means calling it a day from the naval service.

‘Freeboard’ on a ship is not ‘boarding gratis’ but is the part of the ship side between the waterline and the upper deck. Similarly, ‘boot topping’ is the area painted black between the minimum and maximum draft lines. Burials at sea are done by discharging the casket over the side to the ‘Davy Jone’s locker’ or the sea bed. A ‘holiday’ on a ship is not some fancy vacation, but a gap left when painting a surface. In similar vein ‘Irish Pennant’ is a loose fibre/strand of cloth from a cloth/rope/sail/canvas which has come undone and is loosely hanging. ‘Flotsam’ is debris on the sea surface usually from a wreck whereas ‘Jetsam’ is waste or debris thrown overboard to lighten a ship.

Reports are acknowledged by ‘Roger/very good’. In no manner is it meant to convey one’s appreciation. ‘That is charlie’ is not pointing out a vagabond but a phrase expressed to confirm the correctness of the information/communication received when queried. ‘Carry on’ is not to indicate continuance of an activity but is an order dismissing a junior after having summoned him. ‘Clearing one’s yardarm’ is to shirk accountability or deflecting the blame from oneself in the event of an adverse outcome. ‘Mother’ is the depot ship for the submariners and is the aircraft carrier in case of pilots.  Ships are ‘Dressed overall’ on ceremonious occasions which is rigging up flags and pennants in alternate sequence on a line from the ‘jackstaff’ to the fore and main masts and further aft to the ‘ensign staff’. On the same occasions, ships are also rigged for illumination in dark hours.

Using abbreviations in correspondence and in ‘Calling on’ is a particular speciality of the navy. A few of them are as follows:

: RPC – R equest pleasure of your company.

: RTC – Request time convenient to call.

: RTC-PPC – Request time convenient to call prior to demitting present posting.

: WDS – Would be delighted to see you.

: MRU – Much regret unable. (Turning down an invitation).

: UCM – You see me. (Summoning a junior by a signal in working rig)

: URT – You report to me. (Summon by a signal in formal rig)

: Wilco – Will comply.

Notings made in correspondence:

: KTI – Kill the issue.

: WPB – Waste paper basket.

: PIO – Put into orbit.

: PUF – Put up on file.

: PUDR – Put up draft reply.

: LBW – Let the bastard wait

I   am reasonably certain that after having gone through this lexicon in the naval parlance, the reader must be wondering if sane people man the navy. They are not off the mark or would, not, be unreasonable to pose this question. To them, I would commend the following, ostensibly, written by the wizard of a playwright, the late ‘George Bernard Shaw’.

“Men join the navy thinking they will enjoy it. They do enjoy it for about a year or so, at least the stupid ones do, riding back and forth dully on the ships. The bright ones find that they don’t like it in half a year, but then there’s always the thought of that pension…Gradually, they become crazy, crazier and crazier. Only the navy has no way of distinguishing between the sane and the insane. Only about five percent of the Royal Navy have the sea in their veins. They are the ones who become Captains. Thereafter, they are segregated on their bridges. If they are not mad before this, they go mad then and the maddest of them become Admirals.”



  1. It was pure nostalgia while going through this well collated article. For the uninitiated it would surely be very revealing. The short-formed texts that Navy uses were certainly the ore-cursor of the current digi-texts which the millennials converse in. The ending is so very apt. Cheers to the insanely sane seafarers…

  2. It was pure nostalgia while going through this well collated article. For the uninitiated it would surely be very revealing. The short-formed texts that Navy uses were certainly the pre-cursor of the current digi-texts which the millennials converse in. The ending is so very apt. Cheers to the insanely sane seafarers…

  3. Very well written article. Arun how did you get the time to write all this stuff. Well done and keep it up. Regards JMS Sodhi

  4. Navy is a school of technology ,the ones who want to learn can enjoy but leave after 15 years and life more fruitful


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