Pirate & Sailor Jargon

Beating to windward – the procedure by which a ship moves on a zig-zag course to make progress directly into the wind.

Belay – to tie down or to stop. Often used as a command.

Bilged on her anchor – when a ship is holed by her own anchor.

Bilge rat – literally a rat living in the bilge aka the scourge of pirate ships. Used as an insult.

Blow the man down – to kill someone.

Blunderbuss – is a muzzle-loading firearm with a short, large-calibre barrel, which is flared at the muzzle and frequently throughout the entire bore, and used with shot and other projectiles of relevant quantity and/or calibre.

Bollard – a post used on a ship or a quay, principally for mooring.

Bowsprit – a pole (or spar) extending forward from the vessel’s prow.

Bring a spring upon her cable – the equivalent of a U-turn.

Broadside – the side of the ship or an attack by a ship in which all the guns on one side of the ship are fired together.

Buntline – lines used to handle the sails of a square rigged ship.

Careen – turn a ship on its side for cleaning, caulking, or repair.

Chain-shot – two metal half-balls connected by a chain. They were shot out of cannons and were designed to take down a ship’s mast.

Close quarters – not solely used by pirates, this nautical term was used to mean “in close contact with the enemy”.

Code of conduct – the set of rules governing behaviour aboard the ship. This varied from ship to ship.

Come about – To swing back around. Often used in the sense of coming back towards the enemy.

Come on account – To become a pirate

Crack Jenny’s tea cup – pay a visit to the brothel

Dance the hempen jig – to hang.

Davy Jones’ Locker – an idiom for the bottom of the sea: the state of death among drowned sailors and shipwrecks. It is used as a euphemism for drowning or shipwrecks in which the sailor(s)’s and/or ship(s)’s remains are consigned to the bottom of the sea (to be sent to Davy Jones’ Locker).

The origins of the name of Davy Jones, the sailors’ devil, are unclear, with a 19th-century dictionary tracing Davy Jones to a “ghost of Jonah”. Other explanations of this nautical superstition have been put forth, including an incompetent sailor or a pub owner who kidnapped sailors.

Give no quarter – no lives spared.

Go on account – To become a pirate.

Grenadoe – Hollow metal sphere filled with shot and gunpowder and stoppered with a wooden fuse. The predecessor to the modern grenade, they were usually tossed by hand. Also called a “smokepot”.

Grog – booze. Usually rum diluted with a little water.

Grog blossom – the red nose of a longtime drinker.

Handsomely – carefully and/or quickly.

Heave down – to turn a ship on its side for the purpose of cleaning.

Heave to – a way of slowing a sailboat’s forward progress, as well as fixing the helm and sail positions so that the boat does not actively have to be steered.

Hempen halter – the hangman’s noose.

Jack Tar – a sailor.

Keelhaul – to drag someone under the ship. Often people drowned from this or were so wounded from scraping along the barnacles of the hull that they died of their injuries.

Kiss the gunner’s daughter – to be bent over a cannon and caned or whipped.

Land ho! – land sighted.

Loaded to the gunwalls – drunk off your ass.

Long clothes – clothing more suited to wearing on land.

Motherload – the biggest cache of booty.

Nelson’s Folly (or, more commonly, Nelson’s Blood) – rum or brandy. There are several versions to the story. Most people believe that after Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson was mortally wounded at the great battle of Trafalgar in 1805, his body was preserved in a barrel of rum or brandy for the long journey home to England.

No prey, no pay – used to mean that pirates shared plunder rather than earned wages.

Parley – a discussion between two opposing sides of a dispute.

Picaroon – a scoundrel.

Privateer – basically a government-endorsed pirate.

Rope’s End – a term for whipping. ie – see the rope’s end.

Sail ho! – another ship sighted.

Scupper that! – the equivalent would be “fuck that!”. Literally means to throw something overboard.

Scuttle – to purposefully sink a boat.

Shake a leg/show a leg – move faster or wake up.

Smartly – quickly.

Smokepot – Hollow metal sphere filled with shot and gunpowder and stoppered with a wooden fuse. The predecessor to the modern grenade, they were usually tossed by hand. Also called a “grenadoe”.

Splice the main brace – call for drinks to be poured.

Squiffy – intoxicated or simply tipsy.

Strike sails – To acknowledge oneself beaten.

Strumpet – a whore.

Sutler – someone who sells supplies for ships.

Take a caulk – take a nap. Pushed between the boards to waterproof the deck were ropes with a thick “caulk” of black tar. This was said to leave black stripes on the sailors’ clothes who snoozed on the deck.

To go on account – to become a pirate.

Weigh anchor – leave port.