Since 1995, September 19 has "officially" been Talk Like a Pirate Day.


Published: September, 2018


Since 1995, September 19 has “officially” been Talk Like a Pirate Day. Over the past years, I’ve used my September column to explain the nautical origins of commonly used shore-side expressions. When you understand the roots of these everyday sayings, you will realize that everyone talks like a pirate, whether they know it or not! I’ll throw a few more in this column as well, but first I’d like to explain (if that’s really possible) the genesis of this holiday.


It all began in Albany, Oregon on June 6, 1995. During a game of racquetball between two friends, John Baur and Mark Summers (later to be known respectively as Ol’ Chumbucket and Cap’n Slappy), one of the two guys responded to the pain of an injury with a loud “Aaarrr!” And so, talking like a pirate was born—as an inside joke between two friends. They were having so much fun with this affected lingo they decided to make it an annual celebration.


Because June 6 already commemo-rated the Allied invasion of Europe at Normandy on D-Day, they needed to pick another date. They needed an easily memorable date, and all the obvious ones were already occupied by things like Christmas and July 4.  They settled on September 19, the birthday of Mark’s ex-wife, and continued to celebrate every year, except when they forgot.


As luck (or fortune) would have it, in 2002 they came upon the email address of Dave Barry, the syndicated Pulitzer Prize-winning humor columnist writing for the Miami Herald. On a whim they emailed him and explained their new holiday idea. Dave liked it, wrote about it, and the rest is history.


With that intriguing backstory behind us, here are a few more words or expressions that had their beginnings at sea but have made their way ashore and into our everyday speech:


It could be very dangerous for common seamen to complain about their squalid living conditions or the harsh treatment that was the norm back in the day. If it was deemed absolutely necessary, a petition of grievances would be prepared. The shipmates who signed this potentially damning document would write their names in a circle or ring so that no individual could be identified as the “ringleader.”


For centuries, flogging was a routine punishment for a seaman’s offenses. Sometimes the unfortunate recipient was tied spread-eagled to an upended hatch grating while being lashed. Another way of restraining the malefactor was to lay him over one of the ship’s great guns. Nowadays, any person caught in an awkward or uncomfortable situation, in a near helpless predicament, or at the mercy of another and is said to be “over a barrel.”


Still on the subject of administering punishment (and I’ll try not to flog this too much), it was the custom for the ship’s boys to receive their admonishments on Mondays, making Mondays a sad and woeful day or a “blue Monday.”


Wooden ship sailors typically went barefoot almost all of the time. Occasionally, they would wear sea boots, the tops of which were wide enough to stuff their pantlegs into. Clever (and nefarious) sailors would use this space to sneak things aboard, giving rise to the term “bootleg.”


While there are several possible origins of this next expression, I’d like to relate the one that has to do with the sea. During the Prohibition Era, a lot of alcohol was smuggled into the United States. For cities along the United States east coast, Canada’s Maritime Provinces were a prime source of this bootleg (see above) liquor. Much of this illegal drink was watered-down or homemade. One Canadian boatbuilder became quite wealthy, however, by delivering only the genuine article: pure, untainted, unaltered Canadian whiskey. The name of this enterprising smuggler was Bill McCoy, giving rise to the expression “the real McCoy.”


Ray Wichmann is a US SAILING-certified Ocean Passagemaking Instructor, a US SAILING Master Instructor Trainer, and a member of US SAILING’s National Faculty.  He holds a 100-Ton Master’s License, was a charter skipper in Hawai’i for 15 years, and has sailed on both coasts of the United States, in Mexico, the Caribbean and Greece. He is presently employed as the Master Instructor at OCSC Sailing in the Berkeley Marina.