In row boats, and similar boats, there is a drain plug, which is taken out when it is ashore, to empty for water. In Norwegian the term used is 'nygle', and in Icelandic 'negla'. In contemporary English it seems that the term in use is 'drain plug'.

Did English have one word, as e.g. 'spigot', for drain plugs? If so, what was it?

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    Aren't they bungs? Aug 11, 2021 at 15:13
  • 1
    Recreational boats: drain plugs is generic. spigot requires being turned on.
    – Lambie
    Aug 11, 2021 at 15:24
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    I've been able to date boat's plug only to 1832 and boat-plug to 1853.
    – DjinTonic
    Aug 11, 2021 at 18:00
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    It would be interesting to know whether the Norwegians and Icelanders use "nylge" and "nöldur" for the plugs found in sinks and baths. It would also be interesting to know whether there is a verb in either language which means to
    – BoldBen
    Aug 12, 2021 at 0:24
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    nagle, negla, etc, are cognates of nail (either for fastening or fingernail), related to Latin unguis (fingernail). The OED lists naegl as Old English for a small metal spike, but gives an example from 1440 where it is used for a similar wooden spike. There don't seem to be surviving texts, but I'd bet that a variant of nail would be the most likely.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 4 at 10:37

3 Answers 3


I've found evidence that the word scyttel was used in Old English for a boat plug. It is mentioned in the book "Etymological and Pronouncing Dictionary of Difficult Words" by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, published in 1882:

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Old English scyttel, a bolt or bar. A plug in the bottom of a ship.

In the excerpt above, scyttel is given as the Old English form of scuttle which is a current nautical term. OED gives the oldest form of scuttle as skottelle from Middle English and doesn't mention Old English scyttle in the etymology of scuttle; and gives the year 1497 for the first attestation of the original and current nautical sense.

Nautical. A square or rectangular hole or opening in a ship's deck smaller than a hatchway, furnished with a movable cover or lid, used as a means of communication between deck and deck; also a similar hole in the deck or side of a ship for purposes of lighting, ventilation, etc.

1497 A chayne of yron for the skottelles of the haches.
in M. Oppenheim, Naval Accounts & Inventories Henry VII (1896) 323

Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “scuttle, n.², sense 1.a”, July 2023.

OED says of unknown origin for scuttle but mentions the possible French origin:

The English word is commonly believed to be adopted from the French, and this from the Spanish; but the relation between the three, and the ultimate etymology, remain uncertain. According to a quotation given by Jal, the French word formerly meant the hatch or trapdoor covering the hatchway; if this was the original sense, the word might be a derivative of Dutch or Low German schutten to shut; compare English shuttle (of a dam).

Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “scuttle, n.², Etymology”, July 2023.

The obsolete word shuttle with the sense "A bolt or bar, as of a door" is from Old English scyttel also; and OED mentions in the etymology that it is ultimately from a prehistoric word with the primitive sense 'to shut'.

Old English scyt(t)el, scyt(t)els < prehistoric *skutil, -isli, < *skut- in scyttan to shut; the two Old English words have different suffixes, but their forms coalesced in Middle English: see -el suffix1, -els suffix. Compare West Frisian skoattel, East Frisian schötel, North Frisian sködel.

The modern dialect shuttle (shittle, shettle, shottle) horizontal bar of a gate (see Eng. Dial. Dict.), is perhaps the same word.

Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “shuttle, n.², Etymology”, July 2023.

  • The Early Modern English nautical meanings of "rectangular openings" and "hatches" are clearly an extension of the Middle English shittel "slot in a door" which is an extension of the Old English scyttel meaning "sluice, sluice-gate". But what is Ebenezer Cobham's attestation from the Old English period for scyttel where it means "a plug in the bottom of a ship"? Without attestation there's no evidence.
    – TimR
    Sep 5 at 10:07
  • Well, my evidence is the book I've quoted from, and also the etymological explanation and current usages of the modern forms support the evidence. But of course, it doesn't seal the deal without an example usage in Old English.
    – ermanen
    Sep 5 at 10:26
  • The connection is not implausible, but if the book you're quoting from doesn't present any evidence, it's not evidence. The Middle English Dictionary is a huge scholarly undertaking many years in the making, and it is available on the web. The Dictionary of Old English project at University of Toronto is likewise such an undertaking; the DOE provides the corpus of Old English for a pretty penny (over $200). I don't find any nautical uses of scyttel in the OE corpus. There is the shuttle of a loom, which in Latin is nauicula, as it is shaped like a little boat.
    – TimR
    Sep 5 at 10:39
  • Ebenezer Cobham was an interesting man, who worked a lot. So I take him seriously, and consider the answer above evidenced. :) Note however, that the statement is that scuttle applies to ships, and it is not clear that it applies to boats. Perhaps someone can do better, for 1497 is not so long ago as the Vikings raid upon Paris.
    – Sapiens
    Sep 6 at 2:45

The word bung works. Wiktionary defines it as:

A stopper, alternative to a cork, often made of rubber, used to prevent fluid passing through the neck of a bottle, vat, a hole in a vessel etc.

Wiktionary gives this example sentence, which shows how this word is used regarding boats:

With the heavy seas trying to broach the boat they baled — and eventually found someone had forgotten to put the bung in.

(To see it, you have to click the "quotations" link next to the relevant sense of the word. Wiktionary attributes the quote to "1996, Dudley Pope, Life in Nelson's Navy.")

Cambridge also gives this attested example:

The fine boats he defined as fuel tax, income tax, and all the others, and from every one of these he himself pulled the bung so that they sank.

  • "boat" and "baled" are not on the Wiktionary page linked to. etymonline.com does not list a maritime origin.
    – Sapiens
    Sep 3 at 18:49
  • @Sapiens I've updated to make it clear that you need to click the "quotations" link on Wiktionary to see it.
    – alphabet
    Sep 3 at 20:02

Bilge plug is a term used. Bilge is a nautical term meaning the lowest inner part of a ship's hull, where water collects. The water accumulated can also be called bilge. Another relevant term is a scupper which means the drain hole in a ship's side to allow water to run off the deck.

Merriam Webster lists the term bilge plug and gives the year 1883 for the first known use:

If your boat has a bilge plug, remove the plug when the boat is out of the water so that any water that has accumulated in the bilge can drain free.
—Twain Braden, The Handbook of Sailing Techniques, 2003

  • The Norwegian "nygle" certainly has a m u c h older provenance than back to 1883, and the British sailed already in the middle ages. So there must be a much older English word, which would be more interesting, to the same degree.
    – Sapiens
    Sep 3 at 18:55
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    Stopper is an earlier word for this usage from 1667 per OED, and stoppel is an earlier version of stopper from a1400 per OED. So we can go back to Middle English at least. In Old English, perhaps a generic word was used, like a top which goes back to OE. Or perhaps, there was a word adopted from Old Norse but I couldn't find evidence. There are some books about Old English sea terms but I couldn't access.
    – ermanen
    Sep 3 at 19:48
  • The stopper is somewhat early, but not quite. :) The Scandinavian vikings sailed the Seine, and occupied Paris, before 900; hence Normandie, and William the Conqueror. They certainly had "nygler", as the boats were sometimes carried ashore; they as well had the word for it, as a derivation is found in Icelandic.
    – Sapiens
    Sep 4 at 2:15
  • 1450. thurrok "There ys a place in the bottome of a shyppe wherein ys gatheryd all the fylthe that cometh in to the shyppe..And that place stynketh ryghte fowle, and yt ys called in some contre of thys londe a thorrocke." From OE þurruc
    – TimR
    Sep 4 at 11:01
  • You could probably use peg : *thurrok-pegge but peg comes into English from Middle Dutch. Or pin which is from OE pin.
    – TimR
    Sep 4 at 11:05

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