Words and Expressions 

Customs and traditions serve many purposes, one of which is that they span the years of Service life from one generation to another. One aspect of this is language, words and expressions used from day to day in the course of a Serviceman's duty, in both peace and war. Language in the Service is a part of custom and tradition which bridges the years forming a living continuity between the Serviceman and Servicewoman of today and those who have gone before.

Able Seaman

The rank, or rating as it was once called, of able seaman, or AB, is the equivalent of the private in the army and air force. It was fully established in the Commonwealth Navy of Cromwell in the seventeenth century.Footnote 1 As the words imply, the able seaman is fully trained for upper deck duties. In the days of sail, the saying was "able to hand, reef and steer," that is, fully capable of going aloft to take in sail and to take charge of the helm.Footnote 2

Adjutant's Tea

Adjutant's tea is sherry served in the field before breakfast, for example in the Grey and Simcoe Foresters.


The rank of admiral signifies the commander-in-chief of a nation's navy; a senior naval officer in command of a fleet or squadron, or of a command or station ashore. Before unification of the forces, admirals with such appointments were known as flag officers. The word admiral is derived from the Arabic emir or ameer meaning "chief." It made its way westward from that cradle of navigators, the Mediterranean Sea, from the medieval Latin amiralus, through the Old French amirail and the Spanish almirante. In Britain, the term admiral developed in a rather complex way from medieval times, but became firm as the commander-in-chief at sea in the seventeenth century. In a large fleet at sea in the days of sail, the main squadron in the centre with the Admiral of the Fleet was preceded by a squadron in the van or lead and bearing the second-in-command, the vice-admiral of the fleet hence the rank of vice-admiral. The rear of the fleet was covered by a third squadron or rear-guard, bearing the rear admiral of the fleet, hence the rank today of rear-admiral.Footnote 3

A curious use of the term in our own maritime heritage is to be seen in a Royal Proclamation dated 26 June 1708 concerning the "fishing admirals." Each year, fishing fleets would arrive in Newfoundland waters, base themselves in numerous coves and havens and land their catches there for drying, before returning to Europe in the fall, their holds full of dried fish. Good order was maintained in these outports by appointing the captain of the first ship to arrive "season admiral of the said harbour or creek," the second ship, vice-admiral, and so on. The admiral's decision about foreshore rights and disputes which might arise was binding.Footnote 4


Guns used by the army; the arm or branch of the land forces that uses guns. Of early French origin, the word is derived from artiller, to equip or arm. Originally, artillery encompassed a wide variety of war equipment, including all missile-type weapons. In 1539 the "Guylde of Artyllary of longbowes, Crossbowes and handegonnes" marched from Aldgate, City of London, to Westminster, where it was reviewed by King Henry VIII.Footnote 5

Awkward Squad

This term of good-natured derision is still occasionally heard. It refers to recruits who have difficulties of co-ordination and therefore are slow to come up to the standards of their drill instructors. This is a phenomenon of long standing. General Amherst, on the march up the Hudson River in 1759 bound for Montreal, required the awkward men to be exercised by themselves twice a day, and infantrymen who fired before the word of command were punished with extra drill with the "acquart men" in the evening.Footnote 6 Similarly, at the raising of His Majesty's Newfoundland Regiment of Foot, 1780-1783, early provision was made to exercise the awkward men.Footnote 7


A barn is a hangar.


The origin of this word is obscure. It dates from at least the sixteenth century in the old French form, battaillon, and is believed to have a common root with the word battle.Footnote 8 The battalion traditionally, is a unit of infantry composed of several companies and forms part of the larger brigade or regiment. In the organizational sense, the structure of the battalion has had many changes through the centuries to meet the needs of changing roles and tactics, and of advances in the technology and doctrine of war. Today in the Canadian Forces the term battalion has two applications: an infantry regiment, which may consist of one, two, or more battalions, manned and equipped as fighting units; the administrative unit for support troops, called service battalions.


Naval slang for a sailor with a long record of disciplinary misdemeanours. It has the same origin as "jail-bird," one who has been confined in prison which often was called "the cage." In earlier times such felons were often sentenced to serve in the Royal Navy.


An encampment without tents or huts. It is thought to be derived from the German Beiwacht, having a connotation of watch or guard.

Blue Bark

An example of Service jargon which has become official language in regulations. A blue bark is a passenger travelling via Service aircraft for compassionate reasons to attend the funeral of a member of his or her family. The term came into use in the early 1960s and is particularly associated with service in Europe. The origin of the term is not known but is thought to stem from "embarkation" and travel priority categories.


The term boatswain (bo's'n) is the oldest title in the sea service. It is derived from the Old English batswegen or batsuen (boat's swain or husband). In Saxon times the boatswain was in command. In medieval England, he was the officer who made the ship go, having charge of the masts yards and sails, and was second only to the master. Nathaniel Boteler in his Dialogues, in the reign of King Charles I, showed the wide responsibilities of the boatswain in the early seventeenth century. He had charge of all ropes, anchors, sails, flags, colours, and care of the long-boat. He called up the watches to their duty, kept the sailors "in peace, and in order one with another," and he saw to it that all offenders were punctually punished (boatswain's mates had to wield the cat-o'-nine tails) "either at the Capstan, or by being put in the bilboes, or with ducking at the main yard-arm."Footnote 9 It is readily seen that through the centuries the boatswain has had the duties not only of command, but those associated with the coxswain and the late master-at-arms. But through it all the boatswain has remained to this day the seaman specialist, particularly in terms of equipment related to seamanship. In HMC ships today, the boatswain, usually a master or chief warrant officer, looks after small arms, anchors and cables, hawsers and fenders, paints, life rafts and demolitions as well as parade and small arms training.Footnote 10

Boatswain's Mate

In harbour, the boatswain's mate is a member of the gangway staff under the officer of the day. He pipes all orders and generally assists the quarter-master. At sea, he keeps his watch within hail of the officer of the watch.

Boondocks (Boonies)

Area not considered part of the runway or taxiway, or a relatively isolated base or station.


The rank between colonel and major-general. A definition of the time of Wellington, it has stood the test of time if not terminology, rather well: "Brigadier, a military officer, whose rank is next above that of a colonel, appointed to command a corps, consisting of several battalions or regiments, called a brigade."Footnote 11 The term has its origin in the Italian brigata meaning company, related to brigare (brawl) and briga (strife). For a time in the Canadian army the rank was simply brigadier. The term brigadier-general was reinstituted in 1968.Footnote 12


Slang term for the chief boatswain's mate, usually a petty officer, dating from the eighteenth century. Its derivation is obscure. While the boatswain is responsible today for all the upperdeck seamanship equipment, the chief boatswain's mate, or buffer, is the "foreman" of the hands who keep the internal spaces of the ship in good repair. In destroyers and lesser ships, the boatswain and the buffer are likely to be one and the same person.

Camming-up and Camming-down

The fitting up and taking down of camouflage netting as used, for example, to hide the positions of guns and vehicles.


In the Service today, the term captain has several meanings. In terms of rank, the naval captain is equivalent to colonel, while the army and airforce captain is the rank between lieutenant and major. In terms of office, there is the captain of a ship, and the captain of an aircraft. Captain is derived from the Latin caput meaning head. With the head being the directing or controlling portion of the anatomy, it is not difficult to see how the Romans came to use capitaneus to denote the director or leader of troops. There is a very long tradition of the captain as the officer commanding a company-size unit of from one hundred to two hundred men. Even in the navy the term captain is of military origin. The seamanship and navigation essential to making a passage at sea were in earlier times the province of the boatswain and the master, the latter term being still very evident in the merchant service. The captain came on board with his soldiers to do the fighting, while the master the seaman, conveyed the troops to the right place to engage the enemy at sea or on a foreign shore. With the advent of "great guns" in ships in the sixteenth century, the master became the captain who not only directed the ship, but led his fighting seamen.Footnote 13


Shortened form of chitty, an Anglo-lndian word from chitthi, meaning a written note, or a voucher tendered in lieu of cash for refreshments in the mess.


A rank which today denotes a senior staff officer, not yet a general officer, but no longer the senior officer in a regiment — with one exception. The Canadian Airborne Regiment, consisting of three commandos capable of operating independently, is commanded by a colonel.Footnote 14 The term dates from the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century when the process of merging the normal army formation, the companies under their captains, into regiments under their colonels, was well advanced. The origin of the word itself is unknown. Sometimes it was spelled "coronel" as in the French of the period, which suggests "crown." This, itself, raises several conjectures including insignia, also the authority for the colonel's commission. In the Italian colonnello, there is a relationship with colonna, meaning a column.

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Colour Sergeant

The title given to warrant officers in regiments of foot guards; the title given to selected non-commissioned officers having the honour and distinction of attending (escorting) the queen's and regimental colours of foot guards and certain other infantry regiments.Footnote 15 It was the Duke of Wellington who initiated the idea of the colour sergeant "for the encouragement of good men,"Footnote 16 and it was established as a rank in the British army in 1813, the general order making it clear that "the duty of attending the Colours in the field shall be at all times performed by these Sergeants."Footnote 17 In the days when the colours were carried into battle at the centre front of the regiment, they were prime targets for the enemy, and casualties among ensigns and colour sergeants in the defence of the colours were high. So, while it was considered a great honour to be given the custody of the colours, it took men of high courage to accept that honour. Today, colour sergeant is not an official rank, as it was prior to 1919 in the Canadian Militia.Footnote 18 It is a traditional title in the foot guards and an office or appointment of honour on specific occasions as in the "trooping of the colour."


The rank of commander evolved from the split command situation in the early warship where the captain commanded the soldier fighting men and the master navigated the ship by commanding the mariners. After the arrival of great guns in ships of war in the time of Henry VIII, sailors both worked the ship and fought the ship. As ships developed in tonnage and gun-power, the captain in command of a ship-of-the-line had under him a master as his chief navigator, but in lesser ships the two offices were combined in one officer called "master and commander."

In the mid-eighteenth century the "master and" part was no longer needed when an officer was placed on complement to relieve the commander of his navigating duties, but it was not until 1794 that the rank of commander came into official use in the Royal Navy.Footnote 19

In 1875 the lieutenant of eight years seniority was given the well known "half-stripe" of the lieutenant commander, and this title was officially recognized in 1914.Footnote 20


A body of troops highly trained for specialized tasks or missions. In the Second World War, British commandos were amphibious shock-troops often employed on raids or operations with limited objectives. It is a Portuguese term derived from commandar, (command), and from the late Latin commandare. Commando was used by the Boers and became a familiar term during the South African War at the beginning of the twentieth century. The word is used today in the Canadian Forces to denote the three components of the Canadian Airborne Regiment - the two parachute commandos and the mechanized commando.


Unlike the Royal Navy, commodore is a permanent rank in the Canadian Forces, between captain and rear-admiral. At sea the commodore traditionally is in command of a detached squadron. Today the appointment of senior officer afloat is that of a commodore. The term is from the Dutch Commandeur introduced by them in 1652. King William III of Orange brought the title to the Royal Navy in 1688.Footnote 21

There is an old saying connected with the commodore. Well into this century, it was the custom to fire a gun at sunset, when in harbour, and lower the colours. On hearing the evening gun fired, one would hear, "the commodore has fallen down the main hatch," meaning his day's work is done and so is mine.Footnote 22


The dictionary meaning of this word is given as "a body of persons combined for common object," and this definition applies to the use of the term today: a sub-division of an infantry battalion, or of a naval reserve division for parade purposes, or simply the ship's company or ship's crew. It is also used to denote a detached unit of support services. There is a curious commercial origin to the term company. Toward the end of the medieval feudal period, mercenary bands of professional soldiers appeared in Europe, whose captains would accept contracts to fight for or against anyone. Money was invested in these bands, which soon were called companies, to share in the profits obtained from plunder and ransom.Footnote 23


The master corporal of today is the corporal of earlier times, a leader of men. This attribute is reflected in the derivation of the word — the Italian capo (head), di squadra (of the squad), sometimes written capo de escadra, referring to squad, or squadron, or to the earlier fighting formation, the square. The French called this man caporal and, in English, he became corporal. Sir James Turner, soldier, in his Pallas Armata (1683) made some rather pithy remarks in describing the fonction of the corporal of old:

A caporal ... hath an absolute command of his squadron, neither may any in it disobey him; if any do, the caporal may beat him with his sword, and commit him to prison and he is bound to teach them how they are to behave themselves when centinels,... to teach all that belong to his squadron their postures, and to handle their arms. So you see this caporal or ours hath work enough to do, for all the pay or wages he gets.Footnote 24


The coxswain (cox'n) today is the senior non-commisioned seaman in the ship, usually a chief warrant officer. He is the connecting link between the ship's officers and the lower deck other than that provided by the divisional system. He sees that daily routines on board are carried out, and attends the captain's and the executive officer's tables when requestmen and defaulters are being seen, formerly the duty of the ship's master at arms. In action, or in confined waters, he takes over the ship's helm. A second meaning for coxswain is the seaman in charge of a ship's boat when away from the ship — coxswain of the boat. The name coxswain is a very old one at sea. It is derived from the medieval Latin cussus, the Old French coq and the Old English coc, all meaning "cock" as in "cockboat," that is a small boat. In recent years, the coxswain has lost ground in professional status as a seaman. As a specialist seaman, command of the ship once devo/lved on him if say, in action, all the executive branch (seamen) officers had been incapacitated. This is no longer so.Footnote 25


Aircrew. (Used in good-natured derogation by fishheads.) Early in the twentieth century crabfat meant the relatively new paint colour (battleship grey) used on the hulls and superstructures of warships. The modern usage may have originated between the two world wars when the RAF, in their blue-grey uniforms, provided the aircrews for Royal Navy aircraft carriers.


Sailor's term for washed clothes. It is derived from the Hindu word dhob meaning washing.


Today, a dragoon is a member of an armoured regiment. Before the days of self-propelled vehicles, a dragoon was a mounted infantryman. The word is thought to derive from "dragon," a form of cavalry pistol of the early seventeenth century, mounted on a swivel in a sling, later replaced by the carbine. One early writer quaintly described dragoons as "... a sort of Mungrels betwixt the Two [that is foot (infantry) and horse (cavalry)], who are bound to fight either on Foot or Horseback... "Footnote 26


Today there are many forms of engineers in the Service — aeronautical, marine, flight, and others — but the longest established is the military engineer. His appearance, historically, long pre-dates the civil engineer. Throughout the ages, the military engineer had charge of the "engines of war." This is why the engineer and the artilleryman can trace their ancestry back to a common source, guns being engines of war. The engineer has been described as one who designs and constructs military works. An engine is a mechanical contrivance. Ingenious means clever at contriving. All of these words are derived from the Latin ingenium, meaning cleverness.


Ensigns are colours that are worn chiefly by ships for purposes of national identification. They are normally flown at the ensign staff at the stem. In battle, one or more ensigns may be hoisted in a variety of positions for distinguisbing friendly from enemy ships — at the peak of the gaff, at the yardarm, or at the masthead. These are called battle ensigns.Footnote 27 A ship may wear a masthead ensign when dressed for a celebration. The ensign worn by HMC ships is identical to the national flag and should not be confused with the Canadian Forces ensign which is not worn at sea.

The ancient rank of ensign is still used by certain regiments of the Canadian Forces in lieu of second lieutenant. It was his duty to carry the colours into battle.Footnote 28

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Surface ship sailors. (Used derogatively by submariners and maritime airmen.)


Anti-aircraft fire, from the German fliegerabwehrkanone; also used in the sense of verbal objection to policy decisions, etc.


A subdivision of an air squadron, a group of say three or four aircraft under a single command — hence the source of the former air force ranks of flight lieutenant and flight sergeant. In the early fifteenth century the term was used in much the same sense, as in "a flight of goshawkes" and "a flight of douves." The word is derived from the Old Saxon fluht, meaning the action or manner of moving through the air.


Flight in a Service aircraft.

Fly-Away Kit

An air cargo consignment of one or more large metal containers (Paul Bunyan's), containing all the essentials for a given number of men for a particular mission to a particular geographical region all prepared and packed from a permanently held check list.

Flying a Desk

A pilot suffering through a non-flying tour of duty.


Derived from the Latin formatio, the term formation was used in Roman times to describe the disposition of troops going into battle. In the Canadian Forces today the word has two connotations: one, in a sense, static; the other, one of movement. The first is an ordered arrangement of troops and/or vehicles (used in the broadest sense of the term) under a single command, such as an air division, a brigade group, or a naval task force, organized for a specific purpose. The formation having the connotation of movement is as in the traditional air force sense of formation flying where two or more aircraft are led and manoeuvered as a unit. This latter meaning for formation is also seen in the drilling of troop, in tanks advancing, say, in echelon, and in a squadron of destroyers ma king, say, a torpedo attack.


There are six fusilier regiments in the militia today. Down through the centuries, the fusiliers performed the role of light infantry, with a special capability of protecting artillery and the encamped battalion. They were armed with a light musket called a fusil fitted with a sling so that it could be carried on the fusilier's back, leaving his hands free for other defensive duties.

The word is derived from the French fusil and the Italian focile, both of which have their origin in the Latin focus meaning hearth or fire. The soldier called a fusilier appeared in the seventeenth century and coincided with the introduction of the flintlock musket or fusil which gradually superseded the earlier matchlock.Footnote 29 This lighter, shorter musket carried by the fusilier had an important technical advantage. The spark from striking the flint was kept close to the pan containing the powder whilst with the matchlock, a puttering fuse was used to ignite the musket charge, an ever present danger when protecting the artillery train and its attendant powder tubs. The first fusilier regiment in the British army was raised in 1685, the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment).Footnote 30


Together with admiral, the highest rank in the Canadian Forces. The term was used in the English language of the Middle Ages, having come from the Old French and, originally, from the Latin generalis, with its root genus meaning kind of things or species. The question of why a major-general is junior to a lieutenant-general may be answered by looking at the seniority and precedence of general officers in the Parliamentary Army of the Civil War period in Britain in the seventeenth century. This army was commanded by a captain-general, the horse (or cavalry) by a lieutenant-general, and the infantry by a sergeant major general. When the term sergeant was dropped from the title of the most junior of these general officers, it muddled up the accepted sequence of precedence.Footnote 31 The term captain-general is not used in the Canadian Forces, with one exception. Her Majesty the Queen bears the honorary appointment of captain-general of the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery.

General Officers

The collective term for officers of the ranks of: general and admiral; lieutenant-general and vice-admiral; major-general and rear-admiral; brigadier-general and commodore.

Goofing Stations

A piped announcement used in HMC ships to give off-watch members of the crew ample notice of an unusual spectacle to be seen from the upper deck. The term originated in the icebreaker arctic patrol ship, HMCS Labrador, during her first voyage when she became the first naval ship, indeed the first big ship of any description, to navigate the North-west Passage (1954). The pipe "hands to goofing stations" was made so that the enthusiastic would not miss the sight of polar bears, walruses and huge icebergs close at hand.Footnote 32 The term was used earlier, in HMS Kenya on passage in the Indian Ocean, 1943.Footnote 33


Through the centuries, there have been several types of foot-soldier. One of these is the grenadier, represented in the Service today by the Canadian Grenadier Guards. The grenadier came into being in the seventeenth century, initially in France. They were the men picked from each company of the regiment as having the height and strength to hurl a hand grenade, usually shown badge-wise as a sphere spouting flame, with great accuracy and effect.

Thus the grenadiers became the élite of the infantry and to this day jea1ously guard their ancient title. Like the fusilier, the grenadier slung his musket over his back to free his hands as he led the attack hurling his grenades, which word, incidentally, comes from the ancient French pome grenate or pomegranate. The relationship between the pomegranate, that large fruit containing an abundance of seeds, and the grenade, is abundantly clear in Durer's famous painting of the Emperor Maximilian (1519), even to the orifice-like appendage from which the flame is traditionally shown being emitted. Similarly, the heraldic device representing the city of Grenada in Spain is the pomegranate.

Grey Funnel Line

Her Majesty's Canadian ships.


A soldier.


A swallow-tailed pennon or flag. It is to armoured regiments what the regimenta1 colour is to infantry regiments. The present system of guidons and colours came into being in the British army in the mid-eighteenth century and guidons were the special mark of dragoons. The term, guidon, is derived from the ancient French guydhomme, the leader of horse.Footnote 34 Eventually, the word shifted from the idea of the rank of the officer who bore the guidon into battle to the colour itself.

Hangar Queen

An aircraft having the status of AOG (aircraft on ground) in a hangar from which parts are taken to keep other aircraft operational. Such transfer of parts and equipment is of a temporary nature and not to be confused with "cannibalization" or permanent removal.


Naval term for toilets. It originated from the location of the seamen's latrines in the days of sail — out over the open bows at the ship's head with no protection from head seas other than a canvas dodger or screen. The heads were sometimes used for other purposes, which explains an amusing incident in HMS Thetis, frigate, on the pacific station in 1853. A sheet of flame was seen forward and a heavy explosion shook the ship. The Thetis was quickly put before the wind but it was soon evident there was no fire. It turned out that

"... the gunner's boy, instead of throwing the powder [sweepings from the magazine] overboard, had tilted it down the head-shoot" and a sailor's burning pipe ashes had ignited the powder!Footnote 35

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The four block letters, HMCS, standing atone, bring memories to many, of the silk cap "tallies" of naval ratings during the Second World War. There was no ship's name on the ribbons, just the four letters in gold, so as not to broadcast to enemy ears the identity of ships in harbour. But there was no mistaking the meaning of the letters; the wearer was a member of the ship's company of one of His Majesty's Canadian ships in commission. These letters represent a centuries-old tradition.

Originally, the sovereign was personally responsible for the defence of the kingdom, and the ships intended for that service, as distinct from ships owned by merchants, were called the King's ships, later His Majesty's ships. From time to time in the seventeenth century, the word "Majesty's" was, in the written form, abbreviated, but the letter abbreviation did not come into fashion until the late eighteenth century. Early examples were references to HMS Phoenix (1789), HMS Alfred (1795) and HMS Diadem (1795).Footnote 36

The first ship in the Royal Canadian Navy was a light cruiser, and at her commissioning on 4 August 1910 (four years to the day before she would be at war) she was called HMCS (for His Majesty's Canadian ship) Rainbow. The custom continues to this day.


A soldier's shelter made from natural materials in the field, for example, a lean-to made of evergreen boughs. Also used in a figurative sense for billet or accommodation.


Today, a hussar is a member of an armoured regiment. The term dates from the fifteenth century and originated in Hungary. Hussars through the centuries were light cavalry.


Soldiers who fight on foot. From the Italian infanteria and infante meaning youth, or foot soldier, as opposed to the more mature cavalryman of earlier times.

The oldest infantry regiment in the Canadian Forces is the Canadian Grenadier Guards, of Montreal, established 17 November 1859 and styled the "First Battalion Volunteer Militia Rifles of Canada."

Jock or Jet Jock

A pilot, or more specifically, a jet pilot.

Junior Officers

The collective term for officers of the ranks of: captain and lieutenant(N) (for Navy); lieutenant and sub-lieutenant; second lieutenant and acting sub-lieutenant.


Slang term for leading seaman, the sailor equivalent to corporal. Killick dates from the seventeenth century, its derivation unknown. It means a heavy stone used in small craft as an anchor. Such a stone, usually encased in strong pieces of tree branches to facilitate securing with a rope, is the earliest form of anchor. The leading seaman received the name killick because his badge of rank on the left sleeve of his jumper was the single anchor. The rank of leading seaman was established in the Royal Navy in 1853.


Hot cocoa. Prepared by the duty cook, kye has traditionally been available when the hands are called in HMC ships, also in training establishments ashore before "pipe down" at night. Kye is also traditionally available during the night watches at sea. Certainly, during the Second World War, this was much appreciated in small ships in heavy weather. Back in 1881-2, during troubles in Ireland, the Royal Fusiliers were guarding Pembroke Dockyard, Milford Haven, Wales. The "queen's cocoa" was issued to all night sentries, a personal gift of Queen Victoria.Footnote 37 In 1941, the last class of boy seamen in the Royal Canadian Navy were given a hot cup of kye each morning, having been turned out at 0530 by the duty PTI (physical training instructor).Footnote 38 There was once a custom in the army called "gunfires," or "gunfire tea." The custom still survives but the term seems to have disappeared. It consisted of hot tea or cocoa served from the cookhouse immediately after reveille and "before PT — to hold one until breakfast." The term "gunfire" came from the practice of firing a gun at reveille.Footnote 39

In HMC ships today, the traditional kye has all but disappeared, largely because of improved facilities in the messes where, throughout the night watches, it has become routine for hot coffee and food to be available.

Interestingly enough, the traditional naval kye or hot chocolate is still very much a live custom for the cadets of the Royal Military College, Kingston.

Liberty Boat

Ship's boat which carries the liberty men, that is, men permitted to go ashore — on liberty, that is, on short shore leave.


This is a term peculiar to the Royal Military College, Kingston. A lids-off is very much like a "stand-down," an unplanned period of relaxation from normal duties, with this difference — while a stand-down usually applies to everyone except the duty watch, a lids-off is awarded to only a portion of the main body, say a squadron, a group, or a team, for a job particularly well done.


A commissioned officer immediately below the rank of captain in the army and air force, and immediately below the rank of lieutenant-commander in the navy. A word of ancient French origin, lieutenant originally meant one who acts for, or in lieu of, a superior officer. The land and air forces pronounce this rank "leftenant," while seamen say "letenant." The rank of sub lieutenant, between midshipman and lieutenant, was introduced in the Royal Navy in 1861.


The rank between colonel and major in the land and air forces. He is the commanding officer of an armoured or artillery regiment, or of an infantry, signals or service battalion. By the time of the civil war in Britain in the seventeenth century, the process of establishing regiments by amalgamating the independent companies was well advanced, and in Cromwell's New Model Army fighting against King Charles, the second company of a regiment was commanded by the second-in-command of the regiment, the lieutenant-colonel.Footnote 40 Such regimental ranks and company commands, within the regiment held by the colonel, the lieutenant-colonel and the major, are commemorated today in the Canadian Forces by the "differencing" of the company colours carried by regiments of foot guards.


The rank in the land and air forces between lieutenant-colonel and captain. In the period bridging the close of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries, when the independent companies were being collected into regiment for more effective command in the field, the colonel commanded the regiment, but he also commanded the first company in the regiment. Similarly, the second-in-command of the regiment, in addition to his regimental staff duties, commanded the second company of the regiment. He was called the sergeant major, that is, "greater sergeant," and in due course, the commission rank of sergeant major was shortened to major.Footnote 41 Later, when the rank of lieutenant-colonel was introduced, he was second-in-command of the regiment and also personally in command of the second company. The major, once called the sergeant major, now commanded the third company.

Master Seaman

A new naval rank is the master seaman, created to conform with the concept of the single rank system of the unified force. The master seaman is between the leading seaman (or killick) and the petty officer second class, just as the master corporal is midway between the corporal and the sergeant.Footnote 42


A sailor, from the French. Pronounced mat'lo.


Reserve regiments today are officially part of the reserve force as opposed to the term regular force. But the term militia continues to be used in the reserve regiments and, indeed their geographical groupings are called "militia areas." The word itself is derived from the Latin militare, and miles, militis meaning soldier. Traditionally militia has the connotation of a citizen army, a constitutional force raised under the sanction of government for the defence of the realm in time of emergency such as threatened invasion.Footnote 43 This idea can be traced back to the ancient Saxon fyrd, which was a compulsory levy of all the able men in the country. In England the term used in Elizabethan times was "trained bands."Footnote 44 In the London of 1660 there were six regiments of trained bands.Footnote 45 Traditionally, the militia has been raised locally, in the cities, towns and counties. In the old French colony of New France in the valley of the St. Lawrence, the militia, made up of all the able-bodied men, contributed to the defence of the colony.Footnote 46 It was militia regiments in British North America which were called out for service in the Fenian Raids and, after Confederation, in putting down the North-west Rebellion of 1885. A series of Militia Acts in the latter half of the nineteenth century prepared the way for the reserve regiments which until the unification of the forces were collectively known as the militia.

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Milk Run

Routine mission.


A tractor for towing aircraft and supporting equipment on an air station or aircraft carrier.

Muster by the Open List

A surprise muster of ship's company where every man reports who he is, his rank, and his duties on board. This was to counteract the practice of some pursers of having non-existent people on the ship's books. Today, a muster by the open list is sometime used by a senior officer on taking up a new appointment to meet and size up the people of his command.

Orderly Officer

Duty officer of junior officer rank in the army and air force who, during a twenty-four hour period of duty on a base, station or in the field, is responsible for the smooth running of routine proceedings and the maintenance of good order and Service discipline. His duties are comparable to those of the officer of the day on a ship of war in harbour.

In an earlier time, there was little disciplinary action which could be taken by a commanding officer against erring subalterns other than by the ponderous court martial. Extra duty, such as service as orderly officer, had a salutary effect on the offender.

Other Ranks

A collective term of all those not of commissioned rank.

Paul Bunyan

A large box-like container for crating air cargo.

Petty Officer

Today, the naval rank of petty officer second class is equivalent to that of sergeant in the army and air force; petty officer first class to warrant officer; chief petty officer second class to master warrant officer and chief petty officer first class to chief warrant officer. The rating of petty officer was known in the Royal Navy in the eighteenth century. The captain chose his seaman petty officers from the best able seamen. The master-at-arms (that is, instructor in small arms, later to take on police duties), the armourer, the sail-maker, and the ship's cook, were all early petty officers, literally small or minor or inferior officers, taken from the French petit, including pronunciation. The rank of chief petty officer dates from 1853.Footnote 47


An air man.


A proportion of a force equipped with spades and other tools which precede and prepare the way for the main force. In Canadian infantry regiments today, pioneers are to be seen on ceremonial occasions, heading the parade smartly turned out in white leather aprons and gauntlets with shining broad axes. But pioneers have not always enjoyed such exalted prestige. One early writer stated that pioneers in camp were summoned to their labour by the "pioneers' call" — "round heads and cuckolds, come dig!" — and a private soldier could be demoted to pioneer.Footnote 48 Sometimes, pioneers were employed in large numbers. Major-General James Wolfe, on board HMS Richmond, frigate, in the St. Lawrence in 1759, ordered three hundred pioneers to parade ashore with tools under the direction of an engineer.Footnote 49

Piquet or Picquet

Of ancient French origin, the word picquet originally meant a pointed stake used in a palisade, and piquet, a small pointed stake used to tether a horse. The present military term thus carries the same connotation of security as did the original meaning of the words.

Also, during and after the civil war in Britain, the pike of the infantryman was gradually replaced by the musket. By the end of the seventeenth century, pikemen formed only a small body whose duty it was to protect the colours, and here the relationship can be seen between the terms pikeman and picquet or picket.Footnote 50 To this day, the orderly officer of a guards regiment is called the picquet officer.


A soldier.

Poopy Suit

Rubber ditching or anti-exposure suit.


The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines private as an "ordinary soldier without rank, one below non-commissioned officers." In eighteenth century rolls, he was listed under the heading of "private men." Shakespeare, in the sixteenth century, used the term "private soldier" in his play, Henry IV (part 2, act 3 scene 2). Some authors relate the word to the close of the medieval period when a soldier, no longer bound to his feudal master, might make a private contract for military service.Footnote 51 Other researchers associate the word with British seventeenth century usage. Elite regiments at the time of Charles II recruited "private gentlemen" into the ranks. Also, before the Restoration, in Cromwell's army, there is evidence of dissatisfaction with the designation "common soldier," which originally intended no disparagement, but rather had the same sense as the navy's age-old rating of "ordinary seaman."Footnote 52


An airborne term referring to a party in celebration of qualifying as parachutists. In the technical sense, prop-blast means the buffeting a parachutist experiences from the slip-stream of the aircraft.


A word of Hindu origin having in its military sense a connotation of genuineness, of being solidly built. A "pukka-sapper" is a certificate awarded by members of the military engineering branch to a non-engineer who has made some significant contribution with or to military engineers.


This is a distortion of purser, the supply officer in HM ships in earlier times. Because the purser was not paid in the same way as the other officers of the ship he was permitted to operate what amounted to a concession for the sale of personal gear to the seamen, for example, clothing — purser's or pusser's slops. In time the term described government or regular issue — such as pusser's rum or pusser's dirk (seaman's knife). Pusser, today, also has the connotation of that which is regular, or proper, as opposed, say, to "tiddley" items acquired ashore.


Quartermaster has two distinct meanings in the Service today, one used on the land, the other in ships. Historically, the quartermaster in the army was responsible for providing billets for troops on the march, or when on garrison duty before the day of barracks, and for laying out a camp during operations in the field. Today, he is responsible for unit equipment, food — receipt, accounting, care, custody, control, and maintenance — and proper distribution of all material on charge to the unit,Footnote 53 much like the air force's supply officer.

The naval quartermaster is a petty officer leading seaman, or able seaman who, at sea, is the helmsman who steers the ship, receiving his orders from the bridge. In harbour, he keeps watch under the orders of the officer of the day, is a member of the gangway staff, pipes routine orders and generally assists the officer of the day in seeing that harbour routines are properly carried out.

Rank and File

A collective term for all below the rank of sergeant.


"To be in the rattle" is the sailor's expression for being on the list of defaulters to be paraded before the ship's executive officer for a hearing regarding an alleged offence, that is, being on charge.


Reconnaissance or reconnoitre.


The regiment is a permanent recruiting and training unit of the army with a permanent depot or home station, and is divided according to its function into companies, squadrons and batteries. The meaning of the word, even today, is a complex one. Sometimes it has the "total family" meaning of the infantry, including the depot, as well as the battalions, the operational units of the regiment. In armour, the regiment itself is the operational unit, while in the artillery there are regiments within the regiment. In a signal regiment the squadrons, which make up the regiment, are capable of independent, detached service. Before the seventeenth century, the military unit was the company. But, as the management of land forces advanced in the tactical sense, the need soon arose to collect these independent companies into groups under the rule (or regimen or regime or regiment) of a single officer who was called the colonel.Footnote 54 (Several regiments of the militia in Canada came into being in the late nineteenth century in the same way, the combining of independent companies.) Hence the word regiment, from the Latin regimentum, meaning rule.

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Rig of the Day

The uniform clothing to be worn by a sailor as laid down by pipe or by routine order. The pipe "hands to clean!" does not mean cleaning; it means that the ship's company is to dress in the rig of the day as specified.Footnote 55


A name worn with pride by the cadets of Royal Roads Military College, Victoria, British Columbia.


The basic rank of a member of the Royal Canadian Engineer, or a collective term for the military engineer branch. Sapper is derived from the French saper, to undermine, which points up the original role of the sappers — demolition. In the days of fixed fortifications and defensive positions, sappers and miners were employed in tunnelling right under the enemy's walls which were then breached by the use of explosives. The advancing of trenches for the purpose of reaching enemy positions was known as sapping, and the men as sappers. (New Westminster was originally called Sapperton because of the work of the Royal Engineers in the early days of British Columbia.) "Sappers are soldiers belonging to the artificers or engineers, whose business it is to work at the saps — a gallery sunk underground, these serve in sieges to carry on the approaches under cover"Footnote 56


Slang for ship's food. A scran bag or scran locker is a repository for stowing personal gear left sculling about the mess decks, which is recoverable only by paying a fine. Scran, of unknown derivation, dates from the eighteenth century. The scran bag was originally a bag in which discarded bread and sea biscuits were collected. Because ships' companies have always lived in such confined spaces, passage-ways have had to be kept clear and the blockage of pumps by clothing, et cetera, avoided. Much importance was, and is, attached to keeping mess decks cleared up. Within living memory, belongings committed to the scran bag could only be redeemed at the price of a piece of soapFootnote 57, but today it is a nominal cash fine which goes to the ship's fund.


Ship's rumour, or gossip. In the days of sailing ships of war scuttle-butt was literally a scuttled butt or breached cask, "a cask having a square piece sawn out of its bilge, and lashed upon deck. It is used to contain the fresh water for daily use, whence it is taken out with a leaden can."Footnote 58 Just as the women of European villages met daily at the village fountain to draw water and exchange gossip, so did sailors meet at the scuttle-butt. The same occurs to this day round the office water fountain or the coffee vending machine.

Senior Officers

The collective term for officers of the ranks of colonel and captain(N) (for navy); lieutenant-colonel and commander; major and lieutenant-commander.


Non-commissioned officer above master corporal. This title has come down from the English of the Middle Ages, from the Old French sergent and the Latin servire, to serve, serviens, servant or military servant, and serviens eques, serving knight.Footnote 59 Long centuries after the weapon was obsolete, the special mark of the sergeant of infantry was his carrying of the halberd. This pike-like weapon on a long wooden shaft was effective against cavalry. The head consisted of a spear-head to seek out chinks in the knight's armour, a hook to pull him out of the saddle, and an axe blade.Footnote 60


In air force slang, the orderly officer.

Shine Parade

One hour in barrack routine, usually just after the evening meal, devoted to cleaning, pressing clothing and polishing personal equipment.Footnote 61

Sick Bay

Space or quarters in a ship for treating the sick and hurt. The first of such quarters called "sick birth" or "sick berth," were ordered to be fitted out in every line-of-battle ship of the Mediterranean fleet of the Royal Navy by Earl St. Vincent in 1798. They were not to be in the dark smelly bowels of the ship, but just under the forecastle deck on the star board side. The forecastle bulk-head or wall at this time was square, but when rounded bows were introduced shortly after Trafalgar, the rounded timbers of the bulkhead suggested the curve of a bay to seamen, and sick berth in the sailor's jargon became sick bay.Footnote 62

Silent Hours

This is the period of the night watches in HMC ships between "pipe down," when those not on watch turn in for the night, and the calling of the hands in the morning. It is customary during the silent hours to avoid disturbing the watch below by performing the routine duties of working the ship as quietly as possible. Even the marking of the hour by striking the ship's bell (when this was carried out in HMC ships) was largely suspended during the silent hours. The term silent hours is used similarly in Canadian Forces bases to denote that period between the close of one working day and the beginning of the next.


Seaman's term for frolicsome, mischievious behaviour, tricks and practical jokes. In the days of sail, skylarking included racing and chasing up the rat-lines and shrouds of the rigging and sliding down the royal-stays and back-stays for amusement — hence skylarking. This sometimes led to serious accidents. Moresby reports that on HMS America, forty-four guns, in 1844 off Cape Horn, he and two other "youngsters" " were mastheaded, — one at each masthead, 1 at the mizen — for skylarking about the rigging."Footnote 63


Dating from the fifteenth century, slops are ready-made clothing worn by seamen and usually procurable from naval stores either afloat or ashore. Pursers (supply officers) made handsome profits by the sale of slop clothes to sailors in HM ships of the early seventeenth century when such were ordered "to avoyde nastie beastlyness by continual wearing of one suite of clothes, and therebie boddilie and unwholesome ill smells in every ship."Footnote 64


Member of an army; the word soldier has been in common use in English since the fourteenth century. It has its origin in the idea that a soldier is, and almost always has been, a hired fighting man. This is to be seen in the medieval English souder and Old French soudier for soldier and soude meaning pay, as well as the medieval Latin terms solidarius and solidus, the coin with which the soldier was paid.


Air force slang for student pilot, but, in the navy, recruit or novice sailor. While the word's origin is obscure, its use in the Service is related to another use of sprog, meaning an infant.

Squad Boss

In air force slang, the squadron commander.


This term has a wide application. It denotes a grouping or organization of aircraft, armoured vehicles or ships. Airmen, signalmen, military engineers and cadets are members of squadrons for administrative and operational purposes, and in some cases for parade drill. Squadron is derived from the Italian scadra or squadra, which in turn came from the Latin quadra, meaning square. The early regiments of horse in the British army were divided into squadronns, as were Canadian cavalry regiments in their day.

Stand Down

A stand down is a period during which normal work routines are suspended. It is very similar in meaning to the sailor's "make and mend" or "makers." Like the French descente de la garde stand down has the connotation of going off duty, or marching off guard, that is, standing down after a period of standing to, say, on the ramparts of old, expecting an attack. There is also the technical meaning of standing down or immobilizing a piece of equipment, for example, grounding an aircraft for purposes of refit or repair.


A square flag which is the colour of certain regiments and of air squadrons. In the Middle Ages, the standard flown by armies of the time was a large flag made to stand before the tent of the army's commander as opposed to being carried. Considered superior to the guidon, the standard, by the mid-eighteenth century in the British army, was the mark of a regiment of dragoon guards. The only regiment in the Canadian Forces today which is distinguihed by its standard is the Governor-General's Horse Guards, of Toronto. The flying squadron standard is a rectangular flag of light blue silk eligible for presentation when an air squadron has attained twenty-five years of service. Perhaps the best known standard is the queen's personal Canadian flag, which is an adaptation of the Royal Standard and is flown when Her Majesty is resident in Canada or is borne in a ship or aircraft of the Canadian Forces.


A group of parachutists who jump from one exit of an aircraft during a single pass.

Sticks and Bricks

Construction engineers.

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Soldiers in formation, parading, with 2 flags.
The 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, in combat dress, parading the colours on the anniversary of the Battle of Kapyong, Korea (1951), CFB Winnipeg, April, 1972. (Note the United States presidential citation, awarded to the unit for gallantry, secured to the regimental colour.)


A commissioned officer of the combat arms of the army below the rank of captain. The word is derived from the Latin sub (under) and alternus (alternate).

Subordinate Officers

The term for officers of the rank of officer cadet.


A member of an armoured regiment equipped with tanks, as opposed to reconnaissance vehicles.


Field engineer junior ranks.


Historically, this word was in use in the sense of a troop of horse, that is, part of a squadron of cavalry, as early as the sixteenth century. Indeed, a troop of horse at this time could be a formidable force. King Charles II, describing his escape to France after the Battle of Worcester, 1651, encountered a troop of Cromwell's horse amounting to "twice twelve score."Footnote 65 Its origin is obscure, but it is generally believed that troop came from the French troupe or trope, and from the Latin troppus (a flock). Troop today denotes a part of a squadron of armoured vehicles, and is also used colloquially in the collective sense, "the troops," meaning other ranks.


The voltigeur is a member of a light infantry unit specially chosen for his agility and rapid movement. This class of soldier was first raised by Napoleon in 1804 and has the distinction and privilege of leading the attack. The voltigeurs were literally "springers and leapers," usually men of small but wiry physique, capable of taking full advantage of surprise and shock tactics in the field. The term is still extant in the Canadian Forces in a regiment based in Quebec City, Les Voltigeurs de Québec.Footnote 66


When friends and fellow pilots gather in the mess following the death of a fellow officer. Sometimes provision is made previously by the deceased to pay for the spirits consumed.


Naval officers' mess. The precise origin of this word is not known. It has been said that wardroom evolved from ward robe, a store room for stowing valuables taken from captured prizes. It was located beneath the captain's cabin which was right aft under the quarter-deck. When empty, the ward robe, being adjacent to the cabins of the ship's officers, was used as a mess.Footnote 67 This was in ships-of-the-line. In frigates and lesser ships officers messed in the gun room. The midshipmen, who normally served in the larger ships of the fleet, slept and messed down in the bowels of the ship, in the "cockpit" or midshipmen's berth.Footnote 68

Almost certainly, the word wardroom or ward room came into use in the eighteenth century.Footnote 69 An early use of it in print is to be found in a report from off the Portuguese coast in April 1758, the year of Louisbourg. When a ship-of-the-line of ninety guns was lost by fire, the first word received by the ship's lieutenants not on watch was when "the word was passed into the ward room, by the centry, that the fore part of our ship, the Prince George, was on fire."Footnote 70

Warrant Officer

Today, these words are used to designate the three senior non-commissioned officer ranks in the Service: chief warrant officer, which has replaced the former warrant officer class one of the army and air force and corresponds with the chief petty officer first class in HMC ships; master warrant officer, the former warrant officer class two, and the equivalent of the chief petty officer second class; and the warrant officer, which encompasses the quartermaster sergeant, the staff sergeant and flight sergeant of the former Services, and is the opposite number of the petty officer first class in HMC ships.Footnote 71

The word warrant can be traced to medieval times and the ancient French warant, itself a variant of guarant or garant. There are similar roots in the early German warent and wahren. Even today, the word has many meanings but, in the military context, it contains the idea of an authority granted by one person to another to do something which he has not otherwise a right to do, not unlike a commission.

Indeed, a chief warrant officer today receives a warrant, a document, bearing the signature and seal of the minister of national defence, which reads in part:

By virtue of the Authority to me, by His Excellency the Governor-General in Council in this behalf given, I do hereby Constitute and Appoint you the said... to be... from the... and to continue in the said Office during the pleasure of the Honourable the Minister of National Defence.

The melding of the warrant ranks (and their equivalents) in the three former Services began in 1949 when the rank structures and pay scales, but not rank titles, were made uniform. It was at this time that the naval warrant officer of old (who wore a thin ring), and the commissioned warrant officer (who wore a thick ring, the same as a sub lieutenant), both of whom lived in the wardroom, began to disappear. Indeed, it was this standardization in the rank structure which pointed up the vastly different origins of these senior non-commissioned officers, who over the centuries were given positions of authority between the men and the commissioned officers.

Historically, the warrant officer of the army and the air force evolved from the experienced soldier with leadership capability specially selected for the job by the colonel of the regiment,Footnote 72 much as the captain of a ship of war selected his petty officers from his ablest ableseamen.

But the old naval warrant officer was a very different person from a petty officer. This special breed of warrant officer had his origin not in the warrant or document giving authority to act, but in the warrant or document by which material or stores were requisitioned. This concept dates back to the beginning of the Royal Navy under Henry VIII in the sixteenth century.

When the sovereign required a ship for naval service, she was requisitioned from her merchant owner by warrant which in Tudor times meant that the ship arrived in the king's yard complete with stores and the ship's standing or warrant officers. It would be unthinkable in those days for a ship to be taken into service without her master, boat-swain, carpenter and cook, and, later, the gunner. They were part of the ship — standing officers, acquired by warrant. They went with the ship, and even stayed with her when in ordinary, that is, in reserve. They were the officers who made the ship go. When it came time for the fighting, the king would put his soldiers and their officers on board, the commissioned officers bearing the sovereign's commission. When the operation was over, they went ashore again, but not the warrant officers.Footnote 73

White Knuckle Airlines

Service air transportation (usually non-scheduled Flights).


A wing is an organization of two or more air squadrons — hence the origin of the former air force rank of wing commander. The term is also used in a parade square sense, wing drill being similar to battalion drill.

Zip Driver

A CF-104 Starfighter pilot.


Junior ranks of an armoured regiment.

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