Today, September 19, is, in the calendar of spoof and parody, International Talk Like A Pirate Day, so here is a note on pirate language, followed by more thoughts in the form of a podcast…



The pirate is one of the most enduring icons of folklore and popular culture across the English-speaking world and beyond. Nowadays a ‘piratical’ boss may strike fear into the hearts of his workers and ‘pirated’ goods have to be avoided, but everything else about these intrepid marauders is tinged with romance. The word itself is from Latin pirata, derived from Greek peiran, to attack: the associated ‘buccaneering’ and ‘swashbuckling’ are terms of admiration, evoking a devilishly determined rogue who is villain and hero at the same time. It was England’s first Queen Elizabeth who launched the privateers, as they became known, on their way when she licensed 16th-century explorers like Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh and John Hawkins to take foreign ships and plunder the treasure houses of the Americas. But the pirates’ golden age came later, in the 17th and 18th centuries, when they operated freely in their hundreds across the seven seas, even establishing their own pirate state on the islands of Hispaniola and Tortuga in the Caribbean. The real lives of Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Irishwoman Ann Bonny and the rest were first recorded – and considerably embellished – in Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, published in 1724.

While pirates made their mark on history and on fiction, for hundreds of years the sea and its sailors were a very real presence for ordinary Britons, whose family members, whether fishermen, naval mariners  – or perhaps smugglers or slavers – struggled to make their fortunes at sea, risking their lives and enduring months or years away. The language of the sea penetrated the language used at home, to such an extent that we have forgotten the nautical origins of many of our everyday expressions…

All at sea

A shot across the bows

Batten down the hatches

Clear the decks

Dead in the water


Fly the flag/show your true colours/nail your colours to the mast/with flying colours

Give someone a wide berth

Hit the deck

Loose cannon

On an even keel

Plain sailing

Safe haven

Sail close to the wind

Show someone the ropes

Take on board

The coast is clear

Weather the storm


And if you would like to hear more…



and, lastly, without permission…