Can You Define These US Navy Words in 6 Minutes?

John Miller

Image: Official Navy Page from United States of America MC2 Gary Granger Jr./U.S. Navy

About This Quiz

For centuries, sailors of the United States Navy have plied the world’s waters, defending America’s interests and projecting the nation’s military might. As they churn through the waves, they bandy about some colorful terms, phrases and descriptors that only sailors really know. In this barnacle-laden test, do you think you can blow through these Navy terms … or will you wind up three sheets to the wind?

Sailors work in disciplined routines to maintain and operate their ships. In peacetime, they use words like “quarterdeck,” “chit” and “aback” as part of their lexicon. Some terms, like “adrift” are pretty self-explanatory. Others, like “avast,” would be pretty vague to anyone who hasn’t been in the service (avast means to stop your current actions immediately). And of course, Navy life is full of adult-themed language, but we’ll have to save the racy stuff for another quiz.

Do you have any idea where the phrase “know the ropes” came from? It’s old sailor-speak for understanding your way around the ship. “Boats” is short for the boatswain’s mate, and “chips” an old slang term for the ship’s carpenter. Can you name other terms used to describe parts of ships and the men and women who sail them around the world?

Go full-speed ahead in this Navy terms quiz now! We’ll find out if you’re an old salt or if you’re a ricky who needs to get back to his swabbing station.

What does "swab" mean?

All the new Navy guys get to love the swab … the mop. Because mopping is something you have to do to keep the ship clean.

What does "bow" mean?

The bow is the most forward part of a Navy ship. If you don't know what the bow is, you probably won't last long in the service.

What is a "wire biter"?

They're the guys you call when electrical systems go haywire. They're Navy electricians, and they know their AC from their DC.

What does "fitrep" mean?

Maybe you should lay off of the fried whale blubber, sailor. Because your fitrep (fitness report) is pretty pathetic this year.

What does "board" mean?

When you go onto a ship, you board it. You might be boarding a friendly vessel, or you might be forcing your way onto an enemy ship.

What does "ahoy!" mean?

Sailors use "ahoy!" as an alert signal. "Ship ahoy" would meant that a sailor has spotted another ship.

What does "small boy" mean?

Small-class ships are "small boys." Frigates and the like are dwarfed by the big guys, like aircraft carriers.

What does "helmsman" mean?

The helmsman is a very important sailor. He or she is the person who steers the ship through waters both calm and rough.

What does "ensign" mean?

An ensign is the lowest ranking commissioned officer in the Navy. The Army retired the ensign rank long ago.

What does "bosun" mean?

Boatswain is (rather oddly) pronounced "bosun." This is the sailor who has the responsibility of dealing with the ship's rigging and the crew. He or she is also called a Petty Officer.

What does "ricky" mean?

A "ricky" is a new recruit or a sailor who's still in boot camp. Rickys can expect their first days in the Navy to be more that a little challenging.

What does "gunwale" mean?

Gunwale is pronounced "gunnel." It refers to the very top edge of the ship's sides.

What does "head" mean?

Because looking at all of the water in the Pacific Ocean will really make you ill. The head is the ship's restroom.

What does "Seabee" mean?

The Seabees are the Navy's specialized construction battalion. In peacetime and at war, these are the skilled men who build things -- anything -- that the Navy needs. And they fight, too.

What does "bear a hand" mean?

In the Navy, teamwork is what keeps the ship running smoothly. To "bear a hand" is to lend assistance.

What does "warrant" mean?

"Warrant" is short for warrant officer. Warrants are typically experienced sailors who have in-depth knowledge of certain military matters.

What does "bluejacket" mean?

In the Navy, a "bluejacket" is an enlisted member below the rank of Chief Petty Officer.

What does "above board" mean?

If something is "above board," it is in plain view for everyone to see. It's why legitimate and honest people are sometimes described as "above board."

What does "swims" mean?

Naval aviators realize that they could wind up slashing into the sea. That's why they're required to complete their "swims," a type of survival training for air crews.

In Navy terms what does it mean to "foul" something?

Ships need lines for mooring (and for other purposes). When those lines are fouled, they are snagged, tangled or otherwise causing massive exasperation.

What does "brig" mean?

No sailor really wants to wind up in the brig. That's because "brig" is the universal term for the ship's jail.

What does "jump ship" mean?

If you jump ship, you're deserting your ship. And if you get caught, you'll undoubtedly wind up in the brig.

What does it mean to "turn-to"?

To "turn-to" means to get to work, immediately. And for those of you standing there looking slack-jawed, yes, we mean you.

What does "axial fire"?

It's also called "raking fire." Axial fire is weapons fire that’s directed toward the ends of the ship.

What does "yardbird" mean?

Yardbirds aren't sailors. They're the civilians who work in shipyards around the world.

What does "zoomie" mean?

Zoomies are the aviators who take to the skies above the seas. Compared to ships, aircraft zoom around much, much faster.

What does "eyes" mean?

On the upper deck of a sailing ship, you'll find the forecastle. The eyes are the most forward part of the forecastle.

What does "swallow the anchor" mean?

This one's an old slang term. If you retire from the Navy, you "swallow the anchor." Your sailing days are over, swabbie.

What does "gundecking" mean?

These days, gundecking is slang for the act of falsifying type of Navy documentation. Get caught gundecking and you may get a Big Chicken Dinner.

What does "black balls" mean?

When a Navy vessel hangs three black balls from the mast, it's bad news. It means the ship has run aground.

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