The term “old salt” is widely understood to mean an experienced or seasoned mariner. But how many years of sailing experience does it take for one to be given the tag? I have known some fellows who chalked up enough seagoing service to get licensed as masters in their early 30s. Can they be called “old salts”?
Most dictionaries, unfortunately, fail to shed light on the matter. “One who has sailed for many years” is how “old salt” is usually defined. The online dictionary Wiktionary offers a definition that is a little more useful:
old salt (idiomatic) A seasoned sailor, especially one who is hardy and forthright in manner.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines “hardy” as “strong enough to bear extreme conditions or difficult situations”. “Forthright” refers to a person who is “(too) honest or direct in behaviour”. From this, one can surmise that it is not just age and experience that make for an old salt.
Character and spirit
My interest in old salts and the synonymous term “sea dogs” has led me to ruminating often on these uncommon actors on the maritime stage. I share below my own thoughts about them:
Old sailors and old fishermen always fascinate me. The former are often referred to as “sea dogs” or lobos de mar in Spanish. Sailor or fisherman, the appellation is entirely appropriate. These men are hardy spirits who cut their teeth on boats and spent many years at sea. They can tell if a storm is coming just by looking at the clouds, checking the wind direction, and feeling the air. They know the sea as a man knows the contours of his lover’s body. Past the prime of their lives, they still hear the siren call of the ocean. Their weathered faces are like old books filled with tales of adventures and mishaps, of loves won and loves lost. They have what I would call “character”.
From ‘Old men and the sea: An essay in pictures and words’ (Marine Café Blog, 16 July 2020)
The genesis of ‘old salt’
The exact origin of the term is rather hazy. The earliest published work I could find that mentions the term is the second edition of ‘A Mariner’s Sketches’, a book by American author and sailor Nathaniel Ames published in 1830. Two excerpts:
The ceremony of shaving on crossing the line was omitted, to the manifest disappointment of the “old salts” and great relief and gratification of us who were uninitiated.
* * *
Whistling at sea is never tolerated except in a calm. “A whistling sailor, a crowing hen and a swearing woman ought all three to go to hell together,” so say the old salts.
Ame’s book is a personal account of his life at sea as a naval sailor. His use of the term “old salt” strongly suggests two things: 1) the term was in use before the 1800s; and 2) it most likely originated with the crews of American naval ships (I have not come across the term “old salt” in any old British work of fiction or non-fiction).
Interestingly, the U.S. Surface Navy Association’s (SNA) has an an Old Salt Award which it bestows on an active duty officer who is Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) qualified and has held the qualification for the longest time. Retired Vice Admiral Barry McCollough, SNA president, explained the rationale: “In the Navy, we have an expression for respected, experienced and knowledgeable mariners. We call them ‘Old Salts’. It is fitting that we acknowledge our lore, customs and traditions, and honor the most senior of all our active duty Surface Warriors with the ‘Old Salt’ designation. It is the old salts who have made it possible for our traditions to be kept alive.” (Locklear Named Surface Navy Association’s “Old Salt’, 12 May 2014)
Huzza! to all old salts, living and dead.
~ Barista Uno