Monday, June 26, 2017

Ye Scurvy Dog!

Pirate insults and what they meant.

Scurvy dog, Lily-livered, Scabrous, Bilge rat, Poxy. You’re being insulted by a pirate, but you have no idea what any of it means.

Pirate slang, like any other kind, was strongly influenced by popular culture of the time. Just as modern phrases like “Not woke” are going to confuse future generations (He’s asleep?) pirate slang depended on knowing what was going on at the time. Popular songs, national culture, and even medical knowledge affected what word pirates used when they were angry, just like today. Let’s take a look.

Dog  The Spanish were famous for calling the English “dogs.” “English dog!” was about as strong an insult as they felt like heaving around. What’s wrong with dogs? And why were the French not “dogs”? Or the Spanish themselves, for that matter?

To understand, you need to remember that the Moors, people of the Muslim faith, conquered parts of Spain and held the territory for roughly 700 years. A lot of Moorish culture wore off on Catholic Spain during this time, and Moors regarded dogs as ritually unclean. Dog drool was especially yucky. A person who touched dog drool was supposed to wash 7 times.

The ”dog” insult was especially pertinent to the English because of the Catholic/Protestant divide. By not being Catholic, the English were sort of “ritually unclean” as well. Also, the Protestant religion of the time discouraged bathing, calling it “worldly” and “luxurious.” Protestant Christians were supposed to ignore their physical bodies as much as possible. Of course, this didn’t smell very nice.

So the English were, by Spanish beliefs, spiritually unclean, and pretty physically dirty as well. Thus, “dogs.”

The English, who liked dogs just fine, used the insult as a mark of pride, and called themselves “sea dogs.”

Scurvy was also used as an insult. Most people know that the disease scurvy makes your teeth fall out. But the early stages of the disease, the ones more people had encountered, were marked by loss of strength and by emotional depression.

Winner of the 2014 World's Ugliest Dog Contest. His owners love him, I promise. 

Loss of strength was a loss of manliness, and depression, just like now, held a lot of social stigma. People of the time called it “a lowering of spirits.”  So, to refer to someone as a “scurvy” individual was to call them a weakling without pride or enthusiasm.

Scabrous means covered in scabs, or mange. A “scabrous dog” is a mangy mutt.

Poxy was another insult based on sickness. Smallpox, a deadly disease, often left its (living) victims horribly scarred. Marks similar to the worst possible acne scars would cover the face, the hands, and sometimes the whole body. Calling someone “poxy” generally meant “ugly.”

Sorry, no pictures of Smallpox. It's really too horrible. 

 But “pox” was often a general term for any disease. And during this time period, the most fearful disease was the “French pox” (“English pox” to the French) known today as syphilis. Then as now, catching such a sexually transmitted disease carried a social stigma. So “poxy” could carry some of that, as well.

Lily-livered has got to be my favorite pirate insult. On the surface it makes on sense at all. Lilies are flowers, and the liver is an internal organ. What do they have to do with each other and how do they add up to an insult?

Let’s start with a little medial background. 300 years ago, people believed that their bodies were made up of a combination of 4 primal liquids –yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood. When the proper amounts of these liquids mixed together, everything was fine. But when the liquids were out of balance, a person became sick.

However, most people had a predisposition to carry a little more of one fluid than the others. This affected the general characteristics of the body and personality. An abundance of phlegm, for instance, made a person who was introverted, “cold” emotionally, and had breathing problems.

Blood supposedly supplied courage, energy, and a happy, outgoing personality.  Doctors at the time thought that all blood was made by the liver. (Part of this was because a healthy liver looks like a giant blood clot. It should be noted here that a sickly liver usually becomes pale.)

Now, about lilies. This ties to popular music and poetry of the day. Lilies were famously white. And soft. So descriptions of beautiful maidens referred to their “lily-white hands” as in “I took up her lily white hand…” Slightly racier songs remarked on the lady’s “lily white breast.” It was a cliché.

So, when one man calls another “lily livered” he means that the organ producing that man’s bravery is atrophied, sick, unable to do its job. The man is without courage. Furthermore, by referring to the organ as lily colored, rather than merely pale, the insulter also notes a similarity between his victim and a pretty young maiden. Not a comparison that most men appreciate.

Bilge rat  Rats infested all wooden sailing ships. It was a fact of life. Hundreds, even thousands of them lived on a typical ship, and being social animals, they formed their own pecking order and society. High-ranking rats lived near the ship’s stores, enjoying the best food, and also may have enjoyed the relative peace and quiet of the captain’s quarters. Less healthy or strong rats may have lived officers’ quarters, and nursing mothers may have enjoyed the areas where spare sails were kept.

But the bilge – the very lowest level of the ship, was not a comfortable home for anything. The area collected all the water that seeped aboard. This stagnant water brewed up a terrible smell, augmented by sailors who used it as a toilet when seas were rough. In addition, since humans stayed away most of the time, there was no food… No stores, no table scraps. Anything forced by its society to live in this uncomfortable and lonely place was probably sick or crippled, and possibly disliked as well. To be a bilge rat was to be the lowest kind of rat their was.

Well there you go, the meanings of some of the most popular pirate insults. And if you’ve got one not mentioned here, put it in the comments, and I’ll see what I can do!

Monday, June 19, 2017

New Pirate Music

I don’t get to travel to nearly as many festivals as I’d like. Work, and obligations, and the fact that I make money more like a deck hand than a pirate lord keep me closer to home than I want to be. (Though if anyone would like to hire a pirate storyteller for their event, just shoot me a line at So I don’t get to hear as much pirate music as I’d like.

But lately I’ve discovered some new (to me) bands and some new songs.

The Musical Blades started out  a decade ago, as a comedy sword act in Kansas City – just about as far from piratical waters as it’s possible to get! Over the years their act grew and evolved, until they are now a full-fledged pirate band. The Blades have just released their tenth full-length album, “Live at the Voodoo.”

This group is tight, talented, and very creative. Renaissance Magazine awarded them Best New CD, Best Live Music Group, and Best Comedy Musical Show for 2016, with additional awards coming from other sources. Even their Facebook Page has won awards!

All I can say about these guys is – Where have you been all my life? (Yeah, I know. I’ve had my head stuck in a history book.)

So, for your enjoyment, here is the first of two of my favorite Blades songs, an original with a deceptively slow intro. Listen carefully, and you’ll catch a line from Pirates of the Caribbean, Curse of the Black Pearl.  

Gotta dig the Black Sails images on this. (Black Sails had some great moments and a few idiotic ones, but the cinematography was always outstanding.)

Now, for our next offering, a song with a long history. A VERY long history. “Whiskey in the Jar” probably dates back to about the middle of the 17th century. There is some evidence that it was at least partially based on the life of an Irish highwayman (robber) named Patrick Flemmen who was hanged in 1650.

It’s an Irish rebel song, sung by nearly anyone who didn’t like being occupied by the English. The basic story is about a highwayman who robs an English army captain and gets away with the money. He goes home to his wife/lover, taking the loot. But as he sleeps, she betrays him and he is captured. The song often ends with the singer’s hope that his brother will help him escape, and the two of them will be robbers together in the Irish mountains.

And what does this have to do with pirates? Not a single thing.

BUT the song has been stuck into pirate playlists for decades. Pirates, after all, didn’t like the English, and they considered themselves to be in a state of rebellion. It doesn’t hurt at all that the Englishman robbed is a “captain.” And different version of the song have been sung in Scotland and even the United States – anywhere the English were unwelcome.

But even though the song is very popular, it still has not much to do with pirates. Until the Musical Blades got a hold of it. That is. A little pirate history, a little lyrical magic, and we have a filk song – a song whose lyrics have been altered in order to appeal to a special interest group, in this case, pirate lovers.

Our next band is The Jolly Rogers, another group that flits around the Midwest. They’ve been recording since 1992, with a total of 12 albums to their credit (thought the first 4 are out of print.) Their latest, XXV (Twenty five in Roman numerals, for those of you who ain’t read your classics.) The album covers a lot of ground – 32 songs, ranging from traditional shanties to original works.

This group does not have the professional finish of the Blades, but enthusiasm, imagination and hard work have taken them a long way. My favorite here is “The Flying Dutchman.” It’s hard to do a whole song that’s frightening and creepy, but the Rogers manage it here quite nicely.  The driving rhythms move the song forward and the lyrics send a shiver up your spine.

I’ve saved the best for last. It’s been out since 2007, an comes from a real-live revolutionary. David Rovics is an anarchist, a critic of the Republican Party, Democratic Party, George W. Bush, and John Kerry. He also knows his pirates.

Rovics’ song is as close to history as a pirate song has ever gotten, and it’s pretty plain that he wishes that the pirates had taken over the world. Rovics is so enthusiastic about the “pirate” lifestyle that he has a song called “Steal this MP3.” And he gives a lot of his music away for free. And sheet music. And you can watch the video on his site without commercials.

So that’s my latest pirate music lineup. Visit the sites, download the music, and support these artists. It’s the piratical thing to do.

Monday, June 12, 2017

A Pirate Rope for Me

Rope bounded the lives of pirates, as it did for all sea-faring men. Rope held their vessels together, lifted their sails, held them to docks or to the sea bottom via the ship’s anchor. Men climbing to trim the sails depended on well-maintained rope to support them.  And in an era when absolutely no safety regulations existed, damaged rope was a reason for mutiny.

A piece of preserved rope found on board the 16th century carrack Mary Rose

The earliest evidence we have of human-made rope is in impressions made in clay and dating back 28,000 years. (No, that’s not a mistake.) Our earliest actual example of rope is a fossilized piece of “two-ply laid rope” which was found in the famous Caves of Lascaux – the ones with the famous animal paintings. These fossilized pieces date to approximately 15,000 BC.

All kinds of materials have been used to make rope. Palm fiber, flax, grass, animal hair and leather have all been pressed into use. By the late Middle Ages, and through the Golden Age of Piracy, hemp rope was the accepted standard. Hemp is a fast-growing plant, and produces long, strong fibers. Unfortunately, like most natural materials, it is prone to rot.

Rope was made in “ropewalks”, an early sort of factory. Fibers were twisted together into twine, then twine was twisted into rope. The process involved enormous amounts of both skill and humans muscle. Teams of men walked backwards, while hauling and twisting the fibers. The process produced a set length of rope, not a continuous stretch. In the early 17th century, Peter Appleby constructed a 300-metre long ropewalk (for the dockyard) in Copenhagen, Denmark.

As navies rose in importance, rope making became a matter of national security.  The ropewalk at Chatham Dockyard in England is still producing rope commercially and has an internal length of 1,135 ft (346 m). When it was constructed in 1790, it was the longest brick building in Europe. The facility produced a huge variety of rope, and provide jobs for strong, skilled workers. It took over 200 men to form and close a 20-inch (circumference) cable laid rope.

The lengths of the buildings and the functional maximum length that a single length of rope could be made gave shipping a measurement – the “cable length” or average length of a piece of rope. Roughly 800 feet (thought it varies between nations.)

What if you needed a piece of rope more than 800 feet long? This could only be achieved by splicing, a method of braiding or weaving the ends of rope together to make a longer piece.  Though different styles of splicing rope exist, each has its own problems. Some create a weak place in the rope. Others don’t, but make a bulge, which is difficult to get through pulleys.

Image result for spliced rope

But once it’s been put to use, rope is no longer rope. A ship may contain up to several MILES of rope, but each piece has a name and a function. It could take a novice sailor years to memorize all of this, and during the time he was studying, he was said to be “learning the ropes.” The phrase has since been adopted by other professions, signifying a period when a new employee is picking up the basics of his or her new workplace.

As an example of terminology, rope that is purposely sized, cut, spliced, or simply assigned a function, is referred to as a "line". Sail control lines are mainly referred to as sheets, for example a jibsheet. A halyard is a line used to raise and lower a sail, and is typically made of a length of rope with a shackle attached at one end. Other examples include anchor line ("rode"), stern line, marline and so on.

Most importantly for sailors, rope dating from the Golden Age of Piracy needs to be maintained. At minimum, current safety experts recommend that all natural-fiber lines should be inspected every year, with an eye to replacement. High-stress lines should be inspected every three to six months. Life-critical lines, such as the toe lines that sailors stood on while furling sails, should be inspected before every use.

But in the 17th and 18th century, there were no safety standards, and no requirements. Ship-owning corporations wanted lines to last as long as possible. Maintaining materials in the service of lowering maintenance costs was common practice. Lines were tarred (waterproofed) so often that sailors were known by the smell of tar they carried on their clothes., and even called by the nickname “Jack Tar.” Elaborate systems of protection came into practice (see the video below) But some commanders, ignorant of the properties of hemp, (most captains had been schooled in reading and writing, literature, cyphering or bookkeeping, astronomy or navigation and geography, but not the hands-on work of a ship) saw reason to replace lines only when they failed.

The fact that this might mean that one or more sailors died was not a problem, since a work-related death did not cost the company any money. In addition, time spent inspecting rope was not time spent making the ship go faster, or moving more cargo. Sailors were often left to discover dangerous lines by themselves. And since hemp rope absorbed water, it was most likely to rot from the inside out, hiding defects. A captain or corporate officer might ignore information from sailors about unsafe working conditions. Indeed, he might have a sailor who insisted on presenting facts about failing rigging flogged in punishment. After all, how dare a common sailor tell a captain how to run his ship?

Deaths and injuries from unsafe rigging had no direct effect on shipping companies or captains. But word got out that such-and-such was not a safe ship, and sailors looking for work tried to avoid these vessels. And when sailors were injured or killed resentment rose. This was exactly the kind of bad feeling which drove men to become pirates. After all, on a pirate vessel, officers were dependent on the good will of the crew, and having risen from the ranks (in most cases) pirate captains had first-hand knowledge of the dangers of old rope.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean - Dead Men Tell No Tales Trivia

So much to say abut the POTC movies. So this week I thought I’d share a little trivia, some historic, some merely interesting.

1.    The British flag in the beginning of the movie is not the modern one, but it is historically accurate. The original English flag was a red cross on a white background. The Scottish flag was a white X on a blue background. When England and Scotland merged their flags in 1606, the two symbols were imposed over each other on the same flag. The flag stayed this way until 1801, when the red X of Ireland was added, making the modern flag.

Image result for 1750 union jack

2.    Jack Sparrow seems to have hit rock bottom in Dead Men Tell No Tales, but there have also been some good times since we saw him last. One of his teeth has been inset with a ruby.

3.     Captain Jack Sparrow still has the right to call himself captain, even though his current, pitiful command is in dry dock. The small vessel is named the Dying Gull. Why? If it came that way, you can bet that Joshamee Gibbs has something to do with letting the name remain as it came. And if the pirates re-named the boat, this may be the cause of their current desperate state. Re-naming a boat is said to bring bad luck.

4.    Carina Smith couldn’t have been a horologist. Yes, the word means “student of time” and it can refer to folks like watchmakers. But the word wasn’t coined until 1819, many years after the Pirates movies take place. No wonder everyone thought she was in a different line of work.

5.    The phrase “Dead men tell no tales” was first used by Francis Becon (not Bacon) in about 1560. It means that once dead, a person cannot reveal secrets. Some people think that Long John Silver says this in the novel Treasure Island. But his phrase is, “Dead men don’t bite.”

6.    The two pirates who interrupt Barbossa as he is eating were the two redcoats (Royal Marines) who were guarding the Interceptor in POTC I, right before Jack stole it. When Cutler Becket met his downfall, they deserted the Royal Navy and became pirates.

7.    In the movie, the inhabitants of the island of St. Martin seem to all be English, but in reality the island was divided between the French and the Dutch. (The French/Dutch border, still in place on the island, is the only place on earth where France and the Netherlands share a border.)

8.    The “Devil’s Triangle” wasn’t a thing back in pirating days, when there were no radios for communication, and ships got lost often and wrecked on a regular basis. The first reference to anything odd happening in this loosely defined patch of sea was in a newspaper article published in the Miami Herald on September 17, 1950.

9.    Sailors are famous for their knowledge of stars, since astronomy is a vital part of navigation at sea. So Barbossa should have known that “Carina” is not a star, but a constellation. Or, he might have been celebrating the discovery of the Carina nebula on January 25 1752. But if the writers had gone with that, they would have had a hard time convincing us that the girl Carina was being accused of Witchcraft. After all, they “mysterious symbols” she was using were standard astrological notation, common knowledge to any educated person of the time.

10.   Lieutenant Scarfield, the second antagonist of the film and a British Royal Navy officer and commander of the HMS Essex is played by David Wenham. Fantasy fans will know his for portraying Faramir in Lord of the Rings.

11.    In the first POTC movie, Curse of the Black Pearl, the makeup designer decided to give Jack Sparrow a small open sore low on his right jaw. The sore has stayed in place, and has gotten bigger in every pirates movie since.

12.   When Keith Richards had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t reprise his role as Jack’s father, an on-set brainstorming session suggested that Sir Paul McCartney might be a similarly notorious elder pirate. Johnny Depp has the former Beatle in his phone contacts, so he asked the famous rocker to come be a pirate via text.

13.   The song McCartney is singing is an old sea shanty from Liverpool called Maggie May (NOT the Rod Stewart song.) It tells the story of a Paradise Street prostitute who is famous for robbing her customers, and is eventually sent to a penal colony. Nope, not a pirate song. It was written in the 1800’s.

14.   The reason that the Black Pearl did not appear in the last movie was because it’s not a real ship – it’s a floating prop, built on a barge so it will look like it’s sailing. In Pirates 4 they needed the barge to build the Queen Anne’s Revenge on, so the Pearl had to be bottled. With no real rival ships in Pirates 5, the Pearl is free to float again.

15.   Whatever powers Jack’s magic compass, it apparently isn’t a curse. After all curses are lifted, Jack still trusts the compass to help him reach his heart’s desire.