You’ll see many false nautical origins on these pages. People like to ascribe nautical origins to words and phrases, even when they’re not accurate. But in this case, scuttlebutt does indeed come from the age of sail.
Scuttlebutt is an early 19th century nautical term for an open cask of water kept on deck for use by the crew. The term comes from scuttle (to cut a hole in) + butt (a large cask). Sailors would gather about the cask and trade stories and gossip, much like modern office workers do at the water cooler or coffee pot. By the turn of the 20th century, American sailors began using the term scuttlebutt to refer to these sea stories and gossip. And eventually the term became associated with any gossip or rumor and divorced from its nautical origins.
Scuttlebutt is a compound of scuttle + butt. A scuttle is a small hole or hatch in a ship’s deck or side, used for lighting, ventilation, or, if large enough, for the passage of people and stores. It’s origin is a bit uncertain. It probably comes from the French écoutille or escoutille, meaning hatch, which is cognate with the Spanish escotilla. The exact relationship between the English, French, and Spanish words are what is uncertain. English use dates to at least 1497. From the Naval Accounts of Henry VII:
A chayne of yron for the skottelles of the haches.
(A chain of iron for the scuttles of the hatches.)
From this sense developed the verb to scuttle, meaning to bore a hole in something, in particular to punch holes in the hull of a ship in order to deliberately sink her.
Butt is another word for cask or barrel. It has cognates in most of the Romance languages and ultimately comes from the Latin butta or buttis, meaning cask or wineskin. English use dates to at least 1423.
We have this citation from George Forster’s 1777 A Voyage Round The World that shows the development and original meaning of the term scuttlebutt:
A centry [sic] was placed at the scuttled-cask, and a regular allowance of water was daily served out.
And in 1805, we see the appearance of scuttlebutt in print, from J.J. Moore’s Midshipman’s or British Mariner’s Vocabulary:
Scuttle-butt, or cask, is a cask having a square piece sawn out of its bilge and lashed upon the deck. It is used to contain the fresh water for daily use.
The sense meaning gossip or information developed among American sailors. It seems to have been current by the turn of the 20th century. In 1901, the magazine Smoking Lamp carried a column of miscellany titled Scuttle butt. The following appears in the USS Oklahoma Sea-Bag of 25 July 1920:
The Scuttle Butt has justified its existence as a source of prognostic rumor. The water is freezing cold—the Scuttle Butt is iced...Come down and get a drink of cold water.
And the 18 July 1933 issue of Leatherneck uses the term entirely as metaphor:
We will endeavor to convey all of the scandal, scuttle-butt, dope and dopes.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton