Thanks to popular movies, the pirates of our imaginations are fearless, sword-swinging buccaneers with a penchant for flamboyant outfits and even more colorful slang words. Sadly, this vision is more fictional than fact-based.
During the Golden Age of Piracy (a historic period during the late 1600s and early 1700s when marauding ships roamed the oceans), these seafaring scoundrels mostly talked just like normal sailors—meaning they likely never uttered expressions like “Arrrgh” and “Shiver me timbers.” (In fact, these phrases were actually popularized by Robert Louis Stevenson’s fictional 1883 novel Treasure Island and the similarly titled 1950 movie adaptation.) Plus, pirates hailed from many regions of the world, so they often didn’t share a common accent, ethnicity, or tongue.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t liven up ordinary conversations with some of the more rakish words and phrases that pepper pirates’ dialogue in historical accounts, books, movies, and TV shows. Once you master the 15 pieces of slang below, simply don a classic tricorn hat, borrow a parrot from your local pet store, and you’ll be all set to conquer the Seven Seas (or at least a local lake).
1. CAPE HORN FEVER
It’s a sunny Friday, and you just know your cubicle mate who called in with the flu is sitting in a deck chair sipping a cold drink instead of sniffling in bed. While complaining to your coworkers, say your prevaricating peer has a case of “Cape Horn Fever”—pirate-speak for when someone’s faking an illness to avoid responsibilities.
To hornswaggle someone is to dupe, defraud, or cheat them out of money. For example, you might jokingly accuse your friend of “hornswaggling” you if they borrow a few dollars and forget to pay you back.
You probably shouldn’t refer to your office intern as a grommet—an apprentice sailor, or a ship’s boy who runs errands for the captain. But if it’s Halloween and they’re dressed up like a pirate at the company party, all bets are off.
A synonym for alcohol, especially rum. The prevalence of grog on ships in the 17th and 18th centuries resulted in a phenomenon known as “feeling groggy”—what we call a hangover.
5. CUT OF HIS JIB
Pirates assessed another crew’s ship by looking at its jib, a triangular sail on the boat’s forwardmost mast. The jib often revealed the ship’s nationality, and how well its sailors handled the ship. Eventually, the phrase “the cut of his jib” was adopted to describe people’s appearances, too. Example: When you tell someone that you like “the cut of his jib,” you’re complimenting him on his personal appearance or manner.
6. I COME FROM HELL, AND I’LL CARRY YOU THERE PRESENTLY.
If someone nosily inquires about your background or place of origin, simply sling this surly retort back at them and watch them retreat.
7. YOU’VE THE TONGUE OF SOME FOULED SCUPPER.
A scupper is a hole in a ship's side used to drain water from the deck. If you tell a person they have the tongue of a fouled (meaning gross or dirty) scupper, you’re saying they have a filthy mouth.
8. CACKLE FRUIT
Pirates mostly subsisted on salt beef; boiled fish and turtle; and hard, dry biscuits called hardtack. However, they sometimes brought chickens onboard to enjoy fresh meat and eggs. The hungry sailors called these eggs “cackle fruit” after the noises a hen makes while laying them. Try ordering pancakes with a side of scrambled cackle fruit at brunch sometime.
9. WHAT MAGGOT’S BURROWING UNDER YOUR PERIWIG?
A periwig was a long, flowing man’s wig that was in vogue from the 17th to the early 19th centuries. By asking someone what tiny worm is burrowing underneath their periwig, you’re asking them what’s irking or bothering them.
10. I WISH YOU A FAIR WIND EVER AND ALWAYS.
Use this lovely nautical metaphor to wish someone good luck in their future endeavors.
11. HAD YOUR TONGUE PRUNED?
This is essentially a pirate’s taunting way of asking someone who’s fallen uncharacteristically silent if the cat has got his or her tongue.
If someone’s a shameless suck-up, flatterer, or self-promoter, they’re what a pirate would refer to as a lick-spittler.
When a pirate encounters a conceited, overbearing, or arrogant man or boy, he often calls him a princock.
Not everyone’s a natural born sailor. If you’re on a boat with someone who doesn’t even know how to hold a boom, they’re a landlubber, or a person who’s ill at ease on the high seas and feels more comfortable ashore.
15. SHIVER ME TIMBERS
This list wouldn’t be complete without the classic (if not slightly cliché) “Shiver me timbers.” This so-called pirate oath—used to express shock, surprise, or exasperation—is a nautical phrase that references the way a ship’s wooden support frames, called timbers, shudder as a ship is tossed and turned by heavy seas.
Variations of “Shiver me timbers” were used in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 book Treasure Island. However, experts say that one of its first appearances in print was in Captain Frederick Marryat’s 1834 novel, Jacob Faithful. In the book, one character exclaims to the other, “I won’t thrash you Tom. Shiver me timbers if I do.”