Drunk as a Sailor – Where did this Expression come from?

If you’ve ever been in New York City during the Navy’s annual Fleet Week, you truly understand the expression “drunk as a sailor.” Since it’s their shore leave, a time when they get off the ship and get to enjoy everything to be found not just on dry land, but in one of the most exciting cities on Earth, it’s to be expected that many sailors might take the time off duty to drink just a bit too much.

But what about that expression “drunk as a sailor”? What does it mean and where did it come from? Does it just refer to a sailor’s habit of over-drinking once they get to a seaport and find the nearest bar? Is it because they’re trapped on moving vessels, at the whim of the sea and the captain, surrounded by stinking colleagues with yellow teeth, threatened by scurvy and huge rats? Or is there more to the expression than that?

A Basic Explanation

The best explanation as to the origin of “drunk as a sailor” is the simplest. Back in the golden days of seafarin’, it was easier to keep alcohol aboard ship then water. The men onboard were given mainly ale and rum and wine to drink, and they even had rations such as four pints of ale or one bottle of wine daily. The problem was that water was harder to find, and more likely to make them ill (think how often you’ve been warned “not to drink the water” when you travel abroad).

The beer, too, was susceptible to spoilage. One method of keeping it drinkable was to increase the amount of alcohol and the amount of hops in the ale. We’re talking about an alcoholic content that would take the hair off of your chest! In 1850, the British Royal Navy decreased its daily ration of rum to one-eighth of a pint–but the rum was 94.5% alcohol, or 189 proof. It’s amazing that more sailors weren’t too drunk to brace the mainsail!

Too often the water became filled with bacteria and, in order to kill the bacteria off, they took to mixing in alcohol. This rum/water or rum/beer/water mix resulted in the grog that pirates and other sailors are so often depicted drinking.

Additionally, because their meat was cured in salt to preserve it while out to sea, it had to be soaked in fresh water to make it edible. If a ship did have fresh water in supply, they reserved the bulk of it for cooking and kept the beer for drinking. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!

A Fool and His Money

In addition to the “drunk as a sailor” expression, there’s one for a person “spending their money like a drunken sailor.” This refers to the fact that sailors received their wages and then had nowhere to spend them while out at sea. So when the ship docked at port, they would take their money and go spend it on more drink, as well as carousing with women.

It appeared that they were just throwing their money around, willy-nilly. But since they had no way of banking it, what else were they supposed to do with it? Perhaps if iPods, iPads, and smartphones were around then, they would have spent their money stocking up on music and game applications. Or even invested it in real estate for retirement.

What to Do with One

When you hear the expression “drunk as a sailor,” you likely think of the catchy tune that goes: “What do you do with a drunken sailor, What do you do with a drunken sailor, What do you do with a drunken sailor, Earl-eye in the morning!” This is just one of those sea shanties that has made its way into our collective memory.

But what DO you do with a drunken sailor? Do you shave his belly with a rusty razor? Put him in the long boat ’til he’s sober? Put him in the hold with the captain’s daughter? Slap him silly and throw him in a shower?

If you’re the U.S. Navy, you might bar him from reporting to duty and then refer him for counseling. Just recently, the Navy announced that it would carry out random alcohol testing on sailors enrolled in the service. Their intention isn’t to stop sailors from drinking completely, but to determine who might benefit from some intervention before something destructive happens.

It’s bad policy to have drunken sailor representing our country and just bad practice to have them working important jobs on submarines and naval carriers that are bigger than some cities! While they won’t be thrown in the brig or forced to walk the plank, drunken sailors shouldn’t be allowed on duty until they’ve sobered up and are no longer three sheets to the wind.