September 19 falls on a Tuesday this year. Tuesday is the day I post each installment of this blog, and . . .
September 19, of course, is . . .
International Talk Like a Pirate Day!
So cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of mayhem.
International Talk Like a Pirate Day may be abbreviated to just Talk Like a Pirate Day, making it more wieldy in the mouth.
Since 1995, it is a day when those starved for amusement interject “Aaarrr!” into every other sentence. Lest that become boring, the day’s inventors, John Baur and Mark Summers, have provided a complete lexicon of pirate phrases. Conveniently, they all begin with the letter a—as in “ahoy,” “avast,” and so on. No sense wearing yourself out on the rest of the alphabet.
In this euphoric pursuit, one can’t help wondering where the very concept of talking like a pirate came from, can one?
Piracy, after all, is a crime. Its practitioners are known criminals. One might expect them to be unsavory characters, but—how, precisely, would they talk?
Perhaps like Errol Flynn in Captain Blood?—“It’s the wehld agaynst oss, and oss agaynst the wehld!”
Hmm. I don’t know.
What about Long John Silver, the most famous pirate of all? He’s an invention of nineteenth-century writer Robert Louis Stevenson. Long John is the prime villain of Stevenson’s adventure novel Treasure Island. Before he reveals his villainy, however, he talks like this:
See here, now, Hawkins, here’s a blessed hard thing on a man like me, now, ain’it? There’s Cap’n Trelawney—what’s he to think? Here I have this confounded son of a Dutchman sitting in my own house drinking of my own rum! Here you comes and tells me of it plain; and here I let him give us all the slip before my blessed deadlights!
Now, that’s more like it—a bit rough around the edges. Still, it’s hardly the slavering, bloodthirsty banter we might have expected from Long John Silver. For that, we must go to the man who became Long John Silver—actor Robert Newton.
Newton (1905-1956) first appeared as Silver in Walt Disney’s British-made film adaptation of Treasure Island in 1950. Two years later he played Edward Teach in Blackbeard the Pirate. He reprised the Treasure Island character in a 1954 Australian-made film, Long John Silver, and in a 26-episode TV series, The Adventures of Long John Silver, in 1955.
By March 1956, the hard-drinking fifty-year-old actor was dead. He left behind a varied and impressive catalog of important film roles. But he will always be remembered as the complete owner of Long John Silver. Today, almost seventy years after his death, it is Newton’s voice—an exaggerated version of the West Country accent of his youth—that today’s pirate talkers mimic.
And a typical Hollywood thing happened: Long John Silver went from fearsome villain to endearing rogue. He became the protector of, not so much a threat to, young Jim Hawkins. That’s how it had to be for a half-hour television series to be watched by the young people of the English-speaking world.
So powerful was Newton’s characterization that Long John migrated to center stage and become the hero of the piece. Thus he became not only the locus classicus of offically approved pirate speech but also the very embodiment of The Lovable Pirate.
Lovable, tender-hearted, heroic, or repentant buccaneers were nothing new. The nineteenth century gave us romanticized pirates in Walter Scott’s The Pirate, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Red Rover, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.
But Robert Newton stamped the worn-out stereotype with a twentieth century gloss, bringing it to life on screen with his memorable portrayals of Long John Silver and Blackbeard.
Former English poet laureate John Masefield, a lover of the sea, let slip something nearer the sad truth of piracy in his curiously schizophrenic poem, A Ballad of John Silver, to wit:
. . . Then the dead men fouled the scuppers and the wounded filled the chains,
And the paint-work all was spatter-dashed with other people's brains,
She was boarded, she was looted, she was scuttled till she sank,
And the pale survivors left us by the medium of the plank.
O! then it was (while standing by the taffrail on the poop)
We could hear the drowning folk lament the absent chicken-coop;
Then, having washed the blood away, we'd little else to do
Than to dance a quiet hornpipe as the old salts taught us to. . . .
Lovable pirates, indeed. Aaarrr.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer