U.S. Navy Terminology & Traditions



The traditional greeting for hailing another ship was originally a Viking battle cry.


The earliest notation of a bell on a ship dates back to 1485 on the British ship, Grace Dieu. Bells for alarms and warnings on naval vessels date back to roughly 1676. In 1858, British regulations made it mandatory to ring the bell in fould weather. Today, maritime law requires ALL vessels to be bell equipped. American ships have been equipped with a bell dating back to the Revolutionary War.

Timekeeping: also done with the use of a bell at sea. Initially, time was kept by sand in an hourglass. A ships' boy had the duty of ringing the bell on the 1/2 hour of a 4 hour watch. From this tradition, the single bell on the 1/2 hour and 2 bells on the 1st hour evolved. A total of 8 bells marks the largest amount of bells rung, indicating the end of the 1st four hour watch.

Alarms: The bell is essential to the ship's fire alarm system. In case of fire, the ships' bell is rung rapidly 5 times followed by 1, 2 or 3 rings to indicate the location of a fire: forward amidships of aft.

Traditionally, the bell is maintained by the ships' cook, but in actual practice it's taken care of by the deck force.


The 1st authorized uniform of the British enlisted sailors. Gereric term for a U.S. Navy enlisted person.


The ceremonies that take place when a naval vessel crssoes the equator dates back centuries, exactly when it began is unknown. What is known is that the Vikings celebrated crossing the line, certain parallels and also when going through the Straights of Gibralter. These ceremonies were performed to appease King Neptune, the Mystical Ruler of the Deep. Those who have crossed the line are called Shellbacks, those who have not are called Pollywogs.


Aboard ships, in-port and at sea, the Executive Officer (or Command Duty Officer in-port) receives the reports from all department heads.


A fathom is an average distance form figertip to fingertip on an average man, roughly 6 feet. the word is taken from the Anglo-Saxon "faetm", meaning to embrace. the Britis parliament declared this a unit of measure and remains in use today (in early days, body parts were often used as a means to measure something, hence hands for horses and foot (12").


Pronounced Fok-Sul. This is the forward part of the main deck and is taken from the days of the Viking galleys when wooden castles were built on the deck so the archers and stone throwers could get a better aim at their victims.


As early as 1802, Navy regulations called for personnel to assume the duties of the next higher rank prior to actual promotion, especially in time of war in order to increase the ranks. The word frock is derived from the long coats worn at the earliest periods of the Naval Service.


Gun salutes are signs of good faith as in the days when ot took so long to reload a gun, discharging them prior to entering port was a sign of good faith.


Bathroom aboard a ship. From the early days of sailing ships when sailors had to go all the way tp the forward part of the ship to relieve themselves (on either side of the bowsprit).


February 1841 uniform regulations called for a sleeve mark on uniforms for navy petty officers consisting of an eagle facing left with it's wings poined down. Boatswain's Mates, Carpenter's Mates, Gunner's Mates, Master-At-Arms, Ship's Stewards and Ship's Cooks wore the insignia on the right sleeve, while others wore it on the left sleeve. The petty officer rating badge incorporating the specialty mark and chevrons with pointed down eagle's wings was introduced in the uniform regulations of 1886. General Order 431 dated 9-24-1894 required that the eagle's wings be pointed upward. Uniform regulations changed in 1913 to reflect the location of ratings badges. Right sleeves were used to designate sailors of the Seaman Branch, left sleevers were of the Artificers Branch, Engine Room personnel and all other petty officers. In 1941, the regulations changed again, making the eagle face left on all Seaman Branch personnel: Boatswain's Mate, Gunner's Mate, Turret Captain, Signalman, Fire Controlman, Quartermaster, Mineman & Torpedoman's Mate. All other ratings were to have the eagle face right. Right arm rates were done away with in 1949.


Original member of a ships' crew when the ship was put into commission.


Originally, the one who saluted another first was considered powerless for the time it took to render honors. Several hundred years ago, the average time it took to fire a gun was twice an hour, thus one was truly powerless for a good period of time.


The Vikings called the side of their ships, the 'board', and they placed their steering oar (star) on that side. Starbaord is taken from this practice and has been used ever since.


Taken from the Dutch word "taptoe". This indicated that it was time to close all taps and taverns in a garrisoned town.


The original 3 mile limit was universally recognized as the territorial coastal waters of countries. This limit dates back to the days when a country's largest guns had no more than a 3 mile range from their shore batteries. International law and the 1988 Territorial Sea Proclamation created the 'High Seas" border at 12 miles.


A ship is launched when first put into the water; at this point it still needs ample work to be considered complete and ready for delivery the the Navy. Once delivered, the Navy runs acceptance tests (shake downs). Once the Navy accepts the ship, the representative signs off on the paperwork releasing the builder from further responsibility.
Now that the ship has been successfully launched, the initial CO and crew begin to place the ship into Commission. In a formal ceremony, the Commanding Officer reads his orders and the colors are raised. To commission a ship is to place it in 'active service'.