Sunday, July 05, 2009

I Was Born on a Pirate Ship


The Oxford English Dictionary defines a pirate as “a person who plunders or robs from ships, especially at sea; a person who commits or practices piracy.” Proximately, the English word came from a French word designating a “thief of the sea.” Remotely, it came from the Greek πειραν -- to attempt, to attack, or to assault.

In the late 17th century, buccaneer was a term given to West-Indian pirates. Prior to that, it was applied to the French hunters of Santo Domingo, who cooked wild oxen and boars on a barbecue (boucan). Throw some shrimp on the barbie, Bluebeard.

Sanctioned pirates were known as privateers. A collection of private individuals, they manned armed vessels holding a government commission that authorized them to seize merchant ships belonging to an enemy nation.

Freebooter started life as the Dutch word for privateer, but in time it came to mean a pirate -- an unauthorized thief. Booter was related to booty, meaning collective plunder or spoils. In turn, plunder was a German or Dutch term referring to household goods seized and carried off.

A pirate was sometimes called a swashbuckler, a swaggering ruffian. To swash was to beat one’s sword against something, and a buckler was a small round shield.

A strange turnaround occurred with the word filibuster. In the 16th century, a filibuster was a freebooter, especially one who plied his trade by pillaging the Spanish colonies in the West Indies. By the late 1800s, a filibuster was someone who practiced obstruction in a legislative assembly, or the act itself.


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