Celebrate a more authentic Talk Like a Pirate Day with these pirate pronunciations and pirate sayings.
International Talk Like a Pirate Day is coming up on September 19, so today we’ll talk about pronunciations and phrases associated with pirates!
For example, you may be wondering why pirates are usually portrayed as speaking a rhotic variety of English—in other words, why do pirates say, “Arr”?
One theory is that many famous pirates, including Blackbeard (real) and Long John Silver (fictional), were said to come from a British region known to have a strong rhotic West Country accent.
The 'Arr!' of a pirate comes from the West Country English accent.
Pirates also came from other regions, and “Arr” was used in some depictions of pirates before the 1950s, but the actor Robert Newton is largely responsible for popularizing the “Arr” sound for depicting pirates. Newton played Long John Silver in the movie “Treasure Island” in 1950 and Blackbeard in the movie “Blackbeard, the Pirate” in 1952.
Newton grew up near that same West Country region in southwestern England as these pirates—Dorset, to be specific—and he used the local accent to portray the pirates on film, and the hard-R accent has been associated with pirates ever since. But pirates weren’t a homogeneous group. There were Scottish pirates, French pirates, Spanish pirates, and so on, so you can’t say there was one specific way that pirates talked. Some may have said “Arr,” but a lot probably didn’t. We don’t have recordings or even many writings to help figure it out.
The word “pirate” itself is old. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is “Of multiple origins. Partly a borrowing from French [and] partly a borrowing from Latin.” Many languages have a similar sounding term for these sea raiders including Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, German, and Italian. Online Etymology Dictionary traces it all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European word “per-ya-.”
Other long-used names for pirates include “buccaneers” and “freebooters.”
“Buccaneer” first described pirates along the Spanish coast, and believe it or not, the word is related to “barbecue.” A boucan was a type of barbecue, and a boucaner was someone who dried meat on the barbecue. French settlers on St. Domingo were called “boucanier,” which meant “someone who hunts wild oxen” and dries it on the boucan or barbecue. Those French hunters turned to pirating “after being driven from their trade by Spanish authorities,” according to Online Etymology Dictionary, and thus, “buccaneer” became another word for “pirate.”
‘Freebooters” is a another word for “pirate” that surprised me because I’ve only heard it used recently to refer to online pirates—usually to refer to people who steal other people’s YouTube videos and post them to their own accounts—but it also goes way back. You can trace it to a Dutch word in the 1500s that meant “free booty” as in “free plunder or profit” that led to the word “vrijbuiter,” which meant pirate or robber—someone who goes after that free booty. From the Dutch “vrijbuiter,” English-speaking people called pirates “freebooters.”
And Another current word you’ll know that has surprising origins in piracy is “filibuster.” It goes back to that same Dutch word that gives us “freebooter,” this time coming to English via the Spanish, who called pirates in the West Indies and Central America “filibustero.” (The French also called pirates a name from the same origin: “flibustier.”)
In English, “filibuster” originally referred to those same West Indies and Central American pirates, but in the 1850s and 1860s also came to refer to outlaw adventurers from the United States who, according to Etymology Online, “tried to overthrow Central American governments.”
Someone who is filibustering is pirating the senate.
A few years later it was used to describe a senator who tried to obstruct the normal function of the the legislature. A filibuster described a person just like a gardener describes a person and a player describes a person. Soon after again, it came to refer to the act itself. Someone who is filibustering is essentially pirating the senate (or other governing body), and “filibuster” was a noun that got verbed, so to speak, for the people who like the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that says “Verbing weirds language.”
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.”