Sailor Speak of the Week – Head

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Definition

Noun

  • The toilet or “facilities” aboard a ship.
  • The topmost or forward-most part of a vessel.
  • The uppermost part/side of a sail (probably earlier than the 15th century).

Origins

Unknown, but probably from Middle English suffix hede, or the Old English, heden.

Comments

We’re not talking about that thing that sits on top of your shoulders. This is perhaps one of the most common nautical terms and immediately identifies someone as a sailor. A commonly used phrase would be, “I’m going to hit the head.” (i.e. “I’m going to the bathroom.”)

In the days of sail, the crew traditionally relieved themselves at the head (i.e. forward-most part) of the vessel. The “toilet” would overhang the water, not only for disposal of waste, but also so they would be washed down by the sea.

I have also heard the reasoning that because sailing vessels were propelled by the wind, it subsequently blew any odors away from other crew members, hence why the toilets were at the head of the ship.

References

Rogers, J.G. (1985). Origins of Sea Terms. Mystic, CT: Mystic Seaport Museum.

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