8 Words to Spice Up Your Talk Like a Pirate Day

Celebrate a more authentic Talk Like a Pirate Day with these pirate pronunciations and pirate sayings.

Mignon Fogarty
5-minute read
Pirate ships

Pirate Sayings

Now, what about some pirate sayings?

Sources say it’s not known whether real-life pirates said things such as “Avast!” and “Shiver me Timbers!” but the OED does list them as nautical terms or at least made up nautical terms.

‘Shiver me Timbers’

“Timber” is another word for wood, and “timbers” can refer to the wooden ribs or frame of a ship. One old meaning of the verb “shiver” was to break something apart into fragments or splinters. For example, in an 1825 book* by James Ferguson called “Lectures on Electricity,” the speaker describes how an electrical shock can break glass placed under a weight:

“The glass, under such management, is generally shivered into small pieces.”

So “Shiver me timbers!” would be an exclamation that means something like “Well, break my ship apart!” 

The OED editors don’t seem to think pirates really said it though. They call it a “mock oath” that comes from “comic fiction.”


“Avast” seems more likely to have been a real nautical term. Dictionary entries don’t have caveats and say it probably comes from a “worn-down” Dutch word that meant “hold fast.” So when a pirate says, “Avast, matey!” he’s telling you to stop or hold up.


Finally, thinking about pirates got me thinking about why we say both “care-ihb-BE-uhn” and “cuh-RIB-be-uhn.” We have the song “Caribbean Queen” and the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean,” but also the cruise ship company Royal Caribbean.

The word “Caribbean” comes from the name of some of the people who live in the area—the Carib (pronounced CARE-ib, kind of like the chocolate substitute carob). That would imply that “care-ihb-BE-uhn” is the correct pronunciation, but that’s not what I’m seeing from looking at references. Dictionaries list both pronunciations as acceptable (and there are actually even more than those two).

A 2010 book on pronunciation says that “care-ihb-BE-uhn” is more common among British speakers and “cuh-RIB-be-uhn” is more common among American speakers, but my reading of the OED shows that they say “cuh-RIB-be-uhn” is also more common among British speakers. Regardless, it’s clear that both pronunciations are common in both countries.

Both pronunciations are fine.

Finally, I checked with Tobias S. Bucknell, a science fiction author I follow on Twitter who is from the region. He said that even he uses both pronunciations. For example, someone once noticed that he says he’s a “cuh-RIB-be-uhn born writer,” but he’ll say that he “flew down to to the care-ihb-BE-uhn.” That someone speculated it’s related to the part of speech (cuh-RIB-be-uhn for an adjective, and care-ihb-BE-uhn for the noun), but Tobias think it probably depends more on the melodic rhythm of the sentence.

In the end, all I can say is that both pronunciations are fine. One isn’t better or more “right” than the other.

*Note: The Oxford English Dictionary lists this same sentence as appearing in an 1815 book called “The Panorama of Science and Art” by James Smith.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.

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