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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425

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Pirate Lingo
By Cindy Vallar

Words are essential to any writer.  If you peruse the shelves of my library, you’ll discover an assortment of language-related books, from The American Heritage Dictionary to a Gaelic/English dictionary to Lost Words of Love.  Language isn’t static.  As Hugh Rawson points out in Wicked Words: a Treasury of Curses, Insults, Put-downs, and Other Formerly Unprintable Terms from Anglo-Saxon Times to the Present:
1. The meanings of words change considerably, according to who says them, to whom, and in what circumstances.

2. The meanings of words change over time.

3. The way a word is spoken or said also is important in determining its meaning.

4. The power of a word as well as its meaning depends greatly on the setting in which it is used.

When I speak to audiences about pirates, someone inevitably asks, “How did pirates talk?”  In general they spoke the language others of the same time period did, but the words an Elizabethan Sea Dog used might vary from those pirates spoke during the early eighteenth century during the Golden Age of Piracy.  To complicate matters, every profession has its own jargon.  When I overhear a phone conversation between my husband and a coworker, I rarely understand the topic because he works with air traffic controllers, and their vocabulary contains a lot of acronyms.  Pirates, of course, had their own specialized vocabulary, but they also spoke the language of all mariners.

Some of the words below may be familiar to you.  Others may be new.  This is not, however, a comprehensive list of pirate vocabulary.  At the end you’ll find a list of resources where you can discover more words common to pirates and sailors.  Even if you’re not a writer or an everyday pirate, you’ll discover words to help you celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day on September 19th.

Pirate Lookout

Act of Grace or Act of Pardon (aka king's pardon)
A royal act that pardoned any pirate who promised to cease plundering.  His past acts as a pirate were forgiven. Woodes Rogers used this tactic to end New Providence’s days as a safe haven for pirates.  One who took advantage of the Act of Grace was Benjamin Hornigold, who went from pirate to pirate hunter, bringing to justice those former colleagues who refused to surrender.

There is no one definition of this word, as how you say it greatly influences its meaning.  Whether pirates of yore actually used this word is unknown, but it has become a common expression that pirates today use.  John Bauer and Mark Summers provide these instructions on the proper way to say “Arr!” in their book, Well Blow Me Down: a Guy’s Guide to Talking Like a Pirate:

To give the proper “Arr,” start by standing with your feet apart, about shoulder width.  Arms akimbo.  Then start a rumble in your belly and, with all the Pirattitude you can muster, let it rise up your throat and burst out gutterally – “Aaaarrrr!”

This word entered the English language around the mid-1300s, but it didn’t refer to the marine crustaceans that adhered to the hulls of wooden ships and had to be removed through careening the vessel several times each year.  Rather it was the name given to a type of goose thought to hatch from the shell of a crustacean because no one knew where its breeding grounds were.

A sailing term that means to fasten a rope around a pin, known as a belaying pin.  This short wooden pin fit in holes along the rail of a ship.  Sailors used belaying pins to secure the running gear.  Pirates used belaying pins as weapons to knock out their victims.  The word also means “to stop.”

Treasure ChestDerived from medieval German, the word meant the exchange or distribution of plunder acquired during battle.  Over time, however, the sharing aspect disappeared, and the word came to mean the pillaged loot itself.

Based on the island of Hispaniola, these rugged men hunted oxen and boar, then smoked the strips of meat over a barbecue or boucan.  The French called these men boucaniers, a term the English anglicized to buccaneers.  When the Spanish government tried to get rid of these hunters, they took to the sea and raided Spanish ships and towns.  By the seventeenth century, the pirates who preyed on ships in the Caribbean were called buccaneers and operated out of Tortuga and Port Royal.  A well-known buccaneer was Sir Henry Morgan, but the cruelest one was François L’Olonnais.  In 1678, Alexandre Oliver Exquemelin, wrote a bestselling book, The Buccaneers of America, about his adventures as a buccaneer surgeon.

Toasting Pirate SmiliesA popular beverage in the West Indies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  The concoction consisted of rum, water, sugar, and nutmeg.

For the most part, pirates did not flog a mate because many had endured this form of punishment in their former lives as legitimate sailors.  The cat consisted of nine knotted ropes affixed to a rope or wooden handle about eighteen inches long.  The British Royal Navy used this device to discipline seamen.  All hands aboard the vessel had to witness the punishment, which took place on the main deck.  After each lash, the inflictor combed the cat to remove any bits of flesh or other materials that adhered to the ropes.

This word is associated with the pirates who roamed the Mediterranean Sea in oared galleys for nearly three centuries.  In actuality, they were privateers in the employ of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.  Instead of gold or spices, they sought people whom they either held for ransom or sold into slavery.  In 1631 Barbary corsairs raided Baltimore, Ireland and escaped with almost the town’s entire population.  The corsairs attacked Christian ships and operated out of Muslim ports along the northern coast of Africa.  The most famous of the Barbary corsairs were the Barbarossa (Red Beard) Brothers and Dragut Reis.

This word is also associated with French privateers, for the French word for these sailors is corsaire, and their principle haven was Saint Malo, also known as La Cité Corsaire.  Among the more noted corsairs were Réné Duguay-Trouin, Jean Bart, and Robert Surcouf.

Réné Duguay-TrouinRobert Surcouf

A short, heavy weapon with a single-edged curved blade that pirates favored in close quarter action.  A pirate would cut and slash with this weapon.  The word first entered the English language sometime during the sixteenth century.  It derived from the French word coutelas, which in turn came from the Latin cultellus, which meant small knife.

Duel with cutlasses

Dance the hempen jig
Hanging of Stede BonnetA pirate euphemism for hanging, the usual manner in which pirates were executed.  Between 1716 and 1726 over four hundred pirates were hanged.  Prior to 1740, hangings used what was known as a short-drop, which meant pirates died by slow strangulation. Their hands were tied in front of them rather than behind, then the Lord High Executioner stood them on a ladder, stool or barrel, put a noose around their necks, then pulled the support out from under them. Tamara J. Eastman, in her article “Hanging Around in the 18th Century…,” described what happened next. “The victim would be unable to breathe, and their skin would begin to turn a ghoulish shade of bluish-purple…. Within minutes the tongue would protrude from the mouth, the eyes would bulge from the sockets...in many cases the prisoner lost complete control of their bladder and bowels….” (No Quarter Given, March 2000)

Dead Men Tell No Tales
Often associated with pirates, this phrase meant a dead victim was better than a live one, because the dead couldn’t testify in court.  Whether pirates actually used this phrase is unknown.  Charles Ellms, the author of Pirates Own Book (1837), used it when describing pirates who hunted in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.  They murdered sailors and passengers alike “thus obliterating all traces of their unhappy fate, and…by practically adopting the maxim that ‘dead men tell no tales,’ enable themselves to pursue their diabolical career with impunity.”

This nautical drink consisted of “hot small beer and brandy, sweetened and spiced upon occassion.”  According to one description of Henry Every, he lolled “at Madagascar with some drunken sunburnt whore, over a can of flip.” (Marley)

From the Sea
When answering a hail as to what country pirates claimed allegiance, they answered, “From the sea,” as they were loyal to no one except themselves.

Seventeenth-century pirates favored this assault weapon because it wreaked havoc and panic when thrown onto the deck of a victim’s ship.  Encased in an iron or glass container, the grenade was “filled with gun powder and surrounded by four or five lit fuses, which ignited the powder when the jar burst.” (Marley)  In its original use, the word described a pomegranate, but also came to mean a bomb because it resembled the shape of this fruit.

Toasting Pirate SmiliesWatered-down rum.  The name for this alcoholic drink is thought to derive from “Old Grog,” the supposed nickname of Admiral Vernon, who wore a grogham cloak.  In 1740 he ordered that the rum served to seaman be diluted with water rather than served neat, the traditional way of serving the drink.

Inch of Candle
This referred to establishing a time limit on something.  Auctioneers in Port Royal often used this technique when taking bids on prize vessels.  Once the auctioneer received the highest bid for an item, he lit a candle and scored it one inch from the top.  Everyone waited for the candle to burn down to the mark.  If no one offered a higher bid during the wait, the last bidder became the legal owner of the prize.

This small, thorny, mahogany tree with hard, heavy, black wood grew in Honduras and Campeche.  It produced a valuable purple dye that sold for a high price in Europe.  English pirates illegally harvested this wood after 1655.  William Dampier practiced this trade.

During the seventeenth century, this popular ale was made from wheat and oat malts and flavored with herbs.  It originated in Germany where it was called mumme.  The Dutch referred to it as mom.

No prey, No pay

Pirates received no pay for their services unless they captured prizes.  This phrase is the piratical version of the one privateers used, “No purchase, no pay.”

No Quarter Given
Christopher Moody's FlagWhen a pirate ship flew the red flag, it signaled their intended victims that the pirates would give no mercy once they boarded the prize.  They would not take prisoners.  If pirates sailed under the Jolly Roger, usually a black flag, this signaled that if the prey surrendered without a fight, the pirates would spare the lives of those aboard her.

On the account
When a person joined a pirate crew, he/she had to sign the Articles of Agreement that stipulated what behaviors weren’t tolerated and what share of the profits each person received when a prize was taken.  To go on the account meant you became a pirate.

Punch house
This was what the English called a brothel.  It originally referred to any low-class drinking establishment.  In the seventeenth century, one traveler believed the punch houses consisted of “such a crew of vile strumpets and common prostitutes that ‘tis almost impossible to civilize” Port Royal. (Marley)

Also known as Solomon Grundy, this concoction resembled a chef salad with marinated bits of fish, turtle, and meat combined with herbs, palm hearts, spiced wine, and oil.  Hard-boiled eggs, pickled onions, cabbage, grapes, and olives accompanied the dish.

When used to describe pirates, this term meant vile, mean, contemptible.  Originally the word applied to a disease that afflicted many sailors before the close of the fifteenth century.  The symptoms included bleeding under the skin, extreme weakness, loose teeth, spongy bleeding gums, and rotting breath.  It stemmed from a lack of Vitamin C in their diet.  According to Stephen R. Brown, the author of Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail (St. Martin’s, 2003), “Scurvy was responsible for more deaths at sea than storms, shipwreck, combat, and all other diseases combined.  Historians have conservatively estimated that more than two million sailors perished from scurvy during the Age of Sail.”

Sea dog
Today this term refers to a seasoned sailor toughened by his experiences at sea.  During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England, these were the adventurers and privateers who attacked Spanish ships and towns in the New World.  Spain considered Sir Francis Drake, perhaps the best known of the Sea Dogs, a pirate and gave him the name, El Draque, the dragon.

Soft Farewell
Sometimes two or more pirate crews sailed in consort.  If the pirates aboard one ship didn’t want to share the treasure they’d acquired, they sometimes sailed away under cover of darkness, bidding the other crew a soft farewell.

First used in writings of the sixteenth century, it referred to someone who made a loud noise by striking his sword against his shield. Today the word often refers to pirates or movies about them.

Pirates acquired navigational charts from captured vessels. During the seventeenth century, English sailors referred to a sea atlas or a book of charts and sailing instructions as a waggoner. The term derived from the last name of a Dutch pilot, navigator, and cartographer, Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer, who published the first such atlas in a single volume in 1584.  Four years later, Spiegel der Zeevaerdt appeared in English under the title The Mariner’s Mirror. The South Sea Waggoner was based on captured Spanish charts compiled by Basil Ringrose, a buccaneer, in 1682.

To learn more about pirate lingo, I suggest:

International Talk Like a Pirate Day!
Maritime Etymology (various languages) from Marine History Virtual Archives
Pirate Talk
Sailor Talk [http://www.yacht-volant.org/SailorTalk/seaterms.html -- link no longer active 7/24/2015]
Schooner Man
William Falconer’s Dictionary of the Marine
Ye Olde Seadogs Terms and Phrases [http://www.vamos-wentworth.org/seadog/seadog.php?subject=terms -- link no longer active 7/24/2015]

Bauer, John, and Mark Summers. Well Blow Me Down. Pirate Guys, 2004.

Breverton, Terry. The Pirate Dictionary. Pelican, 2004.
Brohaugh, William. English Through the Ages. Writer’s Digest Books, 1998.

Lampe, Christine Markel. “Buccaneerin’ Dictionary,” The Pyrate Prymer. Rev. Sept. 1997, 28.
Lampe, Christine Markel. “A Pirate by Any Other Name…,” The Pyrate Prymer. Rev. Sept. 1997, 3.

Marley, David F. Pirates and Privateers of the Americas. ABC-Clio, 1994.

Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Rawson, Hugh. Wicked Words. Crown, 1989.
Rogozinski, Jan. Pirates! Brigands, Buccaneers and Privateers in Fact, Fiction, and Legend. Facts on File, 1995.

“Spoutin’ Off Like Long John Silver,” The Pyrate Prymer, Rev. Sept. 1997, 26-27.


© 2005 Cindy Vallar

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