Q From Clair Merritt: My friend and I have been trying to figure out the origin of the word scuttlebutt. Do you have any thoughts on this?
A The second half is easy enough — a butt is just the old word for a large cask. The first half appears in the language in several senses with different origins, so we have to be sure we’ve got the right one. It’s not the flattish open container, made of wickerwork at one time, whose name survives in coal scuttle; that’s Old English, from Latin scutella for a dish or platter (its first sense in English). Nor is it the one that means to move with short quick steps, perhaps like a spider; that comes from an old English dialect word.
The sense we want is the one of a hole cut in a ship’s timbers. That’s been around since the fifteenth century, when sailors called any smallish hatchway or opening in the deck a scuttle, especially if it was covered with a lid of some sort; it was the usual term for an opening to let in light or air. It’s of uncertain origin, but might be from the Old French escoutille, meaning a hatchway. The verb to scuttle dates from the mid 17th century, at first in the sense of sinking a ship specifically by cutting holes in it - today we use it for doing so by any means.
It was usual to have a water cask on deck so that the crew had easy access to drinking water during the day. To make it easier to scoop the water out with a tin pot or dipper, the head of the cask would be removed. So it became known as the scuttlebutt — the cask with a hatch in it. Fresh water was so precious that a guard was often posted by the scuttlebutt to ensure that water was only taken to drink and not, for example, to wash clothes with.
It was the one place where members of the crew on duty in various parts of the ship could meet and talk during the working day. This is how Herman Melville put it in White Jacket; or The World in a Man-of-War of 1850: “There is no part of a frigate where you will see more going and coming of strangers, and overhear more greetings and gossipings of acquaintances, than in the immediate vicinity of the scuttle-butt, just forward of the main-hatchway, on the gun-deck.” Today’s office water coolers have pretty much the same ambience.
Real scuttlebutts have long since passed into naval history (though I am told that the word continues to be used in the US Navy for a drinking fountain) and the word has shifted its meaning to the rumour and gossip itself rather than the place where one exchanged it.