Make it shine!

This was an order I heard more often than I liked when, many years ago, I was an enlisted member of the U.S. Navy. Field day was usually held on Thursdays (in the afternoon at work and in the evening at the barracks), with inspections conducted early on Friday. The primary purpose, of course, was to promote workplace cleanliness and a decent quality of life in cramped living quarters, but it also helped focus individuals from widely diverse backgrounds on a single goal. Those who achieved an “outstanding” were often excused from one or more subsequent inspections while those who failed were usually subjected to additional inspections, loss of privileges, and extra watches.

The command applied to any sort of “bright work,” i.e., anything that had even the remotest potential to shine. EVERYthing on the premises was cleaned and polished—floors, toilets, faucets, etc.—but the scuttlebutt, which was usually located at the entryway to the building, was the focal point for attention because it was usually the first thing an inspector saw and was often an indicator of how thoroughly the place had been cleaned.

Scuttlebutt, you ask?

Scuttlebutt is an ancient seagoing term referring to a lidded cask filled with drinking water. “Scuttle” meant to put a hole in something and “butt” was the term for a large cask. The cask was scuttled so sailors could use a dipper to get a drink of water as they went about their day’s work. A visit to the scuttlebutt was a brief respite, a place where sailors congregated and, naturally, gossiped about whatever news they had.

Though water fountains have long since replaced centuries-old scuttlebutts, the term remained as a nickname for a water fountains and eventually gained a second meaning as a synonym for gossip, as in “what’s the scuttlebutt?”.

Modern usage:

  • I would not be surprised to hear a modern sailor use the term “scuttlebutt” in the sense of gossip even though he or she might be using Facebook or Twitter instead of congregating with shipmates around the barracks’ water cooler.
  • The term is understandably less common in civilian conversation so I was (pleasantly) surprised to spot it this week in an on-line article discussing the demise of Google Reader.

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Posted for Jenny Matlock’s Alphabe-Thursday study of the letter “S.” I was a consistent poster for most of Round 5, but ran out of steam before we got to “Z.” Because I hate to leave anything undone, I am returning to the end of Round 6 to complete the entries I missed. I am continuing my study of colloquialisms and idioms—words and phrases that are unique to a region or have meanings that aren’t necessarily discernible from the combined meanings of the individual words. I hope you enjoy this week’s post.

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5 thoughts on “Make it shine!

  1. I always love coming here and learning interesting facts. Your have such a talent for this form of writing. I had no idea that “scuttlebutt” had any connection to water.

  2. Wanda, I’m so glad you’re doing this again. I’ve found your series on colloquialisms fascinating. I’m familiar with the term “scuttlebutt” in the sense of gossip or rumor, but had no idea it derived from the name of an earlier version of today’s water cooler.

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