Becoming Long John Silver just for a day

Becoming Long John Silver just for a day

Important news. Today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day, on which everyone is encouraged to speak in the manner of a buccaneer, sea dog, corsair, picaroon or whatever you wish to call them. If you are desperate Captain Jack Sparrow impersonations will suffice.

You can try it out at the breakfast table with a tentative greeting of "Ahoy my hearties'': or "Aye, aye captain" and launching into colourful tales of walking the plank, peg-legs, parrots, and hidden treasure.

After that a quick "shiver me timbers" could be quite effective. The rest of the family will probably think you've gone totally insane, but it could be fun while it lasts.

The best part of speaking like a pirate is the accent and frequent use of "aarrr!" and "yarrr!" with the rolling "r" creating a sound similar to a broad West Country accent heard in Devon and Cornwall.

For this we have to thank the late British actor Robert Newton. Before he arrived on the scene Hollywood pirates spoke with regular American accents.

But In the 1950 film Treasure Island, Newton gave such an iconic performance as Long John Silver, the accent he used became a template for future swashbuckling films.

Audiences loved the accent and could have fun surreptitiously imitating it in front of the bathroom mirror.

Newton was born in Dorset but lived in Cornwall for years and discovered that if he exaggerated his natural accent it was ideal for playing a pirate.

He enjoyed the same role in a television series, The Adventures of Long John Silver, and it is no surprise he became the patron saint of the Talk Like a Pirate organisation.

However, the truth is that no one really knows what accent pirates spoke and the real pirates probably would not understand a word Newton said.

Captain Jack

A more recent movie pirate has of course been Johnny Depp as the aforementioned Capt Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

It is well-known that Depp based his speaking style on Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, including the slurring of words and mincing walk. Richards was rewarded with roles in two of the Pirates films as Jack's father, Edward Teague.

Off-screen the two are good friends and Richards admitted he found it difficult to call Depp "son" when they were filming.

From what I can recall of the Pirates series, the actors seem to be given a free rein on what accents they adopt, although Geoffrey Rush as Barbossa has a classic Newton-like "aarrr!" approach.

Blistering barnacles

My introduction to screen pirates came as a kid in the gentle form of Captain Pugwash, a very basic cartoon series and initially black and white on the BBC from 1957 onwards. It was a quaint offering as we followed Capt Horatio Pugwash and his motley crew in all sorts of scrapes aboard the Black Pig. There were frequent skirmishes with his arch-enemy Cut-Throat Jake, captain of the formidable Flying Dustman.

The writers had great fun playing with the English language in what became known as Pugwashisms. They usually came in the form of an exclamation when Pugwash was a bit upset, such as "blistering barnacles!'', "scuttling cuttlefish!", "dolloping dolphins!" and if he was really distressed, "kipper me capstans!"

On the ropes

There are dozens of expressions still in everyday use that were derived from old seafaring days. Ropes played an important role in the old wooden ships and it took some years for seamen to master the ropes and their uses. From this came the saying to "know the ropes" for someone who is very experienced.

Another turn of phrase connected to ropes is "three sheets to the wind" meaning someone who is totally plastered. On the old ships the ropes that gave tension to the sails were called sheets. If three of these ropes or sheets ripped loose in a strong wind, the sails would start flapping wildly and the ship would lurch all over the place, just like a drunkard.

Speaking of inebriation, the word "groggy", meaning dazed, disoriented or hungover, dates back to an 18th century British Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon. He was nicknamed "Old Grog" because of the grogram cloth coat he wore. He permitted the crews to drink rum with water which became known as "grog".

Piper calls the tune

Another expression derived from seafarers is "pipe down" often used when telling kids or noisy neighbours to shut up. Since the 16th century, activities on ships were orchestrated by the boatswain who would issue instructions on his pipes and whistles. Every evening his last piped signal was known as "pipe down'' ordering the crew to go below decks and keep quiet.

Slushy secrets

On a more unsavoury note, one expression that has emerged over the years is "slush fund", a monetary reserve used particularly in politics for bribes or other nefarious activities -- not that you would get such a thing in Thailand, of course. In the old days on the ships, the leftover fat and grease collected by the main cook was called "slush". At the end of the voyage all the slush was sold by the cook and the proceeds became known as his "slush fund".

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Roger Crutchley

Bangkok Post columnist

A long time popular Bangkok Post columnist. In 1994 he won the Ayumongkol Literary Award. For many years he was Sports Editor at the Bangkok Post.

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