One of the delights of Belfast this past weekend was the opportunity to visit HMS Monmouth and to talk to some of her crew, and a chance, to be grasped with grappling-hook tenacity, to talk language. Particularly to find out which terms, current or made more widely known during the First World War, are still in use. ‘Bloke’ (captain)? No. ‘Pond’, referring to any sea, not just the Atlantic? No. ‘Monkey’s island’, no, but ‘monkey’s castle’, yes, referring to the bridge. ‘Jimmy the One’, yes. And, best of all, ‘pongo’ for a soldier, which elicited the comment, ‘where the army goes, the pongoes’. It’s good to see that the Senior Service’s feelings about the Regular Army have not dimmed. The same visit brought to light a copy of A Little Ship by ‘Taffrail’ (Captain Henry Taprell Dorling), published in 1918, in which a skipper berates his men by calling them ‘sodgers’, a term for soldiers which dates back to about 1300 (OED).
The idea of expressing contempt for an incompetent sailor by calling him a soldier has the excellent extension of ‘a soldier’s wind’ (a wind that anyone could sail in) appears in Fraser and Gibbons, but this was not the worst epithet in use in the Navy. Naturally we asked, and the logistics officer of HMS Monmouth obliged by opening up a pearl oyster of etymology.
But, surely, this appears in such innocuous stuff as Billy Bunter? ‘Yaroo, geroff, you toe-rags!’, no? Perhaps yes, but this navy term was a different kind of ‘toe-rag’ from the slang expression for an old sock, and by extension a tramp or vagrant or someone who has walked so much that both shoes and socks have worn out. In fact not a toe-rag at all, but a tow-rag. The officers’ quarters are traditionally in the stern of a ship, the logistics officer explained, and the ratings’ in the bows, including their toilet arrangements, because in sailing days the wind usually blew from behind the ship, taking away noisome smells from the body of the ship. Similarly the heads (toilet arrangements, specifically a place to sit with part of the body hanging over the water) were at the front so that the oncoming water could wash the ship clean. In those heady days (sorry) the service of toilet paper was performed by a rag, tied to a rope, which after use could be let down into the bow waves to be washed by the passage of water. The ‘tow-rag’.
All this would have fallen sweetly on the ears of Captain Ralph Crooke, commander during the First World War of HMS Caroline, subject of our second research visit; HMS Caroline, the only surviving ship to have fought at the Battle of Jutland, is now moored in Belfast, and well worth a visit. Captain Crooke kept his own handwritten order book, of which Order No 31 was ‘The use of such lubberly and unseamanlike language as ‘tie up’ instead of ‘make fast’ is to be sternly repressed’. Note ‘lubberly’, not ‘land-lubberly’, ‘lubber’ being a clumsy fellow, and in use for two hundred years as a general term of disapprobation before it came to have specific nautical, or anti-nautical, connotations. The indication of territory difference by choice of words is the essence of the plurality of languages. But where terms such as ‘heads’, ‘flat’, ‘mess’ and ‘galley’ are in use, how does the printed, published and read word fit in? A survey of the contemporary books placed in Capt Crooke’s bookcase revealed that he was supposedly fascinated by Swiss Family Robinson and Westward Ho! (both two copies), while the ward-room bookcase showed several books by female authors, The Life of Florence Nightingale by Sarah Tooley, The Mighty Atom by Marie Corelli, Girls Together by Louise Mack, Daisy Chain by Charlotte M Yonge, The Channings by Mrs Henry Ward, and Little Women by Louisa M Alcott (but sadly no Angela Brazil).
A little further along the corridor there is a ‘flat’ (an area in the ship) holding the cold-weather gear, known as ‘dapple-suits’, but looking exactly like ‘duffle coats’. ‘Duffle’ was a Belgian cloth, but the Admiralty insisted on the use of British-made cloth for these coats and trousers.
One more: ‘duffoes’, which Taffrail states as coming from ‘duff’ (steamed or boiled pudding), and describing sailors who liked to eat. This rounds the whole lot off as a ‘duff-bag’ is both a cloth bag for making puddings, and a sailor’s bag, the mini-version of which we used to have as kids, made of plasticised cloth and called ‘duffle-bags’. The OED definition of ‘duff-bag’ goes on:
‘(hence) something resembling this bag or its means of closure, esp. a handle formed by tying the ends of a neckerchief to the tapes of a jumper, used as a means of rescuing a sailor from water.’ Definitely not a tow-rag.