Saturday, July 9, 2011

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Idler

According to my particular friend Mr. Webster, the main definition of idler is:

One who does nothing and wastes time; a lazy person; a sluggard.

The word comes to us from the Middle English word idlen, meaning useless which may have been influenced by either the Anglo-Saxon word idilian or the Old French word idutile (modern inutile), both of which also mean useless. By land, an idler is what a friend of mine used to call a “minimum participator in life”. But at sea, the word is a fond reference to some of the hardest working people aboard a blue water ship.

An idler, in seamen’s terms, is a person who, due to their need to work continuously throughout the day, is not expected to stand a night watch. This allows these sailors to be up with the sun and back in their hammock long after supper has come and gone. The only exception to their schedule is during times of stress such as battle or storm when all hands are expected to be on deck.

The main officer jokingly referred to as an idler was the bosun. His constant management of all sails, rigging, anchors, cables, flags, pennants and so forth made him – and the knowledge he brought with him – indispensible at almost any point during a cruise. Of the four main idlers, it was a good bosun who probably saw the least time in his cot.

Along with the bosun, the sailmaker, carpenter and cook where also considered idlers. By the 18th century, surgeons and their mates, marine officers and paymasters had also been added to the list.

Much like waisters, who were simply given their name because they tended to work at a ship’s waist, idlers were so called as an amusement. Sailors love to name a thing, and if they can make its moniker worth a chuckle so much the better.

With all that, the occasional grumble was doubtless heard on a particularly unpleasant night: Damn idlers; sleeping while we stand the graveyard watch.

Header: Royal Navy Bosun c 1829 via


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! That one seems particularly appropriate after a week's vacation.

Pauline said...

See, I thought so too. I've been more than a little bit idle of late.