Yachting Jargon Explained

Published on January 4th, 2018

Dr Jerry Wilson answers in the Index-Journal that weighty question, “Why is the toilet on a boat referred to as the ‘head’?”


The source of this relatively delicate term is rather interesting. It is a nautical or naval term that goes back to the day of the old sailing ships. Let’s start at the back of the ship.

The upper-most rear, or the stern, was called the poop deck. This is where the ship’s wheel was located — in the rear of the ship, near the rudder — in order to reduce the number of pulleys and ropes needed for steering. The poop deck was elevated so the captain and pilot would have a clear view over the front of the ship. In case you are wondering, the name “poop deck” comes from the French word for the stern, “la poupe.” I wouldn’t want my readers to get the wrong idea, there!

When sailing, the wind generally comes from the rear, filling the sails and propelling the ship forward. During heavy weather, the foam and spray from tall waves behind the ship would leave the poop deck and the pilot quite wet. (And after a day of steering in bad weather, the pilot was “pooped.”)

At the front of the ship was the figure head: a carved wooden figure or bust fitted on the bow of the ship. Since the wind was blowing from the rear to the front, the “head” (or front) of the ship was the best place for sailors to relieve themselves. So, when the shipmates went to the toilet, they went to the head. (I guess a sailor could have said, “I’m going to the bow.”)

While we’re on the subject of nautical jargon, let’s do “scuttlebutt.” This was a water barrel (or butt) that had been “scuttled” with a hole, so that water could be taken out for a drink. As you might imagine, there was a great deal of loitering around the scuttlebutt. That’s why office “watercooler” gossip is sometimes referred to as “scuttlebutt.” A drinking fountain is still referred to as the scuttlebutt in the Navy, or at least it was years ago when I was in the Army and stationed with some Navy personnel.

There you have it. Anchors aweigh!

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