Why is a Toilet Called a Head on Boats?
The term “head” used for a marine toilet started because of the location of the toilet on the earliest sailing ships. For crewmen, the facilities were located at the head of the ships. The front of ships had a figurehead: a carved wooden figure or bust fitted on the bow of the ship. The toilet was located there set just above the water line with slots cut near the floor level to use wave action to wash the toilet.
With the wind blowing from the rear to the front as it does for sailing ships, the “head” (or front) of the ship was the best place for everyone for a sailor to relieve himself. So, when the crew went potty, they went to the head of the ship…and the name stuck.
Note the captain sometimes had a private toilet at the stern of the ship near his quarters and may have used a chamber pot which some unfortunate swabby had to empty.
Read on to learn what sailors used for toilet paper and for more marine term origins like poop deck and scuttlebutt.
Early Toilet Paper at Sea
Wiping, if they did at all, was fashioned in a variety of ways:
- A piece of rope frayed at the end that in between wipings was dragged alongside the boat for cleaning…one rope for the entire crew. An aside: In Dutch, this piece of rope was called “allemanseind” which is currently the name for the braided piece of rope attached to the ship’s bell.
- A brush at the end of a line that trailed in the water, again all shipmates used the same brush.
- The crew saved shakings (loose strands that worked out of the running rigging) to use when needed.
- A rag on a rope that got rinsed in the sea between use. Note this is where the expression “you little tow rag” comes from.
- Sheeps tail (or likely other device) nailed to a stick that they used to dip it in a bucket of water to tidy the backsides.
Poop Deck Meaning, It’s Not What You Think
Many people think that the poop deck was the location of the original heads, but no. The name “poop deck” comes from the French word for the stern, “la poupe.” The upper-most rear, or the stern where the ship’s wheel is located, was called the poop deck. The poop deck was elevated so the captain and pilot would have a clear view over the front of the ship.
Some say that during heavy weather, the winds from the rear of the sailing ship would loft foam and sea spray from tall waves leaving the poop deck and the pilot quite wet. So after a day of steering in bad weather, the pilot was “pooped.”
And our final bit of nautical jargon explained is “scuttlebutt.”
Sailors’ drinking water was kept in a water barrel (called a butt) that had been “scuttled” with a hole to pour out a drink. Just like in modern day workplaces, loitering around the scuttlebutt was a popular pastime when the captain and officers were not paying close attention.
Even today, office “water cooler” gossip is sometimes referred to as “scuttlebutt.” In today’s Navy, a drinking fountain is still referred to as the scuttlebutt. Any many a sailing newsletter or online magazine with maritime news is title “scuttlebutt”.