A couple weeks ago, I had a run-in with a pirate. It was a sunny, post-tropical storm day in Charleston, South Carolina, a place that takes great pride in its pirates. We’d been in the area to celebrate the wedding of a niece and decided to take in a little bit of the colorful local history.
That’s when the pirate showed up. He was everything you’d expect with tall boots, a real sword, and a trusty parrot sidekick named Captain Bob. He knew everything there was to know (or at least everything I’d ever think to ask) about the swashbuckling personalities that graced the waters from North Carolina to Barbados during piracy’s Golden Age.
We walked with our pirate companion quite a few city blocks and along the oceanfront park where convicted buccaneers were once hanged for their crimes. This same site today still hosts scores of Charlestonians engaging in unsavory acts. Like yoga.
But the true treasure of the experience was the vast knowledge shared about real people from history including Stede Bonnet, the gentleman pirate who gave up a life of privilege in Barbados to play pirate with his hired friends. And Anne Bonny, a society girl gone wild, with a preference for scallywags. And that most famous of all pirates known sometimes as Edward Teach, or less commonly as Edward Beard, or more commonly as Black Beard. Boy, that guy didn’t turn out to be quite what we (or Wikipedia) thought.
You might begin to wonder how I, a respected practical historian, could simply trust the word of a pirate, not necessarily assumed to be the most honest of men. But I think I did mention he had a parrot, right? Also, never once did he utter the sound Arrrr.
Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. He did say it once, when he informed us that to the best of his knowledge (and that of everyone else that knows about these things) pirates didn’t actually say Arrrr.
That, along with that uniquely gruff Piratey accent and the stubborn reluctance to correctly use a possessive pronoun or conjugate the verb “to be,” is an entirely fictional construct, popularized mostly by British actor Robert Newton in his role as the one-legged Long John Silver in Disney’s 1950 version of Treasure Island.
It turns out that though they were probably a little more well-versed in nautical terms for boat riggings and sea monsters than was the average landlubber, pirates most likely talked like, well, guys of their era. Their language, like ours, was shaped by their various heritages and experiences, and would not have been particularly uniform.
And I’m sorry to be the one to tell you that no pirate ever said the words “Shiver me timbers!” without getting laughed off the plank.
Now I know that like me, this revelation must concern you somewhat. After all, International Talk like a Pirate Day is rapidly approaching (on September 19, which you no doubt already knew) and you haven’t a thing to say.
The holiday, begun sort of unofficially in 1994 by two guys playing racket ball and talking like guys of their era, became slightly official when columnist Dave Barry gave it a rousing stamp of approval in 2002.
What started as friends having a little fun irritating the heck out of their coworkers, has blossomed now into a truly international event prompting (if you can believe the handy pirate map on the holiday’s official website) perhaps dozens of organized events designed to annoy the heck out of way more people’s coworkers.
But beneath all of the irritation, the day really is about having fun, together with your friends, talking like average guys of your era, the kind of guys who think that pirates said things like, “Arrr, treasure I ain’t got nor knows wheres, but ye be cutthroats and ye better serve up yer peace or I’ll feed ya piecemeal to the rats, ya scurvy dogs.”
So join in the fun and celebrate the day like Long John Silver would, says I. Plunder some booty, shiver some timbers, and irritate the heck out of your coworkers with your creative grammar and imaginative slang. But if you ever find yourself in South Carolina, look up Charleston Pirate Tours and take a walk with Pirate Eric and Captain Bob. I promise it’ll be worth ye the hour, me mateys.