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'Back' to 'Brass'
BACKING AND FILLING A common expression - of maritime origin - for constantly changing ground in a decision or argument.

"The Naval Badge"

The Royal Navy as such has no specific badge. On blazer pockets, Naval officers (and many ratings nowadays) wear the Naval crown but, as this crown is incorporated in the authorised badge of the Merchant Navy, it cannot be used to signify the Royal Navy specifically. The plain foul anchor (centre piece of the Naval cap badge) is probably the most appropriate badge to use to signify the Royal Navy.

"Ship's Badges"
Badges for use on ships, boats, letter paper, etc. began to come in when figureheads went out - the latter part of the 19th Century. (The battleship BARFLEUR, launched in 1892, was the last large HM ship to be fitted with a figurehead.) Badges used by ships were not officially sponsored until shortly after the first World War, when the following distinctive shapes were adopted for ease of recognition on boats: Circle for capital ships Pentagon for cruisers Shield for destroyers and Diamond for auxiliaries and small craft.

The circular frame was adopted for badges of all HM ships in August 1940 - originally as a war-time measure.


A meal of sandwiches, etc. provided in a paper bag for a man who, because of his employment, will not be at his normal meal place (ashore or afloat) in time for his proper meal.


The verb to bale out, meaning to remove water, comes from the old name "boyle" for a bucket.

THE CHARLES DARGAVILLE BALLARD PRIZE The late Captain G.N. Ballard, RN left a sum of money on trust to the Admiralty to found a prize in memory of his son, Acting Paymaster Sub-lieutenant Charles Dargaville Ballard, who was killed in HMS MANCHESTER 23rd July 1941 in the Mediterranean. The interest on this bequest provides the prize, which is awarded annually to the best all-round Sub-lieutenant (S) promoted from the lower deck, on qualifying for confirmation in rank at the conclusion of training courses. The prize consists of an article (not clothing) selected by the winner, with the approval of the DGS (e.g. sword, binoculars, books, etc.). The first award was made to Sub-lieutenant (S) ex lower deck who passed out of courses in HMS CERES April 1954.

A common slang expression - of Naval origin - to refer to the beginning of an evolution. It is a relic of the 1914-18 War, when the first visible sign of an operation was the sending up of observation balloons from HM ships fitted with them.

BALSA RAFT Balsa wood is a very light wood used for making model aircraft and also the trans-Pacific raft Kon-Tiki. From it were made rafts which were the predecessors of Carley floats as ships' life-saving appliances additional to lifeboats. From this association of ideas, the name Balsa raft is often applied to the craft otherwise known as a Copper-Punt.
SQUEEGEE BAND Unofficial Naval name for a ship's band composed of all kinds of instruments, many of which might not feature in a properly constituted band. Also often (incorrectly) used to refer to the Seamen's Band at the Royal Naval Barracks.
BANGERS Common slang term of sausages, possibly from the belief that, if put in a frying-pan unpierced, they would burst. This slang word is not of Naval origin.
ALL BANK An ephemeral Naval slang expression, meaning miserly, from the announcement made at the pay table when a rating comes up who has expressed the wish that all pay due to him shall be lodged in his Savings Bank account.

Prior to a Church of England marriage, "banns" must by law be published on three successive Sundays before the wedding: if the wedding does not take place within three months of the banns having been called, the banns must be re-published. Banns must be read in the parish churches of both the bride and bridegroom or in the churches where they are accustomed to worship, their names being on that church's electoral roll (one of which will be the church where the wedding is to take place). The officiating clergyman must not perform the marriage ceremony without documentary proof (i.e. "Banns Certificate") that banns have been read in churches of which he has not personal knowledge. A Naval man's ship is his ecclesiastical parish, so his banns must be read on board his ship and the ship's Chaplain or Commanding Officer must provide the Banns Certificate.


An old Naval name for a picnic party, especially nowadays by bus. The word "Banyan" originates from the time when, as an economy, meat was not issued on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays: these days were called "Banyan Days" after a religious sect in the East which believed it wicked to eat meat. It became the custom for men to save up portions of their rations to tide them over these meatless days, and also to be sent ashore on those days to gather fruit. Meatless days were discontinued in 1884.

A rare example of the good things in life being remembered better than the bad things!


A very popular saint in the Middle Ages, though it appears that she and her legends are wholly mythical. She is regarded as the patron saint of artillerymen and the chapel in HMS EXCELLENT (RN Gunnery School at Portsmouth) is dedicated to her. The legend associating St Barbara with artillerymen says that her father was a chemist of the town of Hippo in North Africa who had learned the secret of gunpowder when travelling in the East; when Hippo was besieged by the Vandals in AD 430, she made bombards and other weapons. On his death, his daughter Barbara - who alone knew the secrets - left the convent where she was a novice and continued her father's work making explosives. When the town fell, Barbara blew up the convent and all its occupants rather than let them fall into the hands of the Vandals.

Another legend has it that she was the very beautiful daughter (Christian) of a heathen Greek. Her father shut her up in a tower when he had to go away on a journey. Barbara had three windows cut in the bathroom of the tower, instead of the two her father had ordered. On his return this, together with her attempts to convert him to Christianity, infuriated him and he killed her with his sword. A flash of lightning devoured him forthwith and also the local Chief Magistrate who had connived at her death. For this reason, Barbara is invoked against lightning and fire and she is the patron saint of artillerymen.

BARQUE OR BARK A three-masted sailing vessel, square rigged on fore and main masts and fore-and-aft rigged on the mizzen.
BARQUENTINE A three-masted sailing vessel, square rigged on the fore, and fore-and-aft rigged on main and mizzen.

The Royal Marines' mess deck in a warship called the Barracks.

"Royal Naval Barracks Chatham"
Built on the site of an old prison. The main buildings were designed by Sir Henry Pilkington and erected under his supervision. They were completed in December 1902 and were first occupied on 30th April 1903 by 5,000 officers and men marching in from the old hulks.

Admiralty acquired the land from the War Office in 1899 and building began in December 1899, being completed in 1903, when 4,000 officers and men transferred to the new buildings from the accommodation ships (September 1903).

Majority of the Barracks completed 17th March 1902. Cunningham Fraser Block, to accommodate about 625 Chief and Petty Officers, built 1952-55; opened by First Lord in July 1955.

BARRATRY Fraud or gross negligence on the part of the Master or crew of a ship, to the prejudice of the owners or insurers, e.g. when a ship is deliberately wrecked to obtain her insurance money.
BARRICOE A small water barrel carried in boats. The word comes from the Spanish "Barrica" - a cask.

Sailors' slang name for a blancmange (because it shivers and has lovely curves!)


Slang name for the Deck Landing Control Officer in an aircraft carrier, whose duty it was to direct the landing of aircraft on to the carrier's flight deck. He did this by signalling to the pilot of the approaching aircraft with fluorescent "bats" held in each hand. In outward appearance, the bats were very much like ping-pong bats. The introduction of the mirror deck landing sight (subsequently superseded by the Projector sight - an improved mirror deck landing sight) in 1954 made this duty obsolete.


"Battle Ensign"
In action, a ship wears extra "battle ensigns" in any convenient position. This has been done for years, to ensure that the colours remain flying whatever the damage received.

"Battle Blowers"

Common slang name for a steel helmet (often known as a tin hat).

"Battlers" or "Battle Wagons"

Naval slang name for battleships.

"British Battle Crusiers"

Launch Class Ships Tonnage Length Armament Complement
1907 INVINCIBLE 3 17,250 560' 8 12" 850
1909 INDEFATIGABLE 3 18,000 578' 8 12" 850
1910 LION 3 26,350 675' 8 13.5" 1,000
1912 TIGER 1 27,000 720' 8 13.5" 1,185
1916 REPULSE 2 32,000 794' 6 15" 1,000
1918 HOOD 1 42,100 860' 8 15" 1,400

"British Battleships since the Days of Wooden Ships"

Launch Class Ships Tonnage Length Armament Complement
1852 AGAMEMNON 1 3,102 230'    
1861 DEFENCE 1 6,150 280'   16
1865 AGINCOURT 1   400'   28
1865 BELLEROPHON 1 7,550 300' 10 9"  
1868 HERCULES 1 8,680      
1869 CAPTAIN 1 4,272     6
1869 AUDACIOUS 6 6,600 280'   14
1870 SULTAN 1 9,290      
1871 DEVASTATION 2 9,400 285' 4 12"  
1875 ALEXANDRA 1 9,490 325' 8 18-ton  
1875 DREADNOUGHT 1 10,900 320' 4 38-ton  
1876 TEMERAIRE 1 8,540 285' 4 11"  
1876 INFLEXIBLE 1 11,400 320' 2 16¼"  
1879 AGAMEMNON 2 8,490 280'   6
1882 COLOSSUS 2 9,150 325 4 12"  
1886 ADMIRALS 6 10,600 330' 4 13.5" 530
1887 SANS PAREIL 2 11,000 340' 1 10" 600
1888 TRAFALGAR 2 11,940 345' 4 13.5" 580
1891 HOOD 1 14,200 380' 4 13.5" 700
1892 ROYAL SOVEREIGN 7 14,150 380' 4 12" 710
1892 CENTURION 2 10,500 360' 4 10" 620
1895 RENOWN 1 12,350 380' 4 10" 700
1895 MAJESTIC 9 14,900 399' 4 12" 750
1897 CANOPUS 6 12,950 390' 4 12" 750
1898 FORMIDABLE 8 15,000 411' 4 12" 750
1901 DUNCAN 6 14,000 405' 4 12" 750
1903 SWIFTSURE 2 11,800 436' 4 10" 700
1903 KING EDWARD VII 8 16,350 439' 4 12" 800
1906 LORD NELSON 2 16,500 435' 4 12" 860
1906 DREADNOUGHT 1 17,900 520' 10 12" 800
1907 BELLEROPHON 3 18,600 520' 10 12" 800
1908 ST VINCENT 3 19,250 530' 10 12" 820
1909 NEPTUNE 1 19,900 540' 10 12" 820
1910 COLOSSUS 2 20,600 540' 10 12" 850
1911 ORION 4 22,500 544' 10 13.5" 850
1911 KING GEORGE V 4 25,000 596' 10 13.5" 850
1912 IRON DUKE 4 25,000 622' 10 13.5" 925
1913 CANADA 1 28,000 625' 10 14" 1,100
1913 ERIN 1 23,000 559' 10 13.5" 1,100
1913 AGINCOURT 1 30,000 671' 14 14" 1,200
1913 QUEEN ELIZABETH 5 31,100 640' 8 15" 1,000
1915 ROYAL SOVEREIGN 5 29,150 620' 8 15" 1,000
1925 NELSON 2 33,900 710' 9 16" 1,300
1939 KING GEORGE V 5 35,000 745' 10 14" 1,500
1944 VANGUARD 1 44,500 814' 8 15" 1,600

BAYONET Bayonets were first used in Bayonne in 1641. During a battle the soldiers ran out of ammunition, stuck knives into the muzzles of their guns and charged the enemy.

Naval slang expression normally, and originally, meaning retired from the Service, but of recent years sometimes used to describe an appointment to a shore establishment.

BEAR UP! A sailing expression, meaning to bear the tiller up to windward in order to keep the vessel's head away from the wind. It is in common use, with the metaphorical meaning of "Keep your spirits up!"
ADMIRAL OF THE FLEET EARL BEATTY David Beatty was born on 17th January 1871 in Ireland. He entered the Navy on 15th January 1884, was promoted Midshipman on 15th May 1886, to Lieutenant on 25th August 1892, to Commander on 15th November 1898, to Captain (specially, for distinguished service in the Boxer Rising) on 9th November 1900, when he was only 29. He was promoted Rear Admiral on 1st January 1910, Vice-Admiral on 9th August 1915 and Admiral on 1st January 1919 (acting 27th November 1916). He was promoted Admiral of the Fleet on 3rd April 1919. Created Earl Beatty of the North Sea and Brooksby 1919. Flew his flag in HMS Lion at the Battle of Jutland 31st May 1916. First Sea Lord 1st November 1919 to 30th July 1927. Died 11th March 1936.
THE BEAUFORT TESTIMONIAL A prize of instruments or books of a professional character and of practical use to a Naval officer, bestowed annually on the Midshipman who passes the best examination in navigation and pilotage for the rank of Lieutenant. The annual prize was founded in 1860 to commemorate the service of Rear Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort KCB, who was Hydrographer of the Navy from 1829 to 1855. The Wharton Testimonial was founded in 1907, to commemorate the service of Rear Admiral Sir W.J.L. Wharton, KCB FRS, who was Hydrographer of the Navy from 1884 to 1904. It exists for the same purpose as the Beaufort Testimonial. Some of the interest on the money is expended on the provision of a gold medal - the remainder is added to the Beaufort Testimonial money. The two awards for the same subject are given annually under the name of the "Beaufort Testimonial and the Wharton Testimonial", thus associating the two Hydrographers of the Navy.
Beaufort Scale Wind Speed Descriptive Word
0 Less than 1 knot Calm
1 1-3 knots Light Airs
2 4-6 knots Light Breeze
3 7-10 knots Gentle Breeze
4 11-16 knots Moderate Breeze
5 17-21 knots Fresh Breeze
6 22-27 knots Strong Breeze
7 28-33 knots Moderate Gale
8 34-40 knots Fresh Gale
9 41-47 knots Strong Gale
10 48-55 knots Whole Gale
11 56-63 knots Storm
12 64-71 knots Hurricane
13 72-80 knots  
14 81-89 knots  
15 90-99 knots  
16 100-108 knots  
17 109-118 knots  

The scale was drawn up by Rear Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort KCB, who was the Hydrographer of the Navy from 1829-55.

BECKET A piece of rope, each of whose ends is secured - e.g. rope handle of a wooden bucket. The "slots" on the top of a pair of trousers or on a raincoat through which a belt is passed are beckets. In Naval slang, Beckets mean pockets.
BEEF CHIT Officers' slang name for a menu card.
BEER IN THE NAVY Before brandy or rum were drunk by the sailors, beer was the accepted ration drink provided. In their days Hawkins and Frobisher said they could cruise as long as the beer lasted. But the beer must been terrible stuff -according to William Thompson, who addressed an "appeal to the public to prevent the Navy being supplied with pernicious provisions" (1761). It "stand as abominably as the foul stagnant water which is pumped out of many cellars in London at the midnight hour and the sailors were under the necessity of shutting their eyes and stopping their breath by holding their noses before they could conquer their aversion so as to prevail upon themselves in their extreme necessities to drink it". In 1634 Nathaniel Knott, in his "Advice of a Seaman" wrote that "The brewers have gotten the art to sophisticate beer with broom instead of hops, and ashes instead of malt, and (to make it more lively) to pickle it with salt water so that, whilst it is new, it shall seemingly be worthy of praise, but in one month wax worse than stinking water".
TO BELAY Primarily, to make fast or secure. Thus, metaphorically, to cease whatever one is doing.

The uniform trousers of a seaman of height about 5ft 10ins measure 25 inches round the bottom. It is said that the practice of making sailors' trousers very full arose from the days when the men made their own clothes, when they found it easier and less wasteful of material to use the full width of the material. A bolt of serge in Britain has for years measured 54ins across. This, allowing to turn-ins, would just give the two trousers legs. That wide trousers legs were subsequently found to be easier to roll up when scrubbing decks is often given as the reason why trousers were made wide, but it seems that this was not the original reason.

STRIKING THE BELL TO DENOTE THE TIME The origin of this custom is obscure, but records show that this method of denoting the time was in use as early as the 13th Century. The method of keeping time, i.e. the approximate time, was by means of a half-hour glass (similar to an egg-timer), the bell being struck every time the glass was turned. Half-hour glasses were in use in the Royal Navy until after 1850 and at this period it was common to hear time being expressed in glasses, e.g. "We should finish the job in about three glasses", meaning one-and-a-half hours.

General Navy slang for "half-witted".


An old sailor's nickname for his sennet hat (which was abolished in 1921).

BIBLES Old Naval slang name for Holystones, from the fact that in order to use them properly a man had to go down on his knees (hence also the name "Holy Stone"). The smaller sized stones were similarly known as "Prayer-Books".
BIBLE BANGER Common slang name for any voluble religious orator. Hence, loosely, the Chaplain or any ardent churchgoer.

Old Naval slang name for leg-irons (referred to in the phrase "clapped him in irons".


Common slang work of nautical origin for rubbish or nonsense. Bilge water is the water which collects in the bilges of a ship - if left, it soon acquires an offensive colour of corruption.

NAVY BILL A Bill of Exchange drawn by a ship's Supply Officer on the Accountant General of the Navy at three days' sight. In effect, it is the Navy's form of cheque.
BILLY BLUE Old Naval nickname for Admiral Cornwallis, because he always kept the "Blue Peter" flag flying when bad weather drove him to take shelter from his task of blockading Brest.
BIRTHDAY It used to be the custom for the wine to be passed, after the Royal Toast, at dinner on an officer's birthday in order that his messmates might have wine (at his expense) wherein to drink his health. Nowadays, the more usual custom is for the birthday officer to stand drinks all round before lunch.
(The) BISH

Officers' slang name (abbreviation of Bishop) for the Chaplain.


Common slang name for stewed prunes.

BLACKFRIARS BUCCANEERS An old nickname for the London Division of the RNVR (now RNR).
THE BLACK SQUAD An old maritime nickname of stokers.
THE GILBERT BLANE MEDAL The Gilbert Blane Medal was established by Sir Gilbert Blane, Bart, a member of the Board for Sick and Wounded Seamen, in 1830. With the sanction of the Board of Admiralty, the fund was vested in the Corporation of the Royal College of Surgeons of London in trust. The method of awarding the medal has varied over the years, but in 1936 the matter was reconsidered by reference to the original spirit of the bequest, as laid down by Sir Gilbert, who stated that his intention was to reward those officers who evinced "most distinguished proofs of skill, diligence, humanity and learning in the exercise of their professional duties". The gold medal has since been awarded to Medical Officers of the Royal Navy "who, to a degree which is considered worthy of recognition, have brought about advances in any branch of medicine in its application to Naval service, or who have contributed to an improvement in any matters affecting the health or living conditions of Naval personnel".

The name for this coloured coat comes from HMS BLAZER, whose Captain (Captain J. W. Washington) in 1845 had his boat's crew dressed in blue and white-striped jackets. This was, of course, before the days of authorised uniform for Naval ratings. See UNIFORM (RATINGS).

BLAZER BADGE The Naval crown as the badge on a blazer used to be tacitly regarded as correct for wear by Naval officers only, but nowadays it is worn by many Naval ratings and civilians.
BLEAT A Naval slang word for a grumble, used as both noun and verb.
TO BLEED To bleed a buoy is to drain from it any water which may have got inside thus adversely affecting its buoyancy.
TO BLEED THE MONKEY To extract rum from its barrel by boring a small hole in the barrel.
THE BIGGEST BLOCK IN THE SHIP is the butcher's block (Old Naval catch question).

You have probably heard the expression 'Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey' , but what does it mean?

In the 17th and 18th centuries, cannon balls were stored on the decks of a war-ship in a pyramid shaped pile using a frame called a monkey to keep them in place. Sometimes these frames were made of brass, which could contract substantially in very cold weather and the balls would roll out of the frames. Hence the expression!