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Posted on Sep 19, 2011 in Stuff We Like

Arrrgh, Matey: Common Sayings from Pirate Talk

By Nathaniel Eatwell

Arrrgh. Today, September 19, is the annual Talk Like a Pirate Day. To help ye improve your nautical vocabulary, matey, here are some terms ye may have already heard that, according to some sources, came from the buccaneers or at least were nautical expressions from the Age of Piracy. Ye’ll have to buy your own parrot and eyepatch.

Shiver me timbers
A common pirate saying in movies and books—thanks to Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson—the origin of this phrase is nautical. A ship used during the Golden Age of Piracy (17th and 18th centuries) was made out of wood; the ships large sails being held up by large beams of wood known as masts. A ship was a valuable investment and was very expensive to build. In the movies they sink the ships, but in actuality a pirate, privateer (pirate for hire by governments), or navy would try to wound the ship to render it unable to sail and fight. Once the crew was gotten rid of the new owners could fix up and add the ship to their armada. One ways to wound the ship was to take out the sails, with no sails you couldn’t, well, sail. Various ammunition was shot out of a cannon but one kind in particular served the wounding purpose. By firing chain shot—two cannonballs chained together—one ship could take out the masts, spars (horizontal bars) and sails of an enemy ship rendering them immobile. “Shiver me timbers” is believed to come from the splintering of the masts and other wood frames. Timbers were the various parts of the wooden frame and the shivers were the broken pieces that flew out and often wounded the crew. Today we know "shivers" by the term splinter or sliver.


Today when you “bamboozle” someone it means you tricked them, usually in a joking sense. In the pirate world to bamboozle was a serious thing. According to the “Origin of Naval Terminology” from the Navy Department Library at the Naval Historical Center in D.C., when a ship was sailing and wanted to remain anonymous, they would disguise themselves by flying flags of a different nationality or origin to deceive any passing ships. The practice was commonly used by pirates and it’s easy to imagine why. A pirate could fly a British flag and use that to get close to ships from Britain or her allies and then attack them when in range.

Walk the plank
Anyone who has seen a movie about pirates or read about them is familiar with walking the plank. A board is extended over the side of the ship and the unlucky victim is made to walk off into the sea. While it looks good in movies and books, all research seems to indicate that this practice was quite rare. A pirate living a life outside of the law would generally just kill a captive, prisoner, or captain (in the case of mutiny) instead of forcing that person to walk the plank.

Mind your p’s and q’s
Minding your p’s and q’s today means being on being on your best behavior or knowing your place, but the origin comes from a much more naval place. When people think of pirates and sailors one of the images that people think of is that they like to drink or get drunk; p’s and q’s comes from drinking, The “Origin of Naval Terminology” says that pirates were paid quite poorly so a system of credit and checks was used to determine how much a sailor owed. P’s and q’s stands for pints and quarts, sizes of drink at the local tavern. The keepers at the local tavern kept a tally of how much a soldier drank and placed a check next to the pints or quarts, depending on what was ordered. Minding your p’s and q’s meant staying sober enough to keep track of how much money a sailor owed, so they didn’t get into financial trouble.

Chewing the fat
Chewing the fat today refers to people sitting and talking or gossiping, but in the pirate/sailor world of old it meant something completely different. When sailors went to port, they had to stock up on food supplies that would feed them for weeks and months at a time for when they were at sea. Without refrigeration fresh food would easily spoil so sailors adopted diets of cured meats and grains, foods that lasted some time. This diet had severe effects in the form of scurvy, a result of a vitamin C deficiency. The cured meat that sailors brought with them was tough and required a great deal of chewing to be able to actually eat; thus, the term chewing the fat.

When you are exhausted after a long day’s work, a phrase you might use is that you are “pooped”. This phrase comes from the naval world as well. On a ship or boat, the deck above the stern is called the poop deck, from the French la poupe. Being pooped refers to a wave of water coming over the stern. Put differently, when a sailor is at the wheel of the ship and a wave of water comes crashing from behind him and over the deck and cabin in front of him, he’s been pooped.

Jolly Roger
One of the most famous things about pirates is the “Jolly Roger,” the pirate flag. Everyone knows the famous skull and crossbones flag, but the “Jolly Roger” actually varied from pirate to pirate. Blackbeard, for example, was reported to have a flag with a skeleton stabbing a bleeding heart; Edward Low flew a black flag with a red skeleton on it (no relation to the later comedy star of vaudeville, movies and TV). The origin of the term “Jolly Roger” is just as varied as the flags used by pirates. Some sources say “Jolly Roger” comes from the French jolie rouge, a reference to a red flag meaning “no quarter;” others state that it was just slang derived from “Old Roger” a common term for the devil. Given that different pirates used different flags and the term “Jolly Roger” was used, it could be a generic term used by the pirates at the time but with pre-pirate origins. The true origin may never be known.

1 Comment

  1. We had a great time decorating. Who knew one of my staffers had a full-sized pirate flag? It made the room look great and added to all the pirate-y setup. Every child got a temporary tattoo when they first came in. This designated them to be pirates-in-training. All was fine until Crab Claw came upstairs from the street into our event space. Our smallest pirate, who was excited and ready for a fun event and was game for just about everything up to that moment, took one look at him and started wailing, for five long minutes. Poor thing. To her credit, she calmed quickly and was rapt the entire time.