Swearin' sailors?


Arun Vajpey

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There is this common expression about someone "swore like a sailor" which all of us have heard at various times. But is there any real evidence that sailors swear any more than other - sorry about being non-PC - working class men like lorry drivers, brickies, navvies and so on? I know that a small yacht is different from a large ship but I have been on 23 liveboard diving cruises from 7 to 11 days long and found the crew to be generally friendly and well-behaved - not just with us guests but seemingly with each other. Granted, many were not English speaking but others were and I cannot say that they swore any more than other folk, probably much less.

So, is this 'swearing sailor' just an expressive myth or based on fact?
 
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Nov 14, 2005
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There is this common expression about someone "swore like a sailor" which all of us have heard at various times. But is there any real evidence that sailors swear any more than other - sorry about being non-PC - working class men like lorry drivers, brickies, navvies and so on? I know that a small yacht is different from a large ship but I have been on 23 liveboard diving cruises from 7 to 11 days long and found the crew to be generally friendly and well-behaved - not just with us guests but seemingly with each other. Granted, many were not English speaking but others were and I cannot say that they swore any more than other folk, probably much less.

So, is this 'swearing sailor' just an expressive myth or based on fact?
From my personal experiance I would say its a fact. But I would also say it's not just a navy thing. I grew up on army bases and they were no slackers either when it came to swearing. So I would say the reputation is somewhat deserved. An interesting little side story. A while back I had 2 girls step out in front of my truck at one of the stores. They didn't even look. Had to slam my brakes on. I told them if they keep doing that they aren't going to last very long. One of them cut loose with profanity laced meltdown that kind of shocked me at first being they looked like high schoolers. But I ended up laughing at them and told her "with a mouth like that you should join the navy" Of course that was followed up with another big F U from her...:p

P.S. The common phrase I always hear is "cusses worse than a boat load of sailors". Basically the same thing.
 
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Stephen Carey

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In UK the phrase is "Swore like a trooper", not sailor, though I doubt they are any different. Having been in the Army, RNR and Merchant Navy, they were all more or less the same.
On a passenger ship or the liveaboard mentioned, the crew wouldn't swear in front of the passengers - I hope!
 

Arun Vajpey

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On a passenger ship or the liveaboard mentioned, the crew wouldn't swear in front of the passengers - I hope!
Usually yes but with one glaring exception from what I have heard. There used to be a Liveaboard in Kimbe Bay of PNG (the only one at the time) on which the crew not only swore in front of the guests but AT them as well. Not sure it exists any longer.
 
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Senator SMITH. Do you know any of the men who assisted you in lowering that lifeboat?
Mr. LOWE. No, sir; I do not, by name. But there is a man here, and had he not been here I should not have known that I had ordered Mr. Ismay away from the boat.
Senator SMITH. Did you order Mr. Ismay away from the boat?
Mr. LOWE. I did, sir.
Senator SMITH. What did you say to him?
Mr. LOWE. This was on the starboard side. I don't know his name, but I know him by sight. He is a steward. He spoke to me on board the Carpathia. He asked me if I knew what I had said to Mr. Ismay. I said, "I don't know Mr. Ismay. "Well," he said, "you used very, very strong language with him." I said, "Did I?" I said, "I can not help it if I did." He said, "Yes, you did," and he repeated the words. If you wish me to repeat them I will do so; if you do not, I will not.
Senator SMITH. I will first ask you this: What was the occasion for your using this harsh language to Mr. Ismay?
Mr. LOWE. The occasion for using the language I did was because Mr. Ismay was overanxious and he was getting a trifle excited. He said, "Lower away! Lower away! Lower away! Lower away!" I said - well, let it be -
Mr. ISMAY. Give us what you said.
Mr. LOWE. The chairman is examining me.
Senator SMITH. Mr. Ismay, you asked the witness to give the language?
Mr. ISMAY. I have no objection to his giving it, It was not very parliamentary.
Senator SMITH. If the language is inappropriate -
Mr. LOWE. There is only one word that might be so considered.
Mr. ISMAY. May I suggest that it be put on a piece of paper and given to you, Mr. Chairman, and you decide.
Senator SMITH. All right; write it down.
[The witness, Mr. Lowe, wrote something on a piece of paper and handed it to the chairman.]
Senator SMITH. You may put that into the record. You said you -
Mr. LOWE. You wish me to repeat it, sir?
Senator SMITH. You uttered this to Mr. Ismay?
Mr. LOWE. Yes; that was in the heat of the moment.
Senator SMITH. What was the occasion of it; because of his excitement, because of his anxiety?
Mr. LOWE. Because he was, in a way, interfering with my duties, and also, of course, he only did this because he was anxious to get the people away and also to help me.
Senator SMITH. What did you say to him?
Mr. LOWE. Do you want me to repeat that statement?
Senator SMITH. Yes, sir.
Mr. LOWE. I told him, "If you will get to hell out of that I shall be able to do something." :oops:
Senator SMITH. What reply did he make?
Mr. LOWE. He did not make any reply. I said, "Do you want me to lower away quickly?" I said, "You will have me drown the whole lot of them." I was on the floor myself lowering away.
 
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Bo Bowman

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This is a fascinating illustration of how attitudes toward warm language were different in 1912, which should delight our Edwardianophile (is that a word?) members. I'm rather certain sailors in 1912 enjoyed a broad and deep vocabulary, perhaps moreso than sailors today, but the lesson for us here is that the boundary between uttering certain words in certain circles has changed since then. I have seen similar patterns among old cowmen and sheepmen, which is as un-maritime a group as you can find. They knew where they could utter certain words, and where it was not proper - and would have been horrified to cross that line. Personally, I regret the change. Today's much more common vulgarity reflects a lack of respect among people, especially those we are not acquainted with.

As for sailors, when I joined the Navy a half century ago a popular joke was that new recruits would come home from boot camp and proudly ask the family to "pass the $&#!! potatoes, please!" o_O When I got home, I thought over every sentence carefully before opening my mouth!
 
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I agree with what you said. I freely admit that I often use colorful language but I know when not to do it. I don't cuss around women and children and there are certain words I don't use...like G.D. Everything else flows pretty freely..usually when I'm in my workshop and slip off a wrench for the third time busting my knickles or something. It helps with the pain...LOL.
 

Arun Vajpey

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For example, the character who played Fleet in Cameron's film says "B****r!" when he sees the berg and then "Pick up, you b*****s!" while waiting a few seconds for Moody to answer the phone. Is it likely that the real Fleet would have used those or similar words during the actual event?
 

robert warren

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Actually the whole exchange between Fleet and the bridge was a simple "what did you see?" " iceberg right ahead" "thank you". Then the two lookouts just held their tongues until the moment of collision was past. That's from Fleet's testimony.However modern audiences probably cant imagine such a casual way in which that situation was approached, so the filmmakers have to inject more colorful words. That's the late 20th/21st century way of dealing with things like that.
 
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Bo Bowman

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For example, the character who played Fleet in Cameron's film says "B****r!" when he sees the berg and then "Pick up, you b*****s!" while waiting a few seconds for Moody to answer the phone. Is it likely that the real Fleet would have used those or similar words during the actual event?
Arun, I think this is an excellent example. In the sole company of the other lookout, Fleet's language was more crude. To the bridge (or within hearing of someone more genteel), he was more polite. Telling a story in the foc'sle, he might have been even more colorful. Of course we can't be present to hear his actual language in the crow's nest in April 1912, but I think the movie did a fair job of representing how there would be a difference in how he would speak to an equal and how he would reply to a superior.
 
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Yes agree. In 1912 I'm sure he would have cleaned up his words. But that wouldn't have altered the meaning or truthfullness of his testimony. If he used the F word or something when he was in the nest and didn't later when he repeated his story it wouldn't have made any differance to what he was saying. Personally if I would have been in that crows nest I would have been cussing like...well like a sailor...:oops:
 
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Doug Criner

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Another old saying: "Spending money like a drunken sailor." Supposedly a yard sign in Norfolk, Virginia: "Sailors and dogs - keep off the grass." Navy enlisted heads, before arriving in a liberty port, particularly foreign, would have plastic signs posted cautioning about venereal disease (I wish I had one - a sign, that is). Another time, another place.
 
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Mar 22, 2003
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"Spending money like a drunken sailor."
In the days of sail the crew would be paid in full upon their arrival back home. There were many a single sailor who would go straight to the local pubs where they would spend like crazy getting drunk and other things. It also allowed some others to take advantage of them in gambling and other "sports". At the end of the day, or week, or whatever, they had so little money left that they were forced to sign onto another ship and return to sea.
 
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Another old saying: "Spending money like a drunken sailor." Supposedly a yard sign in Norfolk, Virginia: "Sailors and dogs - keep off the grass." Navy enlisted heads, before arriving in a liberty port, particularly foreign, would have plastic signs posted cautioning about venereal disease (I wish I had one - a sign, that is). Another time, another place.
According to a freind I worked with who was also ex navy told me that was true. He saw many of those signs around Norfolk in the 60's when he was there. Although he didn't call it Norfolk..it had a more colorful name. I saw a sign a while back that was pretty funny in that same vein. "All dogs welcome. Kids must be on a leash".
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In the days of sail the crew would be paid in full upon their arrival back home. There were many a single sailor who would go straight to the local pubs where they would spend like crazy getting drunk and other things. It also allowed some others to take advantage of them in gambling and other "sports". At the end of the day, or week, or whatever, they had so little money left that they were forced to sign onto another ship and return to sea.
You didn't need to go back to the days of sail. Half the guys in my shop aboard ship were always broke. Slush funds were very common...20 for 30 was the norm.
 
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Arun Vajpey

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In the days of sail the crew would be paid in full upon their arrival back home. There were many a single sailor who would go straight to the local pubs where they would spend like crazy getting drunk and other things.
By "other things" I take it that you mean visiting houses of ill repute. That is another 'tradition' that has been linked to sailors - that as soon as they get paid they visit the local cathouses. Perhaps not all were like that; a few might have read books or something.

Anyway, I guess in those days 'Cat Hotel' meant something different from what it does now. :D
 
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Doug Criner

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In the days of sail the crew would be paid in full upon their arrival back home. There were many a single sailor who would go straight to the local pubs where they would spend like crazy getting drunk and other things. It also allowed some others to take advantage of them in gambling and other "sports". At the end of the day, or week, or whatever, they had so little money left that they were forced to sign onto another ship and return to sea.
When I first served in the navy, the ship's crew was paid in cash on paydays, even if at sea, less any allotments sent directly to dependents, etc.
 
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