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One of the side effects of the vast popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise is a huge number of Jack Sparrow imitators spouting off phrases like “Belay that," “Yo-Ho, me hearties," and “Avast." So what are they actually saying? Asking them what they mean will probably get you one of those “Are you from another planet?" stares (a common defense when they don’t have an answer). So, you go home and type “the meaning of avast" into your handy dandy web browser and poof you are here: the most authoritative webpage on pirate languages and their evolution on the web (or at least we’d like to think so).
In order not to keep you waiting, avast means “stop what you are doing and pay attention." This word was almost always used by someone who was in command as a way to address the people under him. This is a great name choice for a program that is designed to run in the background to stop the spread of viruses. The origin of avast is a bit more complicated. It seems to be a corruption of the sailing term “hold fast."
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Avast was hardly the only piece of language that was claimed for pirate use. There are several nautical terms and phrases that were fairly commonplace in the 17th and 18th century that were slightly modified by these professional plunderers. I will not be discussing every part of a ship or every command that a captain could give, just the ones that are commonplace in the current volley of pirate movies.
Ahoy: This term means the same thing that “avast" does, but anyone could use it.
Becalmed: A time when there isn’t enough wind to move a ship with sails alone. A pirate ship in becalmed waters meant disaster for the crew. Becalmed waters prevented pillaging and hindered escape. For these reasons, several pirate ships had both sails and oars.
Belay: To secure. This usually meant to tie off the end of a rope, but it has been used in the movies as a way to say “wait" or “hold on a moment."
Bilge: This is the lowest part of the ship where any seawater that has entered the ship collects. Current ships employ bilge pumps to remove the water whereas in the 17th and 18th century bilge water was removed by bailing.
Bowsprit: The long spire that jutted off from the front of the prow. Bowsprits often had ornate carvings at their bases and served as an anchoring point for the (front sail) lines.
Capstan: This is the large horizontal wheel on the deck of large ships that turns the crank to lift the ships anchor. The extreme weight of the anchor meant that several sailors were needed to crank the capstan.
Quarterdeck: This deck, often referred to as the poop deck, was the highest deck at the rear of the ship. Captains and navigators often stood on this deck to oversee deck workers.
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Other Names for Pirates
There were several different classifications for pirates depending on where they hailed from, if they worked for a government, or if they ran goods or slaves. The word “pirate" was derived from Greek origins and originally meant “one who plunders on the sea."
Buccaneer: This was the name of an early group of sailors that dried meat from hogs and cattle on the island of Hispaniola and distributed it in Europe. It later was applied to any sailor of Spanish heritage.
Corsair: A French privateer, or one of the Knights of Malta fighting the Barbary pirates. It was once thought that the name came from the island of Corsica, but it is far more likely that it was derived from the mid-evil Latin “cursus," to plunder.
Filibuster: A French term for pirates. Of course, it has another meaning that is well known in politics. A filibuster is a way to stop laws from being enacted, so perhaps the name was given to pirates for the same reason.
Freebooter: Although some linguists claim this is a corruption of the Dutch words for loot and sailor it seems that the pirates this term referred to were mercenaries or men for hire. A free man with the skills of pirate – a booter, one who could be removed from the crew without consequence. These men were brawlers, hired muscle, or had skills that were only temporarily needed by the Captain.
Picaroon: True pirates considered this term an insult. This was the term used for a pirate who also dealt in the slave trade.
Privateer: This is a pirate sanctioned by a government and only allowed to plunder ships from unfriendly governments. Most Privateer Ships carried letters of Marque on board to legitimize their actions.
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Weapons and Punishments
Pirates developed specialty weapons to fight in the confines of ship interior or in the rigging when melee broke out between ships that they had pulled up alongside of.
Cutlass: This short, thick, curved sword was the pirate weapon of choice.
Blunderbuss: A small, two-chamber pistol usually held by the captain or first mate. Particularly wealthy pirate crews often were equipped with both a blunderbuss and cutlass.
Flogging: A disciplinary whipping of the back of a sailor. Pirate captains used this method of punishment for minor offenses, employing a cat-o-nine tails for more severe infractions.
Keelhaul: Keelhauling was reserved for enemies or traitors. The victim was tied to a rope and dragged beneath the pirate ship and swung side-to-side to be torn apart by the barnacles attached to the hull.
Walk the Plank: This is a much-fabled punishment and was featured in several early pirate movies. There is little evidence that pirates of the day ever made anyone walk the plank. The planks were used as a way to get from one ship to another during close combat.
Gibbet: These were structures that principalities used to hang dead pirates from, often in metal cages, as a warning to all who participated in piracy that the port did not condone, nor would they tolerate, pirate activity.
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Some of the most quoted phrases from pirate movies are the insults. A foul-mouthed pirate movie villain has some of the most off kilter, colorful language that most people will ever hear. Interestingly, most of the insults are based on actual conditions on ships or in the ports that pirates visited.
Scallywag: A young, inexperienced, and unworldly individual. Pirates often used this term to describe people at the port who fancied themselves pirates, but had never been to sea.
Scurvy dog: A low man on the totem pole. A person who was sickly with scurvy was very weak, so this may also be part of the meaning.
Bilge Rat: This is the worst insult a pirate would use. Bilge rats lived in the lowest area of the ship in the cesspool that built up in the bilge.
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Not all of the language attributed to pirates was actually used by pirates. Several words and phrases that have fallen by the wayside were used by common folk, lawyers, and even politicians. We may get to see them on the big screen coming out of the mouths of Johnny Depp or Geoffrey Rush, but these phrases were much more likely to be heard in a court of law or at an open-air market than on a pirate ship.
Careen: To clean off the hull of the ship. Because there were no docks that were capable of raising pirate ships, they usually performed this by beaching the ship and tipping it to one side to remove barnacles and other unwanted sea debris.
Doubloon: A gold coin minted in Spain or any number of Spanish colonies. Pieces of Eight was a silver coin that was often cut into pieces to make change. Eight pieces constituted a whole coin.
Letters of Marque: Legal proof that a particular government sponsors a pirate ship.
Savvy: This is the Jack Sparrow catch phrase and the meaning is exactly the same as in the movie. It means “do you understand" or “agree."
Avast, me hearties, don’t forget that September 19th is national “talk like a pirate" Day - a perfect time to use this fantastic vocabulary that you’ve picked up.
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Choundas, George. “The Pirate Primer: Mastering the Language of Swashbucklers & Rogues," Writers Digest Books, 2007.
Image courtesy of Ack Ook @ FlickR