Whenever you read about pirates, you come across words that appear few other places – and sometimes nowhere else. In addition, words have changed their meaning over time. Let’s take a look at some words from the pirate era.
Pirate – A person who robs others on the sea. The word “Pirate” covers over 3,000 years of history and perhaps even more. Pirates don’t wear special clothing or sail any special type of ship. They just take stuff.
The Golden Age of Piracy – This is what we think of when we think of pirates. The period covers the years from about 1690 to about 1725 – some say less, some say longer. These are the pirates who wore three-cornered hats and long coats. (Because that’s the kind of clothes everyone wore at the time.) These pirates also considered themselves to be brothers fighting against an unjust system.
Privateer – Outsourced navy. When navies needed more ships than they could afford, they gave (or sold) privateering licenses to ship owners. These men armed their ships, recruited crews and captains, and took on the job of harassing enemy shipping. Their pay was a percentage of the value of ships and cargo that they captured. The rest went to the government that issued the license. (Many privateers became pirates when the wars they were licensed for ended.)
Ship – Technically, a type of sail-plan on a sailing vessel. “Ship-rigged” vessels have three masts, and all three masts carry square sails. In modern times, this technical usage has been expanded to include all sailing vessels, no matter how many masts or what shape of sails. (However, any type of sailing vessel can properly be called a “boat.”)
Swim – To move through the water. In the 18th century, fish and ships “swam” but people from Europe did not. Water near human habitation was usually too polluted to be safe, and water far from humans held things that wanted to eat people. The very few people who did learn to move through water were considered to be very odd.
African American – This term did not yet exist. There were plenty of Africans, but the United States of America did not yet exist.
Britain – This is a tricky one. In 1706 Britain didn’t exist. In 1707 it did, because England
and Scotland had merged to form the nation of Great Britain. So before 1707, the proper name for it is England, and after that it’s Britain. (England still existed, as a part of Britain. Yes, it’s kind of confusing.)
Rum – An alcoholic drink made from the by-products of sugar production. Because sugar was a major crop in the Caribbean, rum was also made in great quantities. The drink was beloved by nearly everyone, but pirates drank many kinds of liquor. England’s Royal Navy made rum their official drink in 1655. It replaced brandy.
Before the Mast – The crew in a ship had sleeping quarters in the front part of the ship (the ride was rougher there, because the front bounced up and down) The officers slept in the back of the ship, where the ride was smoother. The mast was in the middle. So if you “sailed before the mast” you were a member of the crew.
Midshipman – A child or young man in the Royal Navy who was training to be an officer. Midshipmen could start as young as six, going out to sea in an apprenticeship. When they had learned their craft, and had distinguished themselves in some way, they could take a test and perhaps qualify as lieutenants. Until they did, they were neither crew nor officers, so they slept in the center part of the ship. Hence, midshipmen.
Bully – Brave, self-confident, like a bull. Sailors, who were faced deadly dangers in their work every day, and were strangers in every new port they entered, prided themselves on their bravery. During the Golden Age of Piracy, there was no downside to this. It was high praise to call a man a “bully boy.”
Flyer – A captain who was willing to push his ship to the limits. This was a dangerous business, as it could damage sails, spars and even masts, and could also endanger the lives of the crew. Because of the association, it became synonymous with Reckless bravery.
The Flying Gang – A gang of pirate captains and their crews that ruled the island of Nassau between 1715 and 1718, when the island had no other form of government.
An Ounce of Lead – The weight of a bullet. To give someone ‘an ounce of lead” was to shoot them.
Hanger – Sword. It was fashionable for high-born men to carry swords as a fashion accessory. The blades were so heavy that they needed to be slung off a baldric (shoulder hanger). Pirates, who aspired to be gentlemen, also hung swords off their shoulders.
Gentlemen of Fortune – Pirate’s term for himself. According to society, gentlemen were born, not made. According to pirates, fortune (and gold) could make a gentleman out of a criminal.
There you go – pirate words for pirate lovers. This coming weekend (March 25th) I’ll be at the Indiana Pirate Festival, telling pirate stories and autographing my books. If you’re in the Midwest, stop on by for day of pirate fun.