What is ‘scuttlebutt’?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: scuttlebutt…

I’ve used the word scuttlebutt on many occasions — it means rumour or gossip, as in “what’s the scuttlebutt? And I’ve always enjoyed the way it trips off the tongue. But I’ve never before had reason to investigate its origins.

Then, I encountered it in the (mediocre) Frances Itani novel about a woman seeking to learn the details of her own adoption, That’s My Baby. Here’s how Itani used the word:

Excitement, now. Follow the main thread, punctuate. Someone adds darker bits with growly undertones. Bass all the way through. Low brass. Scuttlebutt.

I’m still not entirely sure how she meant the term, used here to describe a musical passage. (I can only assume she was comparing the gravelly sound of the music to the darkness of rumour and gossip?) But at least I now know the interesting origins of the word.

The word comes from the nautical term for the cask used to serve water on a sailing ship. Water was conventionally stored in a butt (a cask) that had been scuttled (had a hole bored into it)  so the water could be withdrawn. (The word scuttle derives from the Middle French escoutille or the Spanish escotilla, meaning hatchway.)

Since sailors exchanged gossip when they gathered at the scuttlebutt for a drink of water, scuttlebutt became Navy slang for gossip or rumours. These days the term has been translated to also refer to a water cooler in an office setting.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on March 14/18.

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