The Origin and Meanings of 9 Pirate Words and Expressions (Our First YouTube Video)

After years of having it on the “To-Do” list, we’re officially launching our YouTube Channel with this as our debut video. Subscribe to our YouTube Channel to make sure you don’t miss future TodayIFoundOut videos, which like our articles will be on a variety of topics and chock full of interesting, well researched facts. Thanks!


#1: Avast, Definition: “stop” or “hold still”.

Avast originally derived from the Dutch phrase “houd vast” (pronounced: howd vphast), which literally means “hold fast”. The frequent usage of this phrase eventually got it slurred down to “avast”, which became a common term among sea-folk around the late 17th century.

#2: Scuttlebutt, Definition: A cask of drinking water that is currently being used aboard a ship.

The term derives from the fact that a “butt” is a wooden cask and “scuttle” is the act of drilling a hole in or tapping the butt. Sailors would often gossip while they drank by the scuttlebutt. This has since lead to the term becoming synonymous with “gossip” and “rumors”.

#3: Duffle, Definition: This is the name of sailor’s personal effects along with the bag that carries them.

The term comes from the Flemish town “Duffel”, which popularly produced the rough woolen cloth these bags were often made of.

#4: Arrrrrr:

This classic vociferation that’s a staple of pirate-speak in movies isn’t actually historically based, but rather is a Hollywood invention, particularly being popularized in a 1950s version of Treasure Island, which pretty much set the standard for the modern conception of how to speak like a pirate.

In the movie, actor Robert Newton played a particularly memorable pirate character, Long John Silver. He later popularly reprised the role in sequels and on TV. His accent on the films featured a very strong rolling of the R’s, which is thought to be how this popularly worked its way into pirate-speak.

#5: Bilge Rat, Definition: A rat that lives in the worst place on the ship, namely, the bilge.

The bilge is the lowest level of the ship and is loaded with ballast and often foul smelling water and muck. Thus, a bilge rat is a stinking, muck covered rat.

#6: Bung hole:

As mentioned before, a cask was called a “butt”; a hole in the butt is then stoppered with a bung and thus, the hole is called a “bung hole”.

#7: Grog, Definition: rum diluted with water.

Grog was common aboard ships due to the fact that the drinking water aboard vessels often got pretty slimy and disgusting. Thus, a little rum was mixed in to kill the putrid flavor.

Before grog, sailors typically drank water mixed with beer or wine to improve the taste. As rum became popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, it began being substituted for the beer or wine ration.

Due to rum being significantly stronger than beer or wine, sailors tended to get drunk from it, particularly when not diluting it with water, as they were supposed to. As one might expect, this caused problems aboard the ships.

In order to solve this problem, British Vice Admiral Edward Vernon began requiring that the rum be mixed with water before giving it out to the sailors as part of their rations.  This order originally went out on August 21, 1740 with the precise mixture being two quarts of water with one pint of rum, distributed twice daily under the close scrutiny of the Lieutenant of the Watch.

Admiral Vernon also added lime to the mixture to sweeten it, something which wasn’t initially adopted on all navy ships. However, soon after James Lind proved that scurvy could be prevented simply by giving sailors citrus fruit in 1747, the practice of adding lime or lemon juice to the mixture became popular throughout the Royal Navy.

This all brings us back to the origin of the name “Grog”, which is thought to be named in honor of Vice Admiral Vernon. The Admiral’s nickname was “Old Grog” due to the grogram cloak he wore. Grogram was just a course fabric, usually made from a blend of wool, silk, and mohair, and tended to be stiffened and made waterproof with gum.

#8: Coxswain, Definition: A term for the person in charge of steering or otherwise navigating a boat.

Originally this came from the Old French “swain”, meaning “boy”. The boy was then in charge of the “cock” or ship’s boat, hence coxswain.

This particular “ship’s boat” was used to transport the captain and other seamen to and from the ship. This term coxswain first popped up in the 14th century and has since largely been replaced with “helmsman”.

#9: Keel hauling:

This is a punishment aboard ships where the person being punished has weights attached to their legs and is then attached to a rope, which also runs under the ship. The person is then hoisted up and dropped in the water, at which point the other end of the rope is pulled so that the person goes under the ship, before ultimately being pulled out. Assuming they remain attached to that rope and don’t come loose and sink due to the weights on their legs, they are then given the chance to catch their breath before this is repeated.

This isn’t supposed to be fatal, but accidents did happen, which made it all the more terrifying to the condemned.

It was also common to fire a cannon while the person being punished was submersed, to further scare them, as this ends up sounding like loud thunder under the water.

The Dutch were the first to use this as a common punishment, but it was later adopted by pirates and navies of the world in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Bonus (And yes, I simply forgot to include this one and didn’t feel like re-recording this as the missing item wasn’t discovered until the video was nearly all finished) :-):

Your true colors:

Ships would often carry flags from many nations so that they could deceive nearby vessels into thinking they were allies. In order to avoid accidentally shooting an ally, the rules of engagement required that all ships hoist their true nation’s colors before firing upon someone. Thus, it was common to hoist an enemy ship’s colors and hail them. Once near, you’d then show your true colors and fire upon them.

Share the Knowledge! FacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmailFacebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmail
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Enjoy this article? Join over 50,000 Subscribers getting our FREE Daily Knowledge and Weekly Wrap newsletters:

Subscribe Me To:  | 


  • Neat site and neat first vid, but the picture of the grogram cloak says “mole hair”. That should be mohair, with no mole. Also coxswain’s preferred pronunciation is “coxsun”.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Oliver Klozoff: Thanks! And yep, I say mohair, and it’s in the script below, but my wife thought I said “mole hair” when she was doing the video. I didn’t notice when I reviewed it before posting, but then this morning after it went live I noticed and wondered if anyone would catch that the picture is wrong there. 😉
      On the “coxswain”, “coxsun” is a correct pronunciation, but “coxswain” is considered acceptable as well when I looked it up. (On a few of the words, it was quite difficult to find the correct pronunciation, such as the Old French pronunciation of “swain” :-)). I chose the “cox-swain” pronunciation there as it allowed for a little subtle humor, which is my favorite kind. 😉

  • While you got the origins of “grog” mostly right, the dilution recipe also called for sugar and lime juice as needed to make it palatable. Lime wasn’t added to sweeten it. The original recipe called for a 2 to 1 ratio of water to rum (“two-water grog”- so 1 quart of water to 1 pint of rum. When situations got bad and rum stocks decreased, they might go for a 4 to 1 or even an 8 to 1 ratio (the latter was usually a punishment ration). Sailors became markedly upset if their grog ration got cut by that much water. There was usually a ritual where the gathered sailors would observe the measurement and dilution into the “Grog tub” (which inevitably would bear the phrase “The King God Bless Him” or “The Queen God Bless Her”) and would receive their daily ration from the tub. The ritual was performed to ease the sailors’ minds that they weren’t being cheated. Note too that the dilution ritual added the phrase “watered down” drinks to the vocabulary. Rum rations (a “tot”) were also used as a form of currency on board ships.

  • The addition of lime juice to the daily rum ration in HMRoyal Navy is the origin of the nickname ‘limey’ for a British sailor, and eventually all Englishmen.

  • Getting “Keel-hauled” was made worse by the barnacles growing on the bottom of the ship. Being dragged across them would open wounds…which were promptly exposed to saltwater.