This word rattles across the tongue like so much prattle, the skittering tattletales of a flibbertigibbet. Maybe it sounds like it should be the crabby tongues of fishwives – crabs scuttling across the deck of the dimmer day. But while scuttlebutt means gossip, it’s not just any gossip; it’s the dirty low-down, the backstory, what you hear not from the captain but from the guys who swab the decks.
It’s a nautical word, too, and not just because those tt pairs look like masts ready to have sails unfurled. Nor is it because if you’re the captain you need to be on watch so your men don’t scuttle your butt. Actually, you want them to scuttle a butt – but a butt of water.
Butt, I should say, in this case means “cask”; it comes from a Late Latin word (butta, buttis) which comes from we’re not sure where, but someone heard it somewhere. And scuttle? Well, it started as a noun in the Romance languages, for instance Spanish escotilla “hatchway”, and became a word for a hole smaller than a hatchway, and from this we got the verb “make a hole [in a ship]”, which can be extended to a wooden vessel such as a cask. Oh, and where did that first noun come from? Again, I can’t tell you – someone heard it from somewhere, know what I mean?
So anyway, a scuttlebutt was a cask of drinking water which had had a hole made in it – it was the ship’s version of a water cooler. And we know what people do at water coolers, office kitchens, school staffrooms, and similar places: they gossip, they swap the low-down, be it over bottles of beer, cups of coffee, or the taking of a toast and tea.
But however genteel the exchanges may be (After the cups, the marmalade, the tea, Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me), even now the word has a certain down-and-dirty tone to it, which can only be abetted by the butt and, for that matter, not just the cut but the scuttle, which at its nicest is dirty (coal scuttle) and can make one think of a skittering motion or, well, the act of sinking a ship. And when the ship has sunk it may meet more scuttling, as in the kind in the quote from Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that first comes to my mind for scuttle:
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
That verb scuttle, by the way, is unrelated to the one in scuttlebutt; it comes from scuddle, which is the frequentative of scud, which comes from somewhere, not sure, we just heard it from someone…
Thanks to Margaret Gibbs for suggesting scuttlebutt.