Tiffies, Shipwrights and Bosuns
Originally published by The Lookout Newspaper, on 22 August 2022, this article is reproduced here in its unedited state.
In an HMC ship everyone has a trade, which is a job or specialty. A traditional way a specialist might be identified is through the title artificer. Generally, artificer indicates a skilled sailor, historically the most common being an Engine Room Artificer which referred to a specialist within a ship’s engineering branch. In modern times, only the senior engineer in a warship, the Chief Engine Room Artificer, retains this specialty indicator.
Artificer may be shortened to tiffy, as in Sick Bay Tiffy, which refers to a sick bay’s medical attendant. A Sick Bay Tiffy may be known by other names, almost always referring to the least fulfilling jobs they perform. For example, a medical attendant is never referred to as a “blood pressure checker,” but check a certain body part and you have a forever nickname.
In the same vein, we would refer to a Hull Technician (now Marine Technician) as a turd herder (or worse) just because they had the less than glorious task of repairing the ship’s plumbing. In a much more respectful fashion, the same sailors are referred to using the traditional title of Shipwright. Generally, “shipwright” is used for a person who designs, builds, and repairs boats and ships, and in this case used for the sailors who facilitate important repairs of the ship, especially when away from home port.
Toothwright is a popular nickname for a dentist, who can also be referred to as a molar mangler or a fang farrier, somehow making the leap from fixing a sailor’s teeth to the task of trimming horse hooves. Even more popular is the nickname fang bosun.
Bosun has many other common uses, such as sin bosun, a nickname for a Chaplain or a Padre, muscle bosun, referring to physical fitness staff or a muscle-bound sailorwho enjoys weightlifting, or ping bos’n, another name for a sonar operator. Rum bos’n was a term used for someone who might be willing to share their contraband stash of liquor, especially back in the day when a daily rum ration was issued to the crew.
The name is popular and gets reused in many ways, but a bosun or bos’n is a shortened version of boatswain, which generally refers to a sailor who is responsible for the ship’s ropes, rigging, and boats. Boatswain is derived from the old English word “batswegen,” meaning the boat’s “swain,” or husband. In today’s Navy, “Boatswain” specifically refers to the professional seaman trade.
Some refer to members of the Boatswain trade as super sailors because they are the specialists in all seamanship evolutions. Another way to go is to call boatswains deck apes, and it only follows that a bunch of bananas may be referred to as a pay day for boatswains. Another tongue-in-cheek way to refer to a boatswain would be “boat swan,” appropriately combining two of their favorite things, boats and swans. Who doesn’t love a good swan!
In this context, swan would refer to a side-trip or attendance at an event that may be perceived as being more fun than work, i.e., “While we were de-storing ship, Bloggins was away on a swan to Montreal.” Some might even refer to such a trip as a jolly, especially if it was a work-related journey that involved little work and more pleasure. Lucky Bloggins!
You will find over 4000 examples of Jackspeak in my book Jackspeak of the Royal Canadian Navy (2nd ed.).