Tomorrow, Sept. 19, is the 16th annual International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Founded in 1995 by a pair of Oregonians, John Baur and Mark Summers (who chose Sept. 19th because it was Mark’s ex-wife’s birthday), Talk Like a Pirate Day was a strictly local affair until John and Mark brought it to humor columnist Dave Barry’s attention in 2002. Since then the event has grown, with pirate parties and events planned from Nova Scotia to Kabul, all resounding with “Arrr!” and “Avast ye, matey!”
We all know what it means to talk like a pirate: mix two parts salty sailor talk with one part “arrr,” sprinkle with archaic pronouns, and serve hot. But where did those “Arrrs!” and “Avasts!” come from? How did the supposed jargon of a subculture of outright criminals (in law, pirates are regarded as hostis humani generis, or “enemies of all mankind”) turn into a goofy international language joke?
It turns out that International Talk Like A Pirate Day could be more accurately described as “International Talk Like Robert Newton Day.” (Baur and Summers call Newton the “patron saint” of ITLAPD.) Newton, a popular British actor, starred as Long John Silver in the 1950 Disney version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”; he played Long John again in an Australian film a few years later, and again in 1955 for 26 episodes of the television show “The Adventures of Long John Silver.” Newton, born in Dorset, played Long John with the accent of southwest England, an accent heavy on the r’s. England’s southwest (the West Country) was the birthplace of many famous sailors, including Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake, the slave trader John Hawkins, and Edward Teach, the pirate known as Blackbeard (also played by Robert Newton, in the 1952 Disney film “Blackbeard the Pirate”). There’s even a language-nerd joke about this: Why are pirates always from Norfolk? Because they arrrr!
So the sound of pirates is West Country English, but the words of pirates are sailing words: After all, most pirates were sailors first. There’s some vocabulary specific to piracy itself: privateers were private warships authorized by the government to attack enemy ships; corsairs were the French (or sometimes, Turkish) equivalent. Freebooters (from the Dutch word for “plunder”), picaroons (who often plundered wrecks), and reavers (again from “plunder,” via Middle English) were all pirates to some degree. There’s the chasse-partie, a pirate crew’s agreement about how to divide the spoils, and the pirate round, a route from Atlantic ports (such as Nassau and Bermuda), around the Cape of Good Hope, to the Indian Ocean to prey upon the ships of the British East India Company. The grossest piratical word, and certainly a specialized one, must be woolding, a torture “by which the eyes were forced from their sockets under the pressure of a twisted cord.” But the lubbers, timbers, avasts, and ahoys would be familiar to any sailor of the era worth his grog.
Aside from the accent and the jargon, most of our pirate iconography comes from fiction. Parrots? “Treasure Island.” Hooks for hands? “Peter Pan.” J.M. Barrie’s play and novel also popularized hats decorated with the skull and crossbones and walking the plank as a piratical mode of killing. (In truth, pirates — already sure of hanging if caught — were more likely to simply toss unwanted captives overboard; it was mutinous crews of regular sailors who forced officers to walk the plank. The rationale was that a blindfolded officer who stepped off a plank into the ocean technically suffered an accident, rather than murder.) Treasure maps? The closest real-life example is the last letter of Captain Kidd, where he claims to have hidden 100,000 pounds somewhere in the Caribbean. Captain Kidd’s lost treasure appears in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Gold Bug,” which helped popularize the idea of pirates using skeletons to mark their caches.
Our ideal of the debonair pirate, irresistible to women, owes much to Byron’s poem “The Corsair,” to Walter Scott’s novel “The Pirate” (based on the story of the pirate John Gow, who courted a local woman while passing as a regular merchant in the Orkney Islands), and, of course, to Errol Flynn’s portrayal of Captain Blood in the 1935 movie of the same name (echoed by William Goldman’s Dread Pirate Roberts in “The Princess Bride”).
It’s not surprising that our idea of the pirate has diverged so much from the source material. What makes a better story: the ragged, drunken, underfed and overworked sailor who turns to piracy for food or to escape the brutal conditions of a navy ship, or the swashbuckling, jewel-bedecked antihero?
In the same way that vampires morphed from the creepy ghouls of Nosferatu to the caped aristocrats of “Dracula” to the swoon-worthy hunks of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Twilight,” and “True Blood,” what it means to be piratical may still be in flux. Johnny Depp famously based his performance as the pirate Captain Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies on Keith Richards (who then himself played Jack Sparrow’s father in a later installment of the series). If International Talk Like a Pirate Day is still going when today’s kids grow up, the next generation of faux pirates may emulate Depp’s “London mumble” rather than the broad West Country language of Newton.Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.