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I stopped by the drink cooler at the grocery store the other day, and I was trying to decide between orange juice and ice tea when someone began talking to me about what was happening around town. As I grabbed a bottle of tea they said, “Well, that’s the latest scuttlebutt anyway.”
Scuttlebutt? I had not heard that for a long time but I had heard the term before and knew what it meant, or so I thought, but where did that word come from anyway? What exactly is scuttlebutt? Well, according to Merriam-Webster it was originally a nautical term that was used in the 1800s aboard sailing ships.
A “butt” was a 126 gallon cask that was used to store fresh water aboard ships. It was hauled up on deck where sailors could get a drink when needed. After getting the butt up on deck, they would break the planks that sealed the top of the cask to “scuttle” the butt to get access to the water. A “scuttled butt” was what the drinking water came from but was later the cask was simply referred to as the scuttlebutt.
Sailors weren’t allowed to converse when they were on duty. There was work to be done so getting a drink from the scuttlebutt allowed a moment to exchange a few quick words with other sailors. Usually it was some useful information like, “Be careful there’s a storm a brewing,” or “Watch out for the captain, he’s in a foul mood today.”
It’s easy to see how the word scuttlebutt evolved from a cask of water to talking around the water cooler in offices and businesses. Workers might not be aboard a ship surrounded by salt water but they still need a break and an occasional drink of water. While there is no cask these days, people still share the scuttlebutt.
Over the years the term scuttlebutt changed to include not just news or information but gossip and rumors so people began to know that what was said around the water cooler should be taken with a grain of salt, meaning whatever was said might not be true or it might be an exaggeration of the truth. And by the way, the phrase “to take something with a grain of salt” came from an ancient recommendation in 77 A.D. for taking a grain of salt as part of an antidote for poison. It kind of fits when thinking about words that are not completely true that can poison or hurt people. The idea in this phrase is that it would make it easier to swallow the distasteful antidote by adding a little salt to make it go down easier. The phase came to mean we should hold a degree of skepticism about whether something is true or not, so “take it with a grain of salt.”
It seems like there’s a lot of things hard to swallow these days and we might need more than a grain of salt, so keep your salt shaker handy or better yet, search for the truth and stay away from the scuttlebutt.
“Beware of the half truth… you may have gotten hold of the wrong half.”
Contributed by Pamela Perry Blaine