A Lost Language: Argh! Pirates


We rewatch the Pirates of the Caribbean movies a lot at my house. And since I am one of those annoying people who walk around using pirate lingo for days after watching one of the PotC films. I also have a sometimes unhealthy lust for the knowledge and the history behind words and phrases, so after I researched wild west language for a previous blog I knew that I had to find out about some of my favorite pirate lingoes.


Pirates tormented the seven seas, journeyed across the five oceans and ravaged the coastal towns where they dropped their anchor as early as 258 AD; it wasn’t until the 1660s to the 1730s that the Jolly Roger flying pirates that we recognize from TV and films 640px-Flag_of_Edward_England.svgwere prevalent. But the actual classic era of piracy in the Caribbean (hence the name Pirates of the Caribbean) lasted from the mid-1650s to the mid-1720s looked very different from the dramatized version that we have seen in movies and on TV. The French, English, and United Provinces (a predecessor to the Netherlands and first Dutch nation state) had begun making their impact in the world market. They were developing their colonial empires which involved a lot of seaborne trade and business was booming. By the mid-1600s, the French were established on the Jamaican island of Hispaniola, the English had captured Jamaica from Spain while the English pirates were looking well beyond the Caribbean for treasure. This spreading out of pirates brought a fusing of languages and influence of words and phrases brought a multifariousness to the ‘pirate language’. But an actual pirate wouldn’t necessarily accentuate every sentence with an ‘argh’.

599px-Blackbeard_the_Pirate_(1952)_1I am pretty sure that we all have done it. We’ve all been watching a pirate movie or as a child pretended to be an old salty sea dog (which is a veteran sailor or old pirate) with an eye patch waving around a pretend saber. The ‘pirate accent’ as we know it today was actually an invention of Robert Newton when he famously portrayed feverish-eyed pirate Long John Silver in the 1950 Disney adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Newton reportedly, in hopes to add a little more flair to his character, spoke with a ‘west country’ accent and REALLY overdid it. Years later he used the same created accent when he was cast in the movie Blackbeard the Pirate. Because of this, the ‘pirate accent’ that we know of today was born.

That pirate accent from that moment on was prevalent in many movies and in a TV showPopeye_and_Betty that was and still is one of my favorites. If you watched as many Popeye the Sailor episodes as I did growing up, then you have probably heard him exclaim ‘well blow me down’ a couple of 100 times. The phrase ‘blow the man down’ or ‘well blow me down’ could and is said to have originated from a variety of possible choices. The most likely origin is that of an 1860s sea shanty entitled “Blow the Man Down”. This song is even literally linked to Popeye because the song was used in the 1930s animated Popeye cartoons done by Fleischer Studios as the background music for the sometimes villainous character Bluto. The ships lyrics ‘blow the man down’ may refer to the act of knocking a man to the ground, but is more than likely linked to the extremely common occurrence of a strong wind catching the topsails of an unbalanced boat and causing it to partially capsize. The capitalized ‘man’ in the song is of course in reference to the Man O’ War British Royal Navy warship that was armed with cannons and was propelled primarily by sails instead of the ships normally propelled by oars.

Another exclamation that you would expect a shocked or surprised to say is “well shiver me timbers”. Right? Well, this term may just be based on a real nautical slang that references a time when a ship after being lifted up from a high wave and thusly pounding back down on the ocean again will cause the timbers (the wooden support Skelton_Knaggs_in_Blackbeard_the_Pirateframes of a large sailing ship) to shake. This shaking and the subsequent slamming into the water would startle the sailors. The phrase is actually a minced oath which is a euphemistic expression that replaced certain profane words to reduce the original phrase’s objectional characteristics (I’ll let you figure out what it translates back to.) The term would have potentially been used by actual pirates but the phrase was popularized by authors who used it as a literary device. The expression first appeared in Fredrick Marryat’s work Jacob Faithful in 1835 where an old sailor says, “Peace? Shiver my timbers! what a noise ye make –ye seem to be fonder of peace than ye be of quiet.” What brought real popularity to the phrase was when it was used by the archetypal pirate Long John Silver in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 classic novel Treasure Island. The book when it was made into a movie in 1950 (as you remember I told you earlier) used the phrase and Robert Newton’s over-the-top portrayal brought the accent and argh or exaggerated rolled ‘r’ sound.

Johnny Depp may not have based his character Captain Jack Sparrow on the quintessential pirate stereotype, but he does make sure that you understand what he is talking about. Which is why he usually ends his statements with the word: 669px-Dale_Clark_poses_as_Johnny_Depp,_in_Pirates_of_the_Caribbean,_24391savvy. What does this word in the form of a question actually mean? The word savvy means that you have practical knowledge of what is being talked about and you can use common sense and good judgment about the subject at hand. The Pirates picked up this word in the late 18th century from the Spanish pirates. The word would have been used in pidgin English. Pidgin languages are grammatically simplified communication that can develop between two or more groups that do not share a common language. The vocabulary of that language is limited and therefore draws words from several languages. The word savvy originated there and is an English imitation of the Spanish phrase sabe usted which is translated as ‘you know‘. So I’m sure that the word was commonly used when communicating with one another to quite literally make sure that they savvied what the other had just said.

I heard my favorite pirate phrase coincidentally in the lyrics (and title) of the Led Zeppelin song “No Quarter”. The term ‘no quarter’ is a wartime phrase that meant that the victor took no prisoners. They quite literally would not allow you to stay in their quarters (which is a term for housing). You may hear or even use your favorite phrase while you’re pretending to be a young lass yelling ‘land ho’ from the pretend crow’s nest of a Galley ship. Maybe you are yelling out ‘fire in the hole’ while playing golf. Whatever you do, remember the buccaneer pirates who we can thank for a lot of the terms and phrases that we use nonchalantly nowadays.

I have included a list of terms and phrases (courtesy of Yourdictionary.com) to help inform you further.

  1. Abaft, or aft = toward the back of the boat
  2. Ahoy = Hello
  3. All hands hoay = Everyone on the deck
  4. Avast ye! = Stop you!; pay attention!
  5. Batten down the hatches = A signal to prepare the ship for an upcoming storm
  6. Binnacle = Where the compass is kept on board the ship
  7. Black jack = A pirate flag; a large tankard
  8. Black spot = A death threat (found in Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson)
  9. Blimey! = Something said when one is in a state of surprise
  10. Blow the man down = It possibly means getting knocked to the ground or killed (found in a 19th-century sea shanty)
  11. Booty = Treasure or loot
  12. Buccaneer = Name for a pirate mainly found in the Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries
  13. Cackle fruit = Hen’s eggs
  14. Coaming = A surface that prevented water on the deck from dripping to lower levels of the ship
  15. Cockswain, or coxswain = The helmsman
  16. Crow’s nest = The place on the ship where the lookout stand is built
  17. Cutlass = Type of sword used by the pirates
  18. Dance the hempen jig = To be hanged
  19. Davy Jones’ Locker = Mythological place at the bottom of the sea where drowned sailors were said to go
  20. Dead men tell no tales = The reason given for leaving no survivors
  21. Duffle = A sailor’s belongings and the bag they were carried in
  22. Dungbie = Rear end of the ship
  23. Feed the fish = If you lose a sea-fight your body will feed the fish
  24. Flibustier = Name for the American pirates found around the West Indies during the Golden Age of Piracy
  25. Freebooter = A pirate or looter, from the same origin as flibustier, someone who took loot or booty
  26. Give no quarter = Show no mercy; pirates raised a red flag to threaten no quarter
  27. Head = Toilet on board the ship
  28. Heave ho = Instruction to put some strength into whatever one is doing
  29. Hempen halter = The noose used to hang people
  30. Hornswaggle = To cheat, swindle
  31. Jacob’s Ladder = Rope ladder that was used to climb aboard ships
  32. Jolly Roger = The famous pirate flag with a skull and crossbones on it
  33. Landlubber = A person who is uncomfortable, or not incredibly skilled, at sea
  34. Man-O-War = The name used for a pirate ship that is heavily armed and ready for battle
  35. No prey, no pay = A pirate law meaning the crew didn’t get paid but took a share of any loot
  36. Old salt = A sailor that has a great deal of experience on the seas
  37. Orlop = Lowest deck in the ship where cables are stored
  38. Pieces of eight = Spanish coins
  39. Poopdeck = Deck that is the highest and farthest back
  40. Privateer = A sailor sponsored by the government, paid by what he could plunder from an enemy, technically a step up from a pirate
  41. Run a rig = Play a trick
  42. Scuttle = To sink a ship
  43. Scuttlebutt = A cask of drinking water; slang for gossip
  44. Seadog = An old sailor or pirate
  45. Shark bait = If you’re made to walk the plank, chances are you’ll be shark bait. Also, a dying sailor whose body will soon be thrown into the sea
  46. Shiver me timbers! = An expression used to show shock or disbelief
  47. Son of a biscuit eater = An insult
  48. Three sheets to the wind = Someone who is quite drunk
  49. Walk the plank = A punishment, probably more myth than truth, which entails making someone walk off the side of the ship along a plank. The person’s hands were often tied so he couldn’t swim and drowned (and then fed the fish).
  50. Yo ho ho = Possibly from yo-heave-ho, a chant when doing strenuous work, but also can be used to call attention to the speaker.



The Traditional Jolly Roger flag of Piracy by WarX, edited by Manuel Strehl – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=609773

Dale Clark poses as Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean by Carol M. Highsmith – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID highsm.24391, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44346413

Pirates of the Caribbean by Eric Ritchey – https://www.flickr.com/photos/ritcheyer/5416315097/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16331306

British sailors boarding an Algerine pirate ship and battling the pirates by John Fairburn (1793–1832) – Royal Museums Greenwich, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18267793

Featured Image: Blackbeard the Pirate edited screenshot by film screenshot (RKO) – http://www.toutlecine.com/images/film/0000/00007459-barbe-noire-le-pirate.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17253690

Skelton Knaggs in Blackbeard the Pirate – cropped screenshot by film screenshot (RKO) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwLnjw1ey7Q, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33538968

Dale Clark poses as Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean by Carol M. Highsmith – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID highsm.24391, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44346413


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