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Scuttlebutt

A barrel of fun.

Dear Word Detective: Did the term “scuttlebutt” come to or from nautical usage? — Mike Henderson.

Aaarrr, Matey. You know, of course, that 2012 marked the tenth anniversary of International Talk Like a Pirate Day. According to Wikipedia (which I trust on such topics), ITLPD began when two guys in Oregon, John Baur and Mark Summers, were playing racquetball and one was injured, reacting to the pain with “Aaarrr!” Apparently this reminded them of the distinctive pirate dialect of the character Long John Silver, played by the great Robert Newton in the 1950 Disney film of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” and an in-joke was born. They eventually clued humorist Dave Barry in on the joke, he promoted it, and here we are. And to this day, I can’t read the word “scuttlebutt” without hearing it in Robert Newton’s wonderful pirate voice.

Speaking of in-jokes, etymologists joke that there’s a shadowy cabal out there called the Committee to Ascribe a Nautical Origin to Everything (CANOE) promulgating the idea that nearly every English word or phrase comes somehow from the Age of Sail and tall ships. And it’s true that the Royal Navy in the 18th century is almost as popular as Medieval villages in just-so word origin tales. But in this case, CANOE ain’t crazy; there really is a nautical origin to “scuttlebutt.”

Today we use the term “scuttlebutt” to mean rumors, gossip or insider news, especially of the sort that circulates within an organization, whether a corporate office or a military unit. It’s the sort of talk that stereotypically takes place when office workers encounter each other at the water cooler or coffee machine and trade news and complaints about the latest depredations of management. It’s appropriate that the term “scuttlebutt” is used for this social ritual, because the “scuttlebutt” aboard a sailing ship in the 18th century was, essentially, the ship’s water cooler — a cask of drinking water kept on the deck for use by the crew. As in modern offices, the ship’s “scuttlebutt” was where you heard the news of the day and traded the latest gossip.

The “butt” in “scuttlebutt” is simply a very old English word meaning “cask” or “barrel.” The “scuttlebutt” was originally “scuttled-butt,” from the verb “to scuttle,” meaning “to cut or bore a hole in something” (specifically “to cut a hole in the hull of a ship n order to sink it”). Originally, any opening or hatch on a ship was called a “scuttle,” possibly drawn from the French “escoutille” (hatchway). In the case of the “scuttlebutt” water cask, the “scuttle” was a covered hole in the top that opened to allow sailors to scoop out water with a tin pot. So a “scuttlebutt” was simply a “butt” with a “scuttle” in the lid.

“Scuttlebutt” first appeared in print in the literal “watercooler” sense around 1801, although the term was almost certainly in use among sailors long before then. Its first appearance in print (found so far) in the “gossip” sense was just about 100 years later, originally in the form “scuttlebutt gossip” or “scuttlebutt yarns” (“Ships are full of … rumors … which originate in talk exchanged around the skuttle-butt, or drinking barrel, so that all wild stories are branded as ‘scuttle-butt yarns’,” 1918). The use of the term definitely increased during World Wars I and II (“Also a cause for betting was the ultimate destination. In navy slang ‘scuttlebutt’ was rife and had the ship bound everywhere from China to Murmansk,” 1943), and civilian use became widespread in the 1950s.