This week, the latest edition of Jack Speak – an in-depth guide to the slang phrases used by the Royal Navy – has been published by long time chronicler Rick Jolly. Jack Speak is a great example of how quickly creative use of language can work its way into modern lexicon.
Slang is all around us and it is often a key component of our spoken word, but more often than not the slang terms are unique to a certain group from a particular city or region, age group, vocation or class and do not penetrate beyond their circles.
What makes Jack Speak so special is that the wide scope of the language means it can be transferred to everyday use in a way that Medical Slang, for example, cannot. Looking through examples of Jack Speak it is clear to see a blend of functional bluntness, military jargon, and euphemism.
The Royal Navy is an interesting petri dish for the English language – a melting pot of different classes, regional dialects, hierarchy, different levels of education, all thrown together in an isolated organisation that is used to working in the most extreme conditions at sea. And then it is brought ashore by the sailors and it weaves it’s way into common usage.
Here are some of the most common examples of Naval Jack Speak still in popular use, originally found here:
• If food is collected from the galley kitchen as soon as it is ready and still hot it is referred to as Piping hot
• Toe the line. Each sailor was expected to step forward to a chosen line and give his name and duties. The phrase is used when asking people to meaning to conform to rules and authority, as well as obey orders.
• Pig’s Ear, a term for something messy, refers to an upper deck urinal used by sailors when on watch.
• The expression all above board refers to things being open to inspection as they were on the top deck of the ship and could be easily viewed. Now we use it to show that a deal is transparent and legitimate.
• Similarly, Copper bottomed, which refers to something being an idea or investment being worthwhile originates from when copper plates were fixed to wooden ships hulls to minimise worm attack and prevent the build-up of barnacles and weed – therefore providing long term strength and reliability.
• Showing your true colours relates to Naval etiquette which, while allowing false colours or flags to be displayed when approaching an enemy ship, insists that true colours are flown once battle begins and fire is exchanged.
Doing a bit of reading into this subject got us thinking – are there any other examples in any other languages of slang terms developed and used by one set of people having such a profound influence on the use of the mother language overall? Has the language of the French Foreign Legion enlivened the French language or does the lingo of the old west live on in US cities?