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The name 'Jolly Roger' is one of the famous pirate sayings.

5 pirate phrases and their origins

Be it from the pages of Treasure Island, the exploits of Captain Jack Sparrow on the silver screen, or the Guybrush Threepwood’s adventures on Monkey Island, the fictional pirate has long held a fascination for landlubbers everywhere: we take a look at a few of the words and phrases associated with our fictional cutthroat friends.

Hoist the Jolly Roger

The flag most commonly associated with pirates, the origins of the name Jolly Roger are unclear, as touched upon in our recent blog post about flags. At first glance the basic elements seem obvious enough – jolly + Roger. Except that the sight of the flag would be unlikely to make anyone feel happy and cheerful, and why Roger? The first quotation currently given in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for the term does give rise to one purported origin. It is from a 1724 work on the history of pirates and reads “On the hoisting of Jolly Roger, (the Name they give their black Flag,) their French hearts failed”. This could suggest a French provenance and may be behind one particular etymological theory that it is an adaptation of a French phrase joli rouge, which literally translates as ‘pretty red’. Sadly, this seems unconvincing. There is no phrase attested in French that has been applied to a pirate’s flag and, perhaps even more definitively, the flag in question is black, not red, and always has been. Another theory is that the jolly part employs some black humour, and describes the skull as manifesting a broad grin. What of Roger? Well, there is Old Roger, a humorous name for the Devil (along the lines of Old Nick), which would fit in with the devilish exploits of the pirates. Alas, though, it seems that there is no definitive answer to the etymological question.

Black marks the spot

In works of fiction dealing with the swashbuckling adventures of pirates, if you were given the black spot, things were not looking up. It was used to communicate a warning or verdict of some kind. Consisting of a piece of paper that had been blackened on one side with writing on the reverse, it was frequently presented to the leader who was under threat of being deposed. The current first example given in the OED is from Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.

“On the floor close to his hand there was a little round of paper, blackened on the one side. I could not doubt but that this was the black spot; and taking it up, I found written on the other side…this short message: ‘You have till ten to-night.’”

The recipient in this quotation is suitably terrified and dies soon afterwards, although from excess of alcohol rather than the black spot itself. Later in the book Long John Silver, one of the most famous pirates in fiction, also receives the black spot, but is he is rather less perturbed. While the phrase is most commonly associated with the Stevenson classic, it has gone on to be used in other tales – Swallows and Amazons is also quoted in the OED entry – as well as non-piratical contexts.

It’s your money that we want

No treasure chest would be complete without some pieces of eight, and indeed this phrase has become widely associated with depictions of pirates. Again it can be found in Treasure Island, as a phrase often uttered by Long John Silver’s parrot Captain Flint, and certainly it now has implications of meaning a large amount of money. It originally referred to a Spanish coin which is no longer in general use which was worth eight reals and had the numeral 8 stamped on one side.

All at sea

Many of the phrases we commonly associate with pirates have more benign naval origins. Avast, for example simply an exhortation for a sailor to stop or cease. Grog was a drink of some kind of spirit, most commonly rum, and water, with seven-water rum being a contemptuous name for a particularly weak variety. Hearties began life as an affectionate form of address either to sailors or by them, and is now probably most commonly used to reflect humorously the speech of pirates. Yo-ho-ho was originally a nautical exclamation. When Robert Louis Stevenson used it in Treasure Island, it became the refrain of a sea-song, with more sinister overtones:

Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest–
…Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest–
…Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum

Shivering planks?

We’re probably all familiar with the supposed method of execution favoured by pirates of walking the plank, where a person would be forced, often blindfolded, to walk along the length of a piece of wood until they fell into the sea. As well as piratical contexts, this phrase has also been used in modern English meaning to leave under compulsion (often a position and often with the implication of scapegoatery), to undertake any difficult course of action, and even (with tongue in cheek, presumably) to get married. Did you know that another phrase commonly associated with pirates shares woody origins? Shiver me timbers is a mock oath often used in pirate-speak, but what of its etymology? Well, when you consider that as well as meaning to tremble, shiver also means ‘to break or split into small fragments or splinters’ the link with timber seems less opaque. Of course, the phrase doesn’t impart any kind of profound meaning, but then most naval oaths don’t. Consider the “blistering barnacles” and “thundering typhoons” of Herge’s Captain Haddock, or the imitative “Kipper me capstans” and “Coddling catfish” of Captain Pugwash, much beloved of British Generation Xers everywhere.

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