Review—Royal Navalese: A Glossary of Forecastle and Quarterdeck Words and Phrases

Commander John Irving, Royal Navy
Royal Navalese
(originally published 1946)
London: Focal Point Publications, 2020

Somebody recently gifted me with this trim, entertaining little book. Perhaps because of the season, I immediately identified it as one of that peculiar species of “Christmas books”: small volumes, usually elegantly designed, illustrated with line drawings, and often found stacked near the bookseller’s cash register in December.

As the subtitle tells you, this is a glossary of nautical jargon. Some of the expressions evidently originated in the Royal Navy, others are simply slang picked up from other services or the World Beyond. Many are extremely funny, a few are risqué, the best are brain-scaldingly obscure.

Marry the Gunner’s Daughter, To. To get a whipping—an old-Navy expression but one that is still sometimes heard. In days gone by, when a ‘boy’ was ordered a dozen of the best with the cane for some offence, he was secured face down across the breech of a gun to ensure that official retribution should fall across a suitably tightened part of his anatomy.

Foo-Foo Egg. An egg of more than doubtful age and edibility. The term hails from Chinaside where John Chinaman buries an egg in especially unsanitary surroundings and keeps it there maybe for fifty years before he eats it as an especial delicacy.

Then you have something like “Low-Down, The” which is herein cited as an Americanism, “The inside information about something.”  For me the phrase conjures up Runyonesque characters and mid-century tabloid journalism (e.g., Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer’s New York Confidential: The Lowdown on the Big Town, 1948). As the book at hand, Royal Navalese, was first published in 1946, it tells us the phrase had made its way into the RN lexicon  by the Second World War. Good to know.

John Irving, we read on the dust jacket, was a naval gunnery expert who served in the Royal Navy from 1941 to 1945, and had earlier seen action at the Battle of Jutland (1916). But the book is very much a joint effort between Commander Irving and his wife Beryl, who was a noted children’s book writer and illustrator. Here Beryl Irving decorates the alphabetical headings with delicate, wry, line drawings that have a distinctive 19th century feel, very close to W. S. Gilbert’s cartoons for his Bab Ballads. In fact there’s a whiff of Gilbert & Sullivan throughout this book, in text and in pictures:

I gather the book was out of print for many years, though I see copies of the old edition at places like AbeBooks and Amazon for around $80. But the co-creators’ son David Irving, the celebrated historian, had the whole thing newly typeset and published recently (2020). It doesn’t have his mother’s illuminated, if nearly illegible, cover design but it’s currently priced at $15.00 at Focal Point Publications/David Irving Books.

The 1946 edition.

It’s a book to be thumbed through at random. Some expressions are so obvious, or long-embedded in common parlance, I wondered whether they really had a nautical origin at all. E.g., “Looney Bin. The sailor’s name for a lunatic asylum, ‘the observation ward’ at a naval hospital, or a psychopathic centre.”

Also still popular and current:

Bumph. A vulgarism, but one in very frequent use for it refers to the never-ending spate of printed and written forms, orders, hand-outs and instructions, amendments and cancellations whose volume rolls daily onward. [N.B. Originally meant toilet roll, I believe, but mainly the very cheap, old-fashioned pulpy sort.]

Chop-Chop! In a hurry; Hurry up! Pidgin English from the Chinese coast.

And finally, the odd-but-intriguing:

‘Breadcrumbs!’ In a Gun-room Mess, should the conversation verge upon subjects too advanced or too indelicate for the hearing of the younger midshipmen, the Senior Sub-Lieutenant will order ‘Breadcrumbs!’ The ‘young gentlemen’ are then required immediately to stuff their fingers in their ears and continue to block all sound until the order is rescinded.

Off White. Half caste.

Trick Cyclists. Psychiatrists.

Eyetie. Italian. [Which is funny because there’s elsewhere a cross-reference: “Macaroni. Italian: see Eyetie.” And we also have, “Ice creams. Italian.”]






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