Over a Barrel

Originally published by The Lookout Newspaper, on 30 January 2023, this article is reproduced here in its unedited state.

To be over a barrel means to be in a tricky situation or at a disadvantage compared to another person. Commonly used today, the phrase has more than one derivation, both related to the maritime environment. The first explanation alludes to an old practice of reviving a drowning victim by placing the casualty over a barrel and rolling it back and forth, so as to empty the lungs of water. While the act literally describes the term, it does not include the concept of being at a disadvantage as much as the second explanation, which describes a sailor being draped over a cannon barrel and ready to receive punishment. Also known as kissing (or marrying) the gunner’s daughter it was not a happy event as the gunner’s daughter was a gun barrel, and the marriage ceremony was a flogging. In today’s navy, a sailor who is preparing to undergo a service tribunal might also be referred to as kissing the gunner’s daughter.

In the days when corporal punishment was done with a cat o’ nine tails, there was a similar term as the accused was said to have a date with the Captain’s daughter. The cat o’ nine tails was a short, nine-tailed whip kept by the bosun’s mate and used to issue the punishment of flogging. Loose folklore states the “cat” was kept in a baize bag, which is a possible origin for the phrase “let the cat out of the bag,” although, this has been widely refuted. The phrase “not enough room to swing a cat” may also have been derived from the act of flogging, as it describes the desire to punish transgressors on the upper deck, since there was not enough room to swing a cat below decks.

Today, flogging is only a generic term used to describe a wide variety of military punishments, as (thankfully) corporal punishment is now a thing of the past. E.g., “Bloggins is adrift. Surely, there’ll be a flogging.” Flogging around the fleet describes a punishment done for the purpose of optics. Derived from the historical practice of strapping a guilty party to a boat, which toured through the entire fleet while the defaulter was flogged. This punishment was reserved for serious crimes such as desertion or striking an officer.

The oft-used phrase “no names, no pack-drill” means to say nothing, and avoid repercussions, i.e., “Just clean up the mess and carry on. No names, no pack drill.” Derived from the British Army, where unruly soldiers were punished with “pack-drill,” which was training in full uniform, including a heavy pack. In some cases, “no names, no pack-drill” is used as a hint that the names of those who had committed a transgression could be kept quiet to spare them from an awful punishment.

Finally, the commonly used phrase “being in the black books” usually means an officer or sailor is in trouble or has fallen out of favour and may be deliberately passed over for advancement. Some say this term is derived from the Black Book of the Admiralty, which contained a list of officers who were deemed to be guilty of poor conduct.

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

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