5 Awesome Terms From the Days of Iron Men and Wooden Ships the Navy Needs To Resurface

December 22, 2021Mac Caltrider
Dutch Courage

The Navy’s proud tradition of dominating the seas comes with a long list of bizarre terminology. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

Between line-crossing ceremonies and refusing to wash their coffee mugs, the US Navy is a colorful military branch. Whether it’s covering their bodies with superstitious tattoos or simply refusing to use the word “wall” like the rest of the world, sailors are indeed a breed of their own. In addition to their odd behavior, sailors have a unique vocabulary all to themselves that stretches well beyond the parts of a ship or saying “port” instead of “left.”

The Navy’s bizarre vernacular is nothing if not entertaining, and some its best seafaring terms come from the days of iron men and wooden ships. Here are five terms from way back that the Navy should resurface.

Commodore’s Privilege 

There’s never an easy way to tell someone that they neglected to re-zip their pants after using the head. It only gets harder if the person with open trousers is a superior officer. That’s why bringing the term “commodore’s privilege” — slang for an open fly — would make that awkward conversation a little easier. Since commodore is no longer an official rank in the US Navy, maybe sailors could update it to “chief’s privilege” or the like.

Dutch Courage
Sailors assigned to Fleet Activities Sasebo, Japan, stand ready to be inspected by Capt. Michael James, commander, Fleet Activities Sasebo. US Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Jonathan R. Kulp.

Dead Marine

A bit morbid, but nevertheless funny, “Dead Marine” used to be slang for an empty bottle — particularly an empty liquor or beer bottle. Back in the day when sailors were known for their colorful cursing and ability to outdrink anyone and everyone, a “Dead Marine” was the perfect dark-humored term for the empty bottles sailors left in their wake. Since Marines often suffer high casualty rates, sailors who says it outside the safety of their cabin might risk having to answer to some angry jarheads. For an additional jab at commissioned Marines on sea duty, “Marine Officer” was also used to describe an empty bottle, insinuating that it was an empty capsule void of substance. 

Dutch Courage

While we’re talking about the close relationship between braving the high seas and getting three sheets to the wind, it’s time to bring back “Dutch courage.” The term used to be synonymous with drunkenness. According to legend, this came from the days of Dutch sea power when legendary naval officer Cornelis Tromp would give his sailors gin to bolster their bravery — Dutch courage — in battle. We don’t condone today’s sailors getting hammered on gin before reporting to their battle stations, but the term still works when gearing up for a bar fight.

Dutch Courage
Depiction of the Battle of the Capes, a decisive naval battle that helped secure American independence during the American Revolution. Artwork by V. Zveg, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Dutchman’s Breeches

This is another bizarre term that originated in the Netherlands. When in the midst of a serious gale, sailors often look for signs of a break in the weather. A small patch of blue in an otherwise stormy sky is a welcome sign that fair weather is on the way. As an unprovoked jab at the size of Dutch “members,” the term apparently pertains to any patch of blue sky, regardless of how small it is.

Tom Sawyer’s Traverse

The OG term for skating in the Navy. “Tom Sawyer’s traverse” refers to a sailor who is avoiding work at all costs. When sent to perform a task on board a ship, a sailor who would putter around the vessel aimlessly and spend too much time loitering around the scuttlebutt or head in order to avoid work would be considered on “Tom Sawyer’s traverse.” It’s the smarter substitute for saying someone is skating and may even result in a sailor cracking open some Mark Twain to figure out its meaning.

Read Next: The Most American Moment of Pearl Harbor: Sailor Took On Japanese in Full Football Pads

Mac Caltrider
Mac Caltrider

Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.

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