When office workers catch up on the latest scuttlebutt around the water cooler, they are continuing a long-standing tradition that probably also occurred on the sailing ships of yore. Back in the early 1800s, the cask containing a ship’s daily supply of fresh water was called a scuttlebutt (from the verb scuttle meaning “to cut a hole through” and the noun butt, “cask”); that name was later applied to a drinking fountain on a ship or at a naval installation. In time, the term for the water source was also applied to the gossip and rumors generated around it, and the latest chatter has been called “scuttlebutt” ever since.Merriam-Webster, Word of the day, August 14, 2021
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.
The scuttle–butt is a goodly, round, painted cask, standing on end, and with its upper head removed, showing a narrow, circular shelf within,where rest a number of tin cups for the accommodation of drinkers.Central, within the scuttle–butt itself, stands an iron pump, which,connecting with the immense water-tanks in the hold, furnishes an unfailing supply of the much-admired Pale Ale, first brewed in the brooks of the garden of Eden, and stamped with the brand of our old father Adam, who never knew what wine was. We are indebted to the old vintner Noah for that. The scuttle–butt is the only fountain in the ship; and here alone can you drink, unless at your meals. Night and day an armed sentry paces before it, bayonet in hand, to see that no water is taken away, except according to law. I wonder that they station no sentries at the port-holes, to see that no air is breathed, except according to Navy regulations.
As five hundred men come to drink at this scuttle–butt; as it is often surrounded by officers’ servants drawing water for their masters to wash; by the cooks of the range, who hither come to fill their coffee-pots; and by the cooks of the ship’s messes to procure water for their duffs; the scuttle–butt may be denominated the town-pump of the ship. And would that my fine countryman, Hawthorne of Salem, had but served on board a man-of-war in his time, that he might give us the reading of a “rill” from the scuttle–butt.Author and Texts
It was the middle-watch: a fair moonlight; the seamen were standing in a cordon, extending from one of the fresh-water butts in the waist, to the scuttle-butt near the taffrail. In this manner, they passed the buckets to fill the scuttle-butt. Standing, for the most part, on the hallowed precincts of the quarter-deck, they were careful not to speak or rustle their feet. From hand to hand, the buckets went in the deepest silence, only broken by the occasional flap of a sail, and the steady hum of the unceasingly advancing keel.Author and Texts
I may say I have never entertained a guest so trying. In the least particular he must be waited on; he would not go to the scuttle-butt for water; it must be given him in his hand; if aid were denied him, he would fold his arms, bow his head, and go without; only the work would suffer.Author and Texts