Yes, You Do Talk Like a Pirate!

December 22, 2010

Today’s post is written by guest blogger Pat Hazlett. Pat is one of our volunteers at HMNS, and a contributor to our magazine, the Dashing Diplodocus.

Skull and Crossbones Flag
Creative Commons License photo credit: therapycatguardian

“Avast, me hearties!”

No, you probably don’t use that expression daily, but I’ll bet there are some expressions you do use that have their origins in the pirate world.

“Let the cat out of the bag”

Apparently, this phrase originated from the cat-o-nine-tails. The cat-o-nine-tails (the cat) was a whip, made of nine cords of rope, each knotted at the end. The punished was required to make his own whip, adding to his terror about the whipping to come. The cat was kept in a canvas sack and men on whom it was used were said to have “let the cat out of the bag.” The cat was nicknamed “the Captain’s Daughter.” A line from the song “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor says “throw him in bed with the Captain’s Daughter.” Clearly that was a reference to pain, not pleasure!

“Armed to the teeth”

This is a reference to pirate battle tactics. Weapons of the day were not efficient, especially the single shot, black powder guns used by most Caribbean pirates. The guns could fire only one shot per powder load. Pirates did often carry multiple, loaded guns in battle, but were also prepared with other weaponry. They would carry a knife between their teeth so that they were never without a weapon at hand.

“Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum?”

Finally, who among us has not belted out this chorus? Pirates referred to a coffin as a “dead chest.” This line from Robert Louis Stevenson’s pirate song is believed to refer to an incident whereby 15 pirates were marooned by their own crew on a well-known coffin shaped island in the Virgin Islands, with nothing but rum for sustenance.


Spence, David. Pirates-a Short History of the Sea-Robbers and Adventurers who Roamed Upon the World’s Oceans.  Greenwich, England: Addax Retail Publishing. 1995.

Authored By Steven Cowan

Steven never dreamed his first job out of college would be in public relations, and on top of that working for one of the top museums in the country. After all, he majored in History at Vassar College. Within three months of graduation, he landed a spot in the PR department and has not looked back since. He is fast becoming a communications fanatic, spending a tremendous amount of his time promoting the museum and all it has to offer.

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