What Exactly Is A Scuttlebutt?

The word "scuttlebutt" is a curious one. In the context of general conversation today, it tends to concern a subject that fascinates so many of us: gossip. If we ask a friend or family member what the scuttlebutt is, it tends to be because we haven't seen them for a little while, and we want to know what's happened with the neighbors, their work, relationship or anything else in their lives we may want to catch up on.

But, when the word was originated it didn't have such a vague meaning. Nor was it the name of a bizarre mythological creature, as much as it may sound like it was. So, where exactly did scuttlebutt come from? The word, as surprising as it may be, has nautical origins.

As Merriam-Webster reports, sharing the scuttlebutt during moments of brief respite in a hectic workday has a long and proud history. Sailors once relied on a very literal sort of scuttlebutt to keep themselves alive on long sea voyages.

Chatty sailors and the need to scuttle the butt

ScuttlebuttĀ has not one but two classic seafaring definitions (per Merriam-Webster). The first is "a cask on shipboard to contain fresh water for a day's use." Needless to say, out at sea, fresh water could be the hardest and most crucial thing to come by, and so there was no denying how vital the scuttlebutt was.

As the Naval Historical Center reports, "scuttling" is the act of drilling into a "butt," the latter being the term for just such a cask of water. It was a vital duty and one that saw lots of thirsty sailors congregating. While doing so, naturally, they'd socialize, and it seems that scuttlebutt time became a time for gossiping.

Merriam-Webster adds that this first meaning for the phrase arose around the start of the 19th century, and as practices shifted, the word became associated with its second listed definition: "a drinking fountain on a ship or at a naval or marine installation." Either way, the origin, and meaning are the same: A scuttlebutt is a source of water for sailors, and it seems that their gossipy habits while quenching their thirst gave rise to the context in which we understand the term today.

We're still sharing the scuttlebutt today

Over the course of the following century, the phrase was popularly understood as being synonymous with general gossip, according to Language University. It's an example of a curious phenomenon known as semantic shift.

When a word that began as a specialized term finds its way into common use, it's an example of semantic shift. Sometimes, as with scuttlebutt, it's a little difficult to see the connection between the original meaning and the one that becomes a part of popular culture. However, when it's explained, it's just another fascinating example of the constant evolution of language at work.

As Mental Floss reports, demanding naval officers had a part to play in the popularization of the word. After all, if they hadn't discouraged sailors from engaging in idle banter while working, the scuttlebutt would never have become a safe haven for such talk, through necessity, and we may never have known what the scuttlebutt is.