The Navy uses many terms that arise from its long history and traditions. Many of these terms come from the days when the Navy crews were sailors on sailing vessels. The term ‘head’ is like so many of the terms and traditions of the Navy; it is passed on to the sailors of today. Recreational sailors on small boats also use the term ‘head’ when referring to the on board marine toilet.
The ‘head’ aboard a naval ship is the bathroom or toilet. Today, the term ‘head’ refers to any marine bathroom aboard a boat or ship. On naval shore bases, the ‘head’ also refers to a bathroom.
The term comes from the days when the Navy used sailing ships. The ‘head’ on a sailing ship is located all the way forward, where the figurehead was attached to the hull. Thus, the name arrived from the figurehead on the sailing ship. On either side of the bowsprit next to the figurehead, the crew could relieve themselves.
Other Military Terms
The Navy is not the only service to use different names for the bathroom. The Army and Air Force use the term ‘latrine’ when referring to a toilet or bathroom. The Marine Corps and the Coast Guard use the term ‘head’ when referring to a bathroom.
A naval ‘head’ can vary in size. Ashore as well as aboard ship, the ‘head’ could have toilets, sinks as well as showers. The ‘head’ could be nothing more than a closet with a sink and toilet, or it could be a room with several toilets and sinks. In some cases, the ‘head’ could also be the size of a locker room with a shower.
There is a misconception about the term ‘head.’ Many people believe that because the sailing crews were all men, the term ‘head’ derives from that portion of the male anatomy. This misconception has continued through various jokes and lack of knowledge about naval traditions.
Other Nautical Heads
The term ‘head’ is also used in sailing to described parts of the sail and mast. The ‘head’ is the top portion of a triangular sail located next to the masthead. The masthead is the top of the mast. The aft part of the sail next to the boom is the ‘clew’ and the fore section is called the ‘tack.’
- Ornaments on Sailing Ship image by Arne Bramsen from Fotolia.com