show a leg

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The traditional call of the boatswain's mates in a British warship when the hands are called to turn out in the morning. It arose from the days of sail when seamen, who were signed on for the duration of a ship's commission, were always refused shore leave when in harbour for fear that they would desert. Instead of going ashore, women, ostensibly wives, were allowed to live on board while the ship remained in harbour, and of course joined the men in their hammocks at night. When hands were called in the morning, the women were allowed to lie in, and the boatswain's mates, when they saw a hammock still occupied, would check the occupant's sex by requiring a leg to be shown over the edge of the hammock. If it was hairy, it was probably male, if hairless, probably female. The call remained in use for many years after the custom of women living on board in harbour was finally abolished in the British Navy around 1840.

Subjects: Maritime History.

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