Chewing the Fat

Originally published by The Lookout Newspaper, on 20 February 2023, this article is reproduced here in its unedited state.

Today’s navy is much the same as yesterdays, and even back to the days of sail, in that hungry sailors have to eat. Today, sailors eat a hearty bowl of soup at morning stand easy. In the days of sail, they might have had to rely on chewing a fatty piece of salt-pork.

‘Growlies’ is a nickname for any tasty food cooked by a navy chef. Also known as a good bit of ‘scran’, if the meal is good, a hungry sailor might go ‘round the buoy’ for a second helping. A voraciously hungry group of sailors can be referred to as ‘gannets’, aptly making reference to seabirds known for their notoriously insatiable appetites and the ability to swallow a fish whole, and have it be visible as it settles in their gut. ‘Gut wrenches’ is a nickname for cutlery; i.e., knife, fork, spoon. Sometimes a ship’s cook might go by the nickname ‘gut robber,’ although the etymology of that term is vague.

The term ‘vittler’ is used to describe the ship’s cook which is responsible for the ordering and storing of food, and is derived from the word ‘victual’, pronounced as ‘vit-l’. Victual became part of the English language around 1300 and was derived from the old French word ‘vitaille,’ which means food. The original spelling in English was ‘vitaylle.’ ‘Vittles’ is a variant spelling of victuals, a word commonly heard as American slang.

There are other commonly used terms that were originally derived from a naval context, all from the days of sail, when the dining fair was not as palatable as it is today.

‘Chewing the fat’ is a term commonly used to describe people gossiping, making friendly small talk, or involved in a lengthy informal conversation. Legend has it this term was first used to describe sailors who would chew on salt-pork fat while they relaxed and conversed. Although there are no reliable historical references related to this practice, this explanation remains as a popular piece of folklore.

A ‘slush fund’ is a modern term for hidden money or an account that may be used for miscellaneous expenses, including corrupt or illegal spending. The term is derived from cash a ship’s crew raised by scraping out galley cooking pots and selling the fat (slush) to tallow makers. This cash was secretly kept separate from the purser’s accounts and used to make small purchases for the crew.

‘Sweet Fanny Adams,’ sometimes shortened to ‘Sweet FA,’ is a term which has grown to mean ‘nothing’, or complete inaction, i.e., “On the weekend, Bloggins did Sweet FA.” While the term is sometimes referenced using an expletive, it was originally derived as a throwback to Fanny Adams, an eight-year-old English girl who was murdered in Alton, Hampshire, on 24 August 1867. Curiously, in 1869, when a new type of tinned mutton was used as rations for British seamen, the unimpressed sailors cruelly joked the mediocre meat must be the remains of Fanny Adams. Thus, the term ‘Fanny Adams’ became slang for anything mediocre or worthless, i.e., ‘nothing’.

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

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