AskDefine | Define boatswain

Dictionary Definition

boatswain n : a petty officer on a merchant ship who controls the work of other seamen [syn: bos'n, bo's'n, bosun, bo'sun]

User Contributed Dictionary



  • IPA: /ˈ̩/
  • Schoolbook Phonetics: (bōʹsu̇n)
  • Last Resort Phonetics: BOH-sun


  1. The officer (or warrant officer) in charge of sails, rigging, anchors, cables etc. and all work on deck of a sailing ship.
  2. The petty officer of a merchant ship who controls the work of other seamen.


Extensive Definition

A boatswain or bosun /ˈ̩/ is an unlicensed member of the deck department of a merchant ship. The boatswain supervises the other unlicensed members of the ship's deck department, and typically not a watchstander, except on vessels with small crews. Other duties vary depending on the type of ship, its crewing, and other factors.


The word boatswain has been in the English language since approximately 1450. It is derived from late Old English batswegen, from bat ("boat") + Old Norse sveinn ("swain"), meaning a young man, a follower, retainer or servant. Sometimes, the boatswain is also a third or fourth mate. As work is completed, the boatswain checks on completed work for compliance with approved operating procedures.
People in water transportation occupations work in all weather conditions. Although merchant mariners try to avoid severe storms while at sea, working in damp and cold conditions often is inevitable. While it is uncommon nowadays for vessels to suffer disasters such as fire, explosion, or a sinking, workers face the possibility that they may have to abandon their craft on short notice if it collides with other vessels or runs aground. They also risk injury or death from falling overboard and hazards associated with working with machinery, heavy loads, and dangerous cargo. However, modern safety management procedures, advanced emergency communications, and effective international rescue systems place modern mariners in a much safer position. The Royal Navy's last official Boatswain, Commander E W Andrew OBE, retired in 1990. Later these officers were "warranted" by the British Admiralty. Medal of Honor recipients Francis P. Hammerberg, and George Robert Cholister were U.S. Navy Boatswain's Mates, as was Navy Cross recipient Stephen Bass. The Boatswain in William Shakespere's The Tempest is a central character is several scenes.
Victoria Cross recipients John Sheppard (VC), John Sullivan (VC), Henry Curtis, and John Harrison (VC 1857) were Royal Navy Boatswain's Mates.
Lord Byron had a Newfoundland dog named Boatswain. Byron wrote the famous poem Epitaph to a Dog and had a monument made for him at Newstead Abbey. and a "Boatswain's Mate." Another boatswain from literature is Smee from Peter Pan.



  • American Merchant Seaman's Manual
  • The Boatswain's Manual
boatswain in German: Bootsmann
boatswain in Modern Greek (1453-): Ναύκληρος
boatswain in French: Bosco (vocabulaire maritime)
boatswain in Italian: Nostromo
boatswain in Lithuanian: Laivūnas
boatswain in Dutch: Volmatroos
boatswain in Norwegian: Båtsmann
boatswain in Russian: Боцман
boatswain in Finnish: Pursimies
boatswain in Swedish: Båtsman

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Big Brother, OD, auditor, boss, captain, chief, chief engineer, chief mate, commander, comptroller, controller, deck officer, floor manager, floorman, floorwalker, foreman, gaffer, ganger, head, headman, inspector, master, mate, monitor, naval officer, navigating officer, navigator, noncommissioned officer, overman, overseer, patron, pipes, proctor, quartermaster, sailing master, second mate, shipmaster, sirdar, skipper, slave driver, straw boss, subforeman, super, superintendent, supervisor, surveyor, taskmaster, the Old Man, visitor, watch officer
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