Monday, July 6, 2015

Were Pirates Gay?

One of the most persistent questions asked of this blog is always, "Were pirates gay?" I have an article about homosexuality among pirates here, stating that pirates were no more or less homosexual than any other sailors at the time, but that they did not criminalize the behavior.

But I don't think this answers the question. Pirates were referred to at the time, as "Gaye Fellowes". What's up with that? Why is the word so often used?

The fact is, pirates WERE gay. They were NOT homosexual.

The secret here is that words change in meaning, and the word "Gay" has changed a lot since it came into the English language.

When I write this - that words change in meaning - I can almost hear someone shouting, "No, they don't! Words mean things. They always mean the same things. Just look in a dictionary!" Yes, I know, the idea that language isn't always the same is disturbing to some people. But language NEEDS to change, to keep up with our changing world. And if you doubt me, get a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives the history of the meaning of each word it contains, and start reading up on how the meanings of some words has evolved.

Sometimes new words come into being. Words like "internet" "flashmob" "television" and even "airplane" were invented because new things were invented. Similarly, as people come to think differently about existing things, the words used to describe those things change.

Face it, there was a point in time where "bad" meant "good".

The word "gay" came to English from the French gai, some time about 1100. It meant "carefree, happy, having a good time". People spoke of being gay, having a gay time, and it had nothing to do with homosexuality.

However, England was a Protestant nation, and during the 1600's it began to adhere to what is called The Protestant Work Ethic. This philosophy says if you are not working, you're probably up to no good. The saying "Idle hands are the devil's workshop" pretty well sums it up. If you were working (planting wheat, weaving cloth, cooking) that was fine, but if you were not actively at work, you should still be doing something useful. like learning to play the piano or reading your Bible.

(This ideal reached its peak in the Industrial Age, when factory owners claimed that it was good for their employees to work 14-hour days, because otherwise they would be "idle".)

So, the word "gay" began to mean fooling around, sitting on your butt, or just generally being irresponsible. By about 1700, the word referred to someone who was spending too much time doing things that society didn't approve of, such as drinking, eating fine food, dancing, singing, or having sex. So the word was perfect for pirates. They loved to sing, dance, eat, drink and have sex, and society didn't approve of them at all.

Later, the word changed in meaning once again. During the 1800's it became a euphemism (word used because in place of another word that sounds too rude, crude or clinical) to talk about someone who was having too much sex, and with too many people.

You can still see echos of this in old black-and-white Hollywood movies. A woman will ask a man, "Don't you think I'm gay company?" and it probably means "Don't you think I'm good in bed?" During the same time period, "having a few laughs" could mean "having sex". People weren't comfortable talking about sex, and a person who was uptight could easily pretend that "gay" still meant "happy".

From there it was an easy step for homosexuals to use "gay" as a code word. Remember, up until 1962 it was illegal for two men to have sex in the United States, and people who were caught doing it could be sent to jail for years. And in England, just being gay (not even doing anything about it) brought a jail term and/or castration. So it was really, really important to have an innocent way to hint at what you were. Later, when homosexual men began to fight for the right to be themselves without penalty, they adopted the word "gay" officially, because "homosexual" sounded too much like a disease.

So: Pirates were gay, according to the use of the word during their time period, but were not homosexual. The word changed meanings.

Another sea-faring word that has changed meaning over the years is the word "Bully" Today it means a person who torments or picks on people who have difficulty fighting back. Bullies are accepted as being cowards.

In the Golden  Age of Pirates however, the word had almost exactly the opposite meaning. Being "bully" meant being "like a bull". In other words, strong, self-assured, and brave. Sailors, who faced terrifying dangers at sea, and often went ashore in ports where they didn't speak the language and didn't know the customs, took pride in being "bully". They went into strange places and faced real danger and felt no fear. (Of if they did, they hid it extremely well.)

Sea Shanties like "Heave Away Me Bully Boys" and "Bully in the Alley" still remain as a testament to this time.

However, as Europe expanded her powers into the Third World, colonizing existing nations, these same visiting sailors (and soldiers) began to believe that they had the right to impose their own culture on conquered nations. If they didn't like the way native people were acting they might start a fight. If they believed that a woman was dressed like a prostitute, they might rape her. Since they were in a conquered nation, they felt they could "throw their weight around." In short, these men became "bullies" in the modern sense.


  1. TS,

    This posting was informative and should help explain and clear up some misunderstanding about the etymology of these words.


  2. TS,

    This posting was informative and should help explain and clear up some misunderstanding about the etymology of these words.


  3. This website is actually so interesting.

  4. I'm always finding articles about how pirates were not that interested in women, and have often wondered if this is why they are so vicious towards women.

    1. I'm like you. I thought pirates being gay literally meant they were homosexual and therefore that explained why they were so evil towards women in spite of two women being pirates in Europe and one of the most ruthless being a woman in Asia.