NAUTICAL SAYINGS (Jack Tar)
Monday December 1st, 2008
I bet you have asked yourself this question countless times. ‘Why on earth are sailors referred to as Jack Tar? The answer is. There is no straight answer although it does seem to have something to do with tar. During the years of the British Empire the name Jack Tar was widely used by landlubbers and seamen alike. It was certainly not derogatory.
The easy bits ‘Jack’ because like the name John, Jack has been used down the years as a name for someone of unknown identity. Basically something you can call anyone. Obviously it isn’t done as much today as we call everyone mate (but that’s another nautical story)
As for the tar part. Well it’s true that tar was used extensively aboard wooden ships as a sealant and general waterproofing material. So there we have a connection. Seamen often used tar to waterproof their clothes prior to setting sail. They also used to soak rigging rope in tar as it was made from hemp and tended to rot in damp conditions. They would end their days with their hands covered in the stuff. Both these explanations sound plausible. But by far the most common is that, in the absence of a ships barber, sailors would plait their hair and smear it with high grade tar to prevent it getting caught in a ships equipment. This practice was still carried on during the early 20th century.
Nowadays they just make seamen get their hair cut.