“Fill Yer Boots” with the Colourful Language of the Royal Canadian Navy

Originally published by The Lookout Newspaper, on 1 August 2022, this article is reproduced here in its unedited state.

I was introduced to Jackspeak when I began my 26-year naval career in HMCS CHIPPAWA on July 1st, 1980. I quickly learned my training base was a Stone Frigate, floors were decks, the ceiling was a deckhead, walls were bulkheads, and the upper ridge of my boot soles were catwalks.

Unfortunately, my catwalks were dirty, so I had to turn to at birds, which was a quaint way to say I had to stay late and polish brass. From that day forward, aside from having perfectly clean catwalks, I became engrossed with the language of the Navy.

To a newcomer, the jargon can be a gateway to a fascinating world. However, it can also be confusing. For example, there is more than one way to refer to a lazy person, as they can be a skiver, skate or be described as swinging the lead. The same goes for sleeping arrangements, as a sailor might sleep in a pit, cart, or rack, but only occasionally in a bunk.

Nuances must be learned. The term mess carries no less than three different meanings in a Canadian warship. Whistling is frowned upon, unless you’re a cook, then you are allowed… just as long as you don’t whistle up a wind.  Every ship is represented by a uniquely designed badge, and never referred to as a “crest,” unless you are willing to face admonishment. Similarly, if you want to live life on the edge just say you served “on a ship.” You will be quickly told that sailors always serve in a ship. If you were to make this mistake more than once, your keelhauling would likely take place in half a dog watch.

Any dessert (pie, cake, ice cream) is called duff, a name taken from the traditional rice pudding “figgy duff.” Of course, it only makes sense that tinned fruit is called armoured duff. You’d think no duff was a lack of dessert, a sort of diet, but it actually means “for real” or “not an exercise,” i.e., “Fire in the galley, no duff!” is a serious statement.

Some terms are far more colourful. You’ll find Nelson’s balls up top on the bridge, and Nelson’s blood down below in the mess. A sailor might moan and drip when they see Newfie steak on the menu for the second time in a week. A ship’s cook can be called a cabbage mechanic, and a stores person might be referred to as a blanket stacker or box kicker. The ship’s engineers are far more commonly referred to as stokers, even though no ship’s engineer has stoked a coal-fired furnace for many decades. In most ships the stokers have their own table in the main cave  referred to as the stoker’s table. Nobody else sits there… nobody else wants to sit there.

The Royal Canadian Navy’s unique language can be traced back to its Royal Navy roots. In fact, commonly used words such as Pusser, and nicknames such as Nobby, i.e., Nobby Clark, are directly derived from British Navy forefathers. Other terms have formed directly from use in the Royal Canadian Navy, such as CDF and navy gravy.

Among these terms, for many, I can recall the first time I heard them.

When I was a very young sailor working on the left coast, I was employed among rubber freaks as a deckhand on a Navy diving tender salvaging a barge in beautiful Nanoose Bay. It was an isolated location, away from any social amenities. When the salvage job was complete the Chief Diver rewarded us by driving the crew to Nanaimo and buying a round of beer. As he was driving, he said, “Tonight, don’t call me Chief, you can call me by my first name.” I replied, “Chief are you sure?” He responded, “Fill yer boots!”

I soon learned fill yer boots meant, “have as much as you want.” 

In the spirit of the Chief Diver, I offer you to come alongside and fill yer boots with Jackspeak of the Royal Canadian Navy (2nd ed.).

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