The Farmer File: Salute veterans with a ‘cup of Joe’

DON FARMER

I hope that on Veterans Day next Wednesday, we all remember their service to the nation.

One way to do that would be to wake up with a “cup of Joe” and avoid “feeling blue” in case somebody gives you a “wallop.”

I use that odd sentence to mention some common American expressions that come to us from the world of the military, specifically the Navy.

I learned about them while looking up the definition of “scuttlebutt.”

It’s a lively, colorful word, meaning rumor or gossip. Its origin is interesting as well. According to several Web sites on Navy and nautical terms, scuttlebutt comes from the word “scuttle,” to make a hole in the ship’s hull and thereby causing it to sink, and “butt,” a cask used in the days of wooden ships to hold drinking water.

The crews used to gather around the cask, the scuttlebutt, and swap rumors and sea tales. Then and even today, the scuttlebutt (think water cooler) is where the rumors would begin. So rumors in general are talk around the scuttlebutt.

Here are some more nautical terms that pepper our language with colorful and sometimes spicy ingredients:

n “Cup of Joe:” The Navy secretary in 1913, Josephus Daniels, abolished the officers’ wine mess; in other words, making wine unavailable on ships. After he ditched the wine list, the strongest drink allowed aboard Navy ships was coffee. Eventually a cup of coffee became known as “a cup of Jo” as in Josephus. He was not the most popular Navy secretary ever.

n “Feeling Blue:” Navy lore says the phrase comes from old deepwater sailing ships. If the ship lost its captain or another officer during the voyage, custom was to fly blue flags and to paint a blue band along the entire hull when returning to port.

n “Wallop:” King Henry VIII was furious when the French burned the town of Brighton in England in the 1500s, so he sent his Admiral Wallop to the French coast to retaliate. He used overwhelming power to devastate that part of the coast, so much so that the use of such force became known as delivering an “awful wallop.”

n “Three sheets to the wind” is a nautical phrase that today means drunk. A nautical Web site explains why: “If the ‘sheets,’ which are the rope lines used to control the sails, are loose on a fully rigged ship, the sails flap and flutter in the air and are said to be “in the wind.” A ship in this condition appears ‘drunk’ because it shudders and staggers in the water, aimlessly floating about.”

n “Slush Fund:” Today it means off the books money used for illegal purposes, such as bribery. But in olden days on the sea, a slush fund was the money the ship’s cooks made by scraping refuse fat off the inside of barrels and selling it in a slushy mixture when they got to port. It gave the cooks a small private fund for personal items, thus, a slush fund. Today the slushy fat would be packaged, flash frozen, labeled as “organic” and marketed as an upscale soup stock.

Maybe 100 years from now someone will look up what by then are quaint terms, such as “dude,” “bling” or “iPod.”

Have a good Veterans Day.

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Don Farmer is a former ABC News correspondent and bureau chief and CNN news anchor. He can be reached at don@donfarmer.com.

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