Sailor Speak of the Week – Holystone

Sailors holystone the deck of the HMS Pandora.

Definition

Noun

  • A brick-shaped piece of sandstone used for scouring the wooden decks of a ship.

Origin

18th century.

Comments

The purpose of this activity (other than to keep bored sailors busy) is to scour the wooden deck of a ship to keep it free of splinters and other fouling (like slime or scum). Reportedly, small stones were called “prayer books” and large ones were called “bibles.” The exact origin of the term is unknown, but one popular theory is that the stones were originally taken from broken monuments at St. Nicholas Church in Great Yarmouth. Another theory is that the sailors would scrub the deck on their hands and knees as if they were bent over in prayer.

More modern pictures, such as those aboard U.S. Navy battleships during WWII, depict sailors holystoning the deck with the stones attached to the end of a short stick (thus negating the need for them to get down on their hands and knees). Holystoning isn’t commonly practiced anymore since most warships have metal decks.

References

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

King, D., Hattendorf, J.B., & Estes, J.W. (1997). A Sea of Words: A Lexicon and Companion for Patrick O’Brian’s Seafaring Tales (2nd ed.). Henry Holt and Co.

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