The term holystone for the soft sandstone formerly used by sailors for scouring the wooden deck of a vessel has led to all sorts of speculation.
One opinion was that holy was just a humorous corruption of holey, the stone being full of holes like a sponge.
Admiral Smythe, in The Sailor’s Word Book (1867), allowed us other choices: “So called,” he said, “from being originally used for Sunday cleaning, or obtained by plundering church-yards of their tomb-stones, or because the seamen have to go on their knees to use it.”
In Naval Customs (1939), by Lt. Comdr. Leland P. Lovette, U.S. Navy (now Vice Admiral, ret.), is the statement that the name came from fragments of gravestones “from Saint Nicholas church, Great Yarmouth, England,” first used by English sailors.
One hesitates to doubt so positive a statement, but, unable to find other mention of a specific churchyard, I sent a letter of inquiry to Admiral Lovette.
His reply, which I am privileged to quote, was, “I don’t think we will ever get the full story.
One British authority, Rear Admiral Gerard Wells, R.N., definitely states: ‘So called because when using them an attitude of prayer is taken.’ You know the larger ones in the British Navy were called ‘hand bibles,’ the smaller ones ‘prayer books.’ I think the fact that all were of tombstone material and many from old tombstones got the word launched.”