All Gate and Gaiters, and a Pig on the Knee

Originally published by The Lookout Newspaper, on 6 September 2022, this article is reproduced here in its unedited state.

Gaiters are traditional white or khaki leggings, worn to wrap around the ankle and fasten with buckles. The name is derived from the French guêtre, which traditionally translated as “a leather cover for the ankle.” Gaiters were once worn as a normal accoutrement to the square-rigged uniform. Today, they are most often worn with a web belt by members of a ceremonial guard or by brow staff. Sometimes sailors refer to gaiters as war spats, but webbing is used as the collective term for gaiters and a web belt, a pairing that is showy but marginally functional.

The term all gate and gaiters can be used to describe someone, or something, that is all show and lacking genuine substance, i.e., “That new ship announcement was all gate and gaiters.” Used in this way, gate means big talk, bragging, or even mouthing off, i.e., “Bloggins was gating off at the Boatswains.” In the same vein, gate can be used to refer to the mouth, as in, “Shut your gate.”

To thousands of Naval Reservists, the word Gate has only one meaning… as a nickname for their former training vessels. More formally known as the Porte Class, operating from the early 1950s to the 1990s, gate vessels were originally built to open and close submarine gates and were later converted to function as training vessels. Their sailors happily referred to them as pig boats, which was probably derived from the clumsiness of the short-hulled single-screw vessels. An unofficial badge suggested the acronym “Pride, Integrity, Guts.”

To sailors, a pig can be a figure of reverence, and might appear in places other than the breakfast table. HMCS WINNIPEG is fondly referred to as Winter Pig. The recently paid off Iroquois-class destroyers, also known as the 280 class, were often referred to as war pigs because of their age, size, and lack of fuel economy. Older sailors may have known these ships as the Sisters of the Space Age, a nickname based on the title of a 1970s promotional film made about this class. Sisters of the Stone Age was a tongue-in-cheek reversion of this nickname applied to the aforementioned Porte-class training vessels.

The pig is an important animal in naval folklore and featured in popular tattoo combinations with the rooster. Tattoos of roosters and pigs on the ankles will supposedly prevent a sailor from drowning. From the folklore holding that when a ship sank, crates containing roosters and pigs always seemed to wash ashore, making these animals the only souls to survive the wreck. A tattoo of a pig on the left knee is considered a symbol of safety, as in the adage, “Pig on the knee, safety at sea.” A tattoo of a rooster on the right foot means the sailor never loses a fight, as in another adage, “Rooster on the right, never lose a fight.” Finally, pig and rooster tattoos are considered symbols of prosperity, since the animals were aboard to ensure the seamen would always have ham and eggs, and never go hungry. Unfairly, when it comes to eggs the hen does all the hard work but gets little credit when it comes to skin art.

You will find over 4000 examples of Jackspeak in my book Jackspeak of the Royal Canadian Navy (2nd ed.).

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