Why Are Navy Bathrooms Called Heads?

The bow or head of the sailing ship.

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.

1 Definition

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.

2 History

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.

3 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.

4 Size

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.

5 Misconceptions

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.

6 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.’

Kimberley Riccio has been writing professionally since 1978. She writes travel articles for various e-magazines and other online publications. Riccio holds a Bachelor of Science in business management from Wilmington University, culinary certification from Le Cordon Blu and a Master of Science in cultural sociology from the Defense Graduate Institute.