Did pirates really say "arrrr"?

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June 5 2007 1:02 PM

Did Pirates Really Say "Arrrr"?

The origin of Hollywood's high-seas slang.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Johnny Depp took home the best performance award at Sunday's MTV Movie Awards, for his role as Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. (The third installment of the series topped the weekend box-office tallies again this past weekend, pulling in $43.2 million.) Depp's character famously speaks in a dissolute London mumble inspired by Keith Richards. But virtually all his crewmen hew to the classic movie-pirate patois, full of growled consonants and shiver-me-timbers slang. Wait, did pirates really say "arrrrr"?

Probably not. Both that phrase and the accent that goes with it are strictly Hollywood. The pirate phrase "Arrrgh" appeared in film as early as 1934; a character also uses the phrase in a 1940 novel by Jeffrey Farnol. But the phrase and accent were popularized by Robert Newton, the actor who played Long John Silver in the movies and on TV through much of the 1950s. Newton was from Dorset, in southwest England, * and the regional accent he brought to the movies included a rolled "r."  Though Dorset may well have produced its share of sailors, they were hardly the only pirates out there; many seamen *—and especially the outlaws on pirate vessels—were people who struck out from oppressed nations, like Scotland and Ireland, to start over on the high seas.

So, was there a typical pirate accent at all? Among British outlaws, yes: The onboard speech was most likely underclass British sailor with extra curse words, augmented with a polyglot slang of French, Italian, Spanish, and Dutch picked up around the trade routes. "Arrrrr" is mostly fiction, as are a number of the other affiliated signifiers: People very rarely walked the plank *, and nobody has ever discovered an actual pirate treasure map. On the myth-confirming side, pirates were known to dress in loose clothing, guzzle rum and smash the empty bottles, and chase busty wenches through Caribbean ports.

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Explainer thanks Christine Lampe, editor of the pirate-history journal No Quarter Given, and Richard Zacks, author of Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd.

Correction, June 7, 2007: The original version incorrectly said that the pirate's "arrr" originated with Robert Newton. Lionel Barrymore used "arrrgh" in a film from 1934. It also said that Dorset is in the Cotswolds district of southwest England. The Cotswolds are in central England. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, June 7, 2007: The original asserted that "most" seamen came from oppressed nations like Scotland and Ireland. Many did, but more came from southwest England than anywhere else. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, June 7, 2007: The original version asserted that "arrr" is "strictly fiction," and that no one ever walked the plank. West country pirates may well have used the phrase "arrrgh", and there does exist at least one recorded instance of plank-walking. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Christopher Bonanos is an editor at New York magazine and the author of Instant: The Story of Polaroid.