Since tomorrow is, as doubtless all of the Brethren are aware, International Talk Like a Pirate day our SMS for today will be a little different than usual. Instead of delving into the seagoing meaning of just one word, we’re going to take a quick look at the actual background of a few favorite TLAPD words and phrases. I want Triple P readers to sound as good as they look tonight at that pirate party or pub crawl. But don’t look for “Arrr!” on this list. That’s just silly.
Avast: We’ve talked about this word before at SMS but it always comes up when the wannabes come out in Johnny Depp drag. Avast does not mean hello, how are you or how about a drink, wench. It means stop and a true pirate – like his naval or privateering counterpart – would not trouble himself with the long version. “Vast that!” would get the job done quite nicely.
Ahoy: The Pirate Guys themselves list the meaning of this word as “Hello!” in their book Well Blow Me Down. In fact ahoy derives from the Danish ho, meaning stop. By the 19th century, however, it was not uncommon for English speaking sailors to greet an unknown vessel with the call of “Ahoy the ship” at sea. It was far better manners to call out the ship’s actual name or, better still, the last name of her Captain. By this time, too, vast was in almost universal use as a word for stop.
Belay: Honestly, how many words mean stop at sea? The answer is a barrel full. Belay technically means to tie off the end of a rope and make it fast – often to a belaying pin. But belay was frequently used in general banter to mean knock it off as “Belay that yarn; your story is getting old,” or “Belay your grousing, mate.”
Booty: One of my favorites simply for the difference between its imagined and actual meaning. Pirates and privateers used the word booty to mean any part of a prize that could be immediately and evenly distributed out such as clothing, weapons, specie, gold dust, small pieces of silver plate or jewels. Other items that would need to be sold for cash were referred to as prize goods while the captured ship was itself the prize.
Crow’s nest: Here’s one you hear a lot from those in Johnny-Depp-drag. I actually had one foul-breathed hunk of shark bait ask me if I’d “like to go up to the crow’s nest” with him once. Get. A. Better. Line. And brush your teeth. Anyway, actual seamen aside from whalers eschewed the term crow’s nest as they avoided speaking of the Devil. The platform halfway up a pirate, privateer or navy ship’s mast was known as a top. It was beneath these men to call their maintop a crow’s nest. As an aside, the crow’s nest originated as a high platform where corvids were kept in Dark Age European fishing vessels. When the boat lost sight of land a raven, crow or mockingbird would be let loose. Instinctively the bird would fly for shore and the boat could follow it back to safety.
Duffers: Not one you’ll find in The Pirate Guys’ books, which is a shame really because it’s a nice, unisex insult. When a seaman spoke of a duffer or a duff he meant either a poor peddler, usually of used goods, a smuggler’s wench or a coward.
Grog: Really, that’s anything you’re drinking tonight. Technically it’s a naval ration of one part spirits (yes, alcohol other than rum has been used) to three parts water served out at dinner and supper. Later, when scurvy was again “discovered”, some form of citric acid was added as well. The grog ration was officially instituted in the Royal Navy in 1740 by Admiral Vernon As The Sailors’ Word Book notes: “The addition of sugar and lemon juice now makes grog an agreeable anti-scorbutic.”
Lubber: An old, Northern English word meaning a clown or dolt. The word crept into sea-speak and became synonymous with an unseamanlike sailor or a landsman.
Mate: Your friend at sea or simply a fellow crewman. The word may very well have derived from the French word for sailor matelot which was also used by the early bucaniers on Tortuga to indicate a best friend, a man with whom another shared a wife or possibly a homosexual partner.
On the account: A sailor turned pirate was said in the Golden Age to have “gone on the account”. The term has to do with the old “no purchase, no pay” adage that if a prize was not caught a pirate had no money.
Scuttlebutt: A barrel with a square hole large enough for a dipper and filled with water. This was left near the mainmast on most ships when fresh water was not being rationed. Because men would gather to drink they also exchanged gossip at the scuttlebutt and thus the word became synonymous with rumors and suppositions passed from one person to another.
Stow: From the nautical word stowage which means placing ballast, cargo and even crew in just the right spots aboard ship to get the maximum performance out of the vessel. It was an art form, really, and only men who knew their ship intimately could perform it well. The guys in Johnny-Depp-drag will use it for “stop” this weekend, which is sad at best and frankly sacrilegious to my mind. My Dad would never have put up with that.
Weevil: This word for the Curculio comes down to us from the Anglo Saxon word wefl. They start out as worm-like creatures that eat wood and bread and grow up to be ravenous and fairly sizeable beetles that were sometimes found swimming in soups thickened with ship’s biscuit.
I’m sure you’ll come up with quite a few more tonight and tomorrow. If you are curious about the origins of any of your sailory language, leave a comment and I’ll hunt them down for you. Etymologies make me almost as happy as fair winds and a following sea. Happy International Talk Like a Pirate Day Eve! Seafaring Sunday returns tomorrow.
Painting by N.C. Wyeth from Treasure Island.