Society & Culture

Six facts that will change how you think (and talk) about pirates

On Talk Like a Pirate Day, shiver your timbers with these surprising pirate facts from Kevin McCarthy, emeritus professor of English at the University of Florida and author of the book “Twenty Florida Pirates.”

1. You’ve been using arrrr all wrong


There’s little or no factual basis for what we think of as pirate diction. “I get a kick out of Talk Like a Pirate Day because I don't think pirates actually talked that way,” McCarthy says. When you talk like a pirate, you’re actually talking like a ’50s movie star, namely British actor Robert Newton, who starred in “Treasure Island” and popularized what we think of as pirate talk. The exception is “arrr,” which was used in southwest England, birthplace of pirates such as Blackbeard. It’s not just a nonsense word, though – it’s a way of saying “yes.” “Arrrr, at least, is not totally made up,” McCarthy says. “The fact that it existed in parts of southwest England gives a good factual basis.” 

2) Yo ho, YOLO


Why are pirates so appealing when, let’s face it, they were pretty horrible people? “There’s this idea that pirates are glamorous and to be emulated, which is crazy because they were really despicable creatures. We glamorize them because they were independent and they didn’t follow any of the rules that applied to land-based people. They were daring. They were willing to risk their lives. That type of derring-do and bravado has appealed to people for generations.” 

3. They did have some rules, though 


“In actuality, they might have been the first democratic society in the west. The crew voted who was going to be captain, and if the crew didn't like the way the captain was comporting himself, they could vote him out of office.”

4. Florida’s most famous pirate probably never existed

Gasparilla 2003 invasion of Tampa. Photo by Christopher Hollis

Jose Gaspar’s name has been invoked for many a legendary Gasparilla party in Tampa, but the infamous Florida pirate is probably just a legend, born from a promotional pamphlet that later authors took as fact. “They've never asked me down there to give a talk about this, I think because they know what I’d say,” McCarthy says. 

5. Buried treasure isn’t always where you’d think


If buried treasure calls to mind a Caribbean beach or a sunken shipwreck, you might be surprised to discover an active search for treasure on a riverbank 15 miles from Florida’s Gulf coast. “The story goes that a pirate had some loot from captured ships that he didn’t want to take with him to New Orleans. Everybody scoffed that he would row 15 miles upstream to bury treasure, but to this day, there’s an operation digging a really deep hole looking for it.”

6. Pirates didn’t go away – we just find them a lot less appealing now

On a trip through the Suez Canal, McCarthy noticed sharpshooters protecting cruise ships from modern-day pirates. “Today’s pirates are dangerous smugglers – they still exist, and they’re not to be laughed at.” Arrrrr. 

Alisson Clark Author
September 19, 2015