Pirate Lingo & Jargon


Aft -- Short for "after." Toward the rear of the ship.

Ahoy -- "Hello!"

Avast! -- "Hey!" Could be used as "Stop that!" or "Who goes there?"

Belay -- Stop that. "Belay that talk!" would mean "Shut up!"

Belaying pin -- A short wooden rod to which a ship's rigging is secured. A common improvised weapon aboard a sailing ship, because they're everywhere, they're easily picked up, and they are the right size and weight to be used as clubs.

Bilge! -- Nonsense, or foolish talk. The bilges of a ship are the lowest parts, inside the hull along the keel. They fill with stinking bilgewater -- or just "bilge."

Black Spot -- To "place the Black Spot" on another pirate is to sentence him to death, to warn him he is marked for death, or sometimes just to accuse him of a serious crime before other pirates.

Blimey! -- An exclamation of surprise.

Bosun -- Boatswain; a petty officer.

Bowsprit -- The slanted spar at a ship's prow.

Brethren of the Coast -- The Caribbean buccaneers called themselves by this name in the 1640-1680 period. During this time, they actually formed a sort of fraternity, and did not (usually) fight each other or even steal from each other. After 1680, a new generation of pirates appeared, who did not trust each other . . . with good reason.

Buccaneer -- A general term for the Caribbean pirates.

Bucko -- Familiar term. "Me bucko" = "my friend."

Cat o'nine tails, or just "cat" -- a whip with many lashes, used for flogging. "A taste of the cat" might refer to a full flogging, or just a single blow to "smarten up" a recalcitrant hand.

Chandler, or ship-chandler -- see Sutler.

Chantey -- A sailor's song. Also spelled "shantey" or "shanty."

Chase -- The ship being pursued. "The chase is making full sail, sir" = "The ship we're after is going as fast as she can."

Corsair -- A more romantic term for pirate. But still a pirate.

Crow's nest -- A small platform, sometimes enclosed, near the top of a mast, where a lookout could have a better view when watching for sails or for land.

Cutlass -- A curved sword, like a saber but heavier. Traditional pirate weapon. Has only one cutting edge; may or may not have a useful point.

Davy Jones' locker -- The bottom of the sea.

Deadlights -- Eyes. "Use yer deadlights, matey!"

Dead men tell no tales -- Standard pirate excuse for leaving no survivors.

Doubloon -- A Spanish gold coin. At different times, it was worth either 4 or 16 silver pesos, or "pieces of eight."

Piece of eight -- A Spanish silver coin worth one peso or 8 "reales." It was sometimes literally cut into eight pieces, each worth one real.

Gangway! -- "Get out of my way!"

Grog -- Generically, any alcoholic drink. Specifically, rum diluted with water to make it go farther.

Gun -- A cannon.

Fore, or forrard -- Toward the front end of the ship.

Flogging -- Punishment by caning, or by whipping with the cat.

Hands -- The crew of a ship; sailors.

Handsomely -- Quickly. "Handsomely now, men!" = "Hurry up!"

Jack Ketch -- The hangman. To dance with Jack Ketch is to hang.

Jack Tar, or tar -- A sailor.

Jollyboat -- A small but happy craft, perhaps even one which is a little dinghy.

Jolly Roger -- The pirates' skull-and-crossbones flag. It was an invitation to surrender, with the implication that those who surrendered would be treated well. A red flag indicated "no quarter."

Keelhaul -- Punishment by dragging under the ship, from one side to the other. The victim of a keelhauling would be half-drowned, or worse, and lacerated by the barnacles that grew beneath the ship.

Lad, lass -- A way to address someone younger than you.

Landlubber or just lubber -- A non-sailor.

Letters of Marque -- Papers issued by a national government during wartime, entitling a privately owned ship to raid enemy commerce, or even attack enemy warships. Early letters of reprisal were issued to merchants to make it legal for them to counter-raid pirates! A ship bearing such letters, and operating within their limits, is a privateer rather than a pirate . . . that is, a legal combatant rather than a criminal and murderer. The problem is that letters of marque aren't always honored, even by the government that issued them. Captain Kidd had letters of marque; his own country hanged him anyway.

Line -- A rope in use as part of the ship's rigging, or as a towing line. When a rope is just coiled up on deck, not yet being used for anything, it's all right to call it a rope.

Lookout -- Someone posted to keep watch on the horizon for other ships or signs of land.

Maroon -- A fairly common punishment for violation of a pirate ship's articles, or offending her crew. The victim was left on a deserted coast (or, of course, an island) with little in the way of supplies. That way, no one could say that the unlucky pirate had actually been killed by his former brethren.

Me -- A piratical way to say "my."

Me hearties -- Typical way for a pirate leader to address his crew.

Matey -- A piratical way to address someone in a cheerful, if not necessarily friendly, fashion.

On the Account -- The piratical life. A man who went "on the account" was turning pirate.

Pirate -- A seagoing robber and murderer. Contrast with privateer.

Poop deck -- The highest deck at the aft end of a large ship. Smaller ships don't have a poop; the highest part aft is the quarterdeck.

Port -- (1) A seaport. (2) The left side of the ship when you are facing toward her prow.

Privateer -- A ship bearing letters of marque (q.v.), or one of her crew, or her captain. Thus, she can only attack an enemy ship, and only in time of war, but does so as a representative of her country. A privateer is theoretically a law-abiding combatant, and entitled to be treated as an honorable prisoner if captured.

Prow -- The "nose" of the ship.

Reef -- (1) An underwater obstruction of rock or coral which can tear the bottom out of a ship. (2) To reef sails is to shorten them, tying them partially up, either to slow the ship or to keep a strong wind from putting too much strain on the masts.

Rope's end -- another term for flogging. "Ye'll meet the rope's end for that, me bucko!"

Sail ho! -- "I see a ship!" The sail, of course, is the first part of a ship visible over the horizon.

Scuppers -- Openings along the edges of a ship's deck that allow water on deck to drain back to the sea rather than collecting in the bilges. "Scupper that!" is an expression of anger or derision: "Throw that overboard!"

Scurvy -- (1) A deficiency disease which often afflicted sailors; it was caused by lack of vitamin C. (2) A derogatory adjective suitable for use in a loud voice, as in "Ye scurvy dogs!"

Shiver me timbers! -- An expression of surprise or strong emotion.

Sink me! -- An expression of surprise.

Smartly -- Quickly. "Smartly there, men!" = "Hurry up!"

Splice the mainbrace -- To have a drink. Or, perhaps, several drinks.

Spyglass -- A telescope.

Starboard -- The right side of the ship when you are facing toward her prow.

Sutler -- A merchant in port, selling the various things that a ship needed for supplies and repairs.

Swab -- A disrespectful term for a seaman. "Man that gun, ye cowardly swabs!"

Walk the plank -- A piratical execution. The victim, usually blindfolded or with bound hands or both, is forced to walk along a plank laid over the ship's side, to fall into the water below. Except this seems to be a total invention; it first appeared in 19th-century fiction, long after the great days of piracy.

Weigh anchor -- To haul the anchor up; more generally, to leave port.

Yo-ho-ho -- A very piratical thing to say, whether it actually means anything or not.

ACCOUNT, TO GO ON THE: to embark on a piratical cruise

ACTS OF PARDON OR GRACE: general amnesty under which a reformed pirate might surrender in return for a certificate of pardon

BALLAST: heavy material used to stabilize rying cargo

BARKADEER: a small pier or jetty vessel

BARQUE: a sailing ship of three or more masts having the foremasts rigged square and the aftermast rigged for fore and aft

BILGED ON HER ANCHOR: a ship holed or pierced by its own anchor

BOOMS OR FENDERS: spars to which a sail is fastened to control its position relative to the wind

BOOT-TOPPING: a hurried, partial careen

BOWSPRIT: a spar projecting from the bow of a vessel used to carry the headstay as far forward as possible

BRIG, BRIGANTINE: a two-masted sailing ship, rigged square on the foremast and fore and aft with square topsails on the mainmast

BROUGHT A SPRING UPON HER CABLE: came round in a different direction

BRULOT (FRENCH): a fireship

BUCCANEERS: the original "cow killers" who settled illegally on Hispaniola. The name derives from their method of smoke-curing meat on a boucan. Later, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they took to sea and preyed on Spanish colonies and shipping in America and the Caribbean.

CAPSTAN: a windlass with a vertical drum, used for hauling in ropes, etc.

CAREEN: to cause a vessel to keel over on its side in order to clean or repair its bottom

CAREENAGE: a careening place

CHASE GUNS: cannon situated at the bow of a ship, used during pursuit

CHEQUEEN: sequin, a former Venetian gold coin


CRIMP: a person who swindled or press ganged sailors

DORY: a fisherman's dugout

DOUBLOON: a former Spanish gold coin

DROGER: a West Indian coasting vessel

EXECUTION DOCK: the usual place for pirate hangings, on the Thames, in London near the Tower

FIRESHIP: a vessel loaded with explosives and used as a bomb by igniting it and directing it to drift among an enemy's warships

FLOTILLA: a small fleet

Flying J: the jib furthest forward on a vessel with two or more jibs

FREEBOOTER OR FILIBUSTER: another name for a buccaneer or pirate

GALLEON: a large sailing ship having three or more masts, lateen-rigged on the aftermasts and square-rigged on the fore and mainmasts; used as a warship or for trade

GALLEY: a low, flat-built vessel, propelled partly or wholly by oars

GIBBET: a wooden structure resembling a gallows from which bodies of executed criminals were hung for public view

GRAPPLE OR GRAPNEL: a hooked instrument thrown with a rope for gripping and closing with an enemy

GRENADE: these were made from square-faced case bottles, filled with gunpowder, small shot, bits of old iron thrown by hand

GUARDA COSTA: a vessel fitted out in Spanish or colonial ports and commissioned by local governors to enforce Spain's trade monopoly GUINEAMAN: a ship engaged in the slave trade in the Guinea Coast of West Africa

HEAVE DOWN, TO: to turn a vessel on its side for cleaning

HOGSHEAD: a large cask used mainly for shipment of wines and spirits

INTERLOPER: an illegal trader

JACK: a flag, especially one flown at the bow of a ship to indicate her nationality

JOLLY ROGER: the pirate flag

LARBOARD: the left (or port) side of a vessel when facing the bow

LETTERS OF MARQUE OR REPRISAL: commissions or licenses to fit out armed vessels to be employed in the capture of enemy merchant shipping and to commit other hostile acts that would otherwise be condemned as piracy

MAINSHEET: the line used to control the angle of the mainsail to the wind

MAN-OF-WAR: a warship

MAROON, TO: to put ashore and abandon a person on a barren island or cay

MAROONERS: a name sometimes given to pirates because of their use of marooning as a form of punishment

MOIDORE: a former Portuguese gold coin

PATARERO: a kind of muzzle-loading mortar that fired scattering shot, stones, spikes, old nails, broken glass, etc.

PIECE OF EIGHT: a former Spanish coin

PINNACE: any of various kinds of ship's tender

PIRAGUA: a type of native dugout canoe

PRESS (OR FORCE): to recruit for naval or military service by forcible means

PRIVATEER: a privately owned, armed vessel operating under letters Or marque

QUARTER: mercy shown to a defeated opponent. Also a ship's quarter is that part of a vessel's side towards the stern, usually aft of the aftermost mast.

ROAD: a partly sheltered anchorage

SALMAGUNDI: a dish of chopped meat, eggs, anchovies, onions, etc.; a pirate favorite

SCHOONER: a sailing vessel with at least two masts with all lower sails rigged fore and aft

SEA ARTIST: sailing master

SLOOP: a single-masted vessel rigged fore and aft with a long bowsprit, much favored by the pirates because of its shallow draught and maneuverability

SMACK: a sailing vessel usually sloop-rigged, used in coasting or fishing

SNOW: a small sailing vessel, resembling a brig, carrying a main and foremast and a supplementary trysail mast close behind the mainmast

SPANISH MAIN: the mainland of Spanish America, from the Isthmus of Panama to the present republics of Colombia and Venezuela

SPIKE(GUNS): to render a gun useless by blocking the vent or touch hole with a spike, often a soft nail

SPRITSAILYARD: a yard set on the underside of the bowsprit, to carry a spritsail

STARBOARD: the right side of a vessel when facing the bow

STRIKE(COLORS): to haul down a ship's flag as a signal of surrender

SWEET TRADE: buccaneering or piracy

SWIVEL (GUN): a gun mounted on a pivot so that it might be swung from side to side

TENDER: a small boat, towed or carried by a ship

VICE-ADMIRALTY COURTS: courts established in the British colonies for trial and decision of maritime questions and offenses

WALK THE PLANK: a method of disposing of prisoners at sea; contrary to popular belief it was not a usual practice among pirates

WARP: to move a vessel by hauling on a rope fixed to a stationary object ashore

WEIGH: to raise a vessel's anchor in preparation for departure

WHERRY: a light rowing boat, used in inland waters and harbors

YARDS: the spars slung from the masts of a square-rigged vessel and used for suspending sails