How To Talk Like A Pirate On Talk Like A Pirate Day

Avoid seeming like a landlubber by learning some authentic piratical lingo.
September 16, 2020
How To Talk Like A Pirate On Talk Like A Pirate Day

The calendar has become inundated with Days. While there used to be pretty much just Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and a few others, today there’s a National Day for pretty much any day of the year. On a single day in October, you can celebrate No Bra Day, Own Business Day, Train Your Brain Day, Ada Lovelace Day and Face Your Fears Day. Not all of these are widely celebrated and many of them are openly silly. You’ll most often see them spread across Facebook or being talked about by some company that makes a relevant product (think Dunkin’ on National Doughnut Day). But this proliferation of Days might just have been started by one of the most silly, internet-centric holidays of all: International Talk Like A Pirate Day.

Celebrated each September 19, International Talk Like A Pirate Day may sound a bit like a joke. And that’s because, well, it kind of is. Started by a group of people just wanting to have a laugh, it’s a holiday that exists for the sole purpose of having fun by going around yelling “drink up me hearties” and “curse ye, ye landlubber.” But what’s the real deal behind talking like a pirate?

The History Of International Talk Like A Pirate Day

Like any great holiday, International Talk Like A Pirate Day has a strange origin story. This one doesn’t go back to the Golden Age of Piracy in the 17th century, but instead to that long ago year of 1995. Friends John Baur and Mark Summers were playing racquetball on an auspicious summer day and decided to start yelling things at each other using “pirate slang.” This was your usual “avast” and “ahoy” and, of course, “arrrr!”

Baur and Summers had so much fun, they decided to make it an informal holiday among themselves and the people they knew. Summers chose September 19 because it was his ex-wife’s birthday (yeah, it’s weird). In any case, for the first few years, nothing much came of it. Then, in 2002, Baur and Summers decided to expand the holiday by reaching out to humorist Dave Barry, whose column was syndicated around the country. Barry wrote about the holiday and became the official spokesperson, and it launched the entirely unknown celebration into the larger world.

The timing of the holiday’s announcement may have contributed to its popularity. Just one year later, the first Pirates of the Caribbean film was released, which launched pirates back into the cultural conversation. Pirates also became a massive symbol of early internet culture. If you’re “pirating” something today, it more often refers to downloading something illegally than attacking someone else’s ship.

The holiday has largely been kept alive because of various companies celebrating it. Most notably, in 2008, Facebook added “English (Pirate)” to their list of languages, so you could translate the website into a semblance of pirate-speak. For example, it would change “Lives in” to “Anchored in” and “Studied at” to “Did book-larnin’ at.” Sadly, the feature was removed in one of Facebook’s updates. The Sims 4 also celebrated the day in 2018 by translating its text prompts into pirate (the traditional “woohoo” becoming “heave ho”). But in general, the furor for pirate content isn’t what it was in the mid-2000s.

How To Talk Like A Pirate

If you were raised in the United States or the United Kingdom, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll know what a “pirate” sounds like. And by “pirate,” we mean Hollywood actors playing pirates. 

The Hollywood pirate can be traced back almost entirely to a single man: Robert Newton, who played Long John Silver in both Treasure Island and Long John Silver, as well as Blackbeard in Blackbeard the Pirate. Newton was a Brit who came from Dorchester, a town in the southwest of England. He used the West Country accent of his childhood — played up to some extent — as the voice for Blackbeard and Long John Silver. This isn’t completely anachronistic. The West Country was the center of the fishing industry in England and thus was tied to nautical terminology. Not many pirates were coming from Dorchester, however, so it might not be the most authentic accent.

Beyond the accent, talking like a pirate means using a number of stock words and phrases. The question is: how many of these might have been used by actual pirates? Like with many things Hollywood does, there are some inaccuracies in their portrayal of pirates. We looked at some of the most popular phrases and attempted to trace their origins.

Ahoy — From the Dutch hoi, this word was originally a way of getting someone’s attention, particularly at sea, so pirates likely did use it. Oddly enough, Alexander Graham Bell wanted people to say “ahoy” when using his invention the telephone, but it got replaced by “hello,” thus making each phone call a little less seaworthy.

Arrr! — Possibly the most important phrase of the modern pirate’s lexicon, this is another aspect of piracy that can be linked to the actor Robert Newton. Technically it first appeared in a 1934 film version of Treasure Island, which was before Newton’s time, but it was the 1950 Disney version of Treasure Island that made it famous. “Arrr” is a part of the West Country accent, meaning “yes,” and Newton’s famous rolling of the “r” has imprinted on generations of wannabe buccaneers.

Avast — Taken from the Dutch houd vast, meaning “hold fast” — and it should be noted there were plenty of Dutch pirates — this nautical phrase dates back to at least the 1680s. Pirates probably did use this one.

Buccaneer — While sometimes used interchangeably with pirate, a buccaneer was specifically a pirate who did their “work” on the Spanish-American coasts. The word can be traced back to the French boucan, which is a type of grill that was used to smoke meats, which some French people in Spanish territory did, along with pillaging. The Spaniards started to call them bucaneros, which was later on distorted to “buccaneers” by English speakers.

Corsair — Like buccaneers, corsairs were confined to a specific part of the world. Generally, they were privateers who were on one side of a conflict between the Ottoman Empire and Christian European states. They often slipped beyond the control of the nations they were allegedly loyal to and committed random acts of piracy.

Davy Jones’ locker — While it clearly is a metaphor for the bottom of the sea, no one is quite sure where this phrase comes from. One of the earliest references to it comes from Daniel Defoe’s 1726 book The Four Years Voyages of Capt. George Roberts. Written by Himself. There was a pirate named David Jones in the 17th century, but he wasn’t particularly famous. Merriam-Webster says the most plausible theory is that it’s a mashup of St. David (a Welsh saint that sailors would invoke) and Jonah (of being-eaten-by-a-whale fame), but that might be a stretch. It’s certainly old enough that pirates would have been familiar with the phrase.

Land ho! — The word “ho” (hold your laughter) was used by spotters to call attention to something, and so pirates could likely be found yelling “Land ho!” (land is spotted), “Sail ho!” (another boat is spotted) and “Man ho!” (a town is spotted).

Landlubber — Referring to sailors who were very inexperienced, this word goes back to at least the start of the 18th century. It’s not entirely clear where the word comes from, but it’s not hard to imagine it could have been used by real pirates.

Pirate — This is the general term for anyone who attacks and robs other ships at sea (though separate from privateers), and yes, it was used by actual pirates. The word “pirate” can be traced back much further than the time period you might associate with them. It comes from the Greek peiratēs, which itself is derived from the Greek peirein, which means “to attack.”

Privateer  — Privateers were private ships (as in, not owned by a government), which were similar to pirates except they had a relationship with a nation that allowed them to engage in acts of war. They often carried a “letter of marque,” which meant they were free to commit acts of piracy against any enemy nation’s merchant ships. Sometimes people started as privateers and later converted to full-blown piracy.

Shiver me timbers — An expression of surprise, it’s very unlikely that pirates would have ever said this. The earliest written reference to it is in Jacob Faithful, a novel published in 1834. This is probably a phrase to avoid if you want to talk like a real pirate.

Walk the plank — It wouldn’t be a pirate movie without a scene where someone is forced to walk overboard, but walking the plank was a pretty rare punishment in reality. It did happen, though, and it was recorded in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue as early as 1788.

Yo-ho-ho — This phrase was popularized, at the least, by the book Treasure Island, where it appears in a pirate shanty. It is related to actual sailing, though, and might be a shortening of “yo-heave-ho,” which was something sailors would use to stay in rhythm while rowing the boat. This phrase is also connected to “yo-ho” and “heave ho,” which are iterations on the same theme.

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Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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