It would be erroneous of me to imply that every sailor aboard every pirate or privateer that ever sailed had a snappy nickname like Billy Bowlegs, Jim Jib or Tom Topman, but it happened more than you might think. Many men took names other then their own to avoid punishment if they were captured by the navy they deserted. Others used their nicknames as another way to frighten the enemy. Messing with Bloody Robert, Black Bart or Blackbeard sounded like a bad idea, even on paper. Let's face it, though, not everyone has that special ear for euphonious monikers. Still, there were a lot of funny names floating around and a certain amount of standardization eventually occurred.
After a while - as usual, just like in the large navies of the day - guys started to take their nickname from the job they did. Since turnover was not unusual on a pirate crew, men being free to come and go as they pleased, knowing each man's name was probably even less feasible than it was aboard an 800 soul man-of-war. Easy identification was essential in tight quarters and tense situations and, just like today, men who took pride in their speciality probably identified with the words used to define it. So here's a little list, Brethren; a quick overview if you will to help you decide what to call your family members, friends and coworkers this Saturday on International Talk Like a Pirate Day!
Captain: of course this one is relatively self-explanatory. Keep in mind that the Captain was an elected official, especially in the Golden Age of Piracy and, though his word was law during the taking of a prize or a storm, he rarely expected the kind of respect that would be found in the naval or merchant service. (Note: Skipper is not an interchangeable term. If you want a "Skipper" jump on a fishing or whaling boat... or take a three hour tour and get lost on a deserted island).
Lieutenant: many pirates and privateers in particular shipped one or even two Lieutenants sometimes known as Mates, 1st, 2nd, etc. (but never "little buddy"). These men would be called upon to fill in for the Captain or command prizes as necessary.
Master: here's a confusing term. In the Royal, American and French Navies a Master and Commander was and officer who did the job of both the Master and the Captain and was one step down from a Post Captain. A Quartermaster was, much like a purser, in charge of supplies including food, rigging, sails, beverages, livestock, etc. A Master was the navigator, and that is how the term was used on pirates and privateers. Generally a seasoned sailor who knew his way around not just a chart but most local shores and rivers as well, the Master was invaluable to the safety of the ship.
Bosun: the word is short for "boatswain" which means the ship's suitor. Kind of romantic, huh? Essentially, the bosun ran the ship. He kept the men working and the ship in good order so that the other officers could get on with the business of finding and taking prizes. Interestingly, it frequently fell to the bosun to look after the cat or cats kept aboard as rat catchers. He also carried out any discipline, such as flogging.
Leadsman: subordinate to the Master but no less crucial to the ship, the leadsman was in charge of keeping track of water depth and the ship's speed. He did this by throwing the "lead line" into the ocean periodically and counting the depth of the consecutive knots made thereon. (This is why a ship's speed is measured in "knots").
Purser: as above, the purser was in charge of all the supplies on the ship. His subordinates included the Cook or Slouchy (so called because he was frequently the guy with the peg-leg and eye patch), Jemmy Ducks (who was in charge of the chickens or ducks brought aboard for their eggs), Sparks, the blacksmith and Sails, the sailmaker.
Other important fixtures aboard were Chips, the carpenter who was invaluable in the case of damage to the ship, and Guns, the lead gunner.
Did you get all that? Start thinking about who's who around your place and slap a tag on them come Saturday. You'll be able to tell them not only what they'll be up to all day, but why you picked the name you did!