Pirate School Visits. Living history presentations about pirates, buccaneers and privateers.

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Black Bart's Locker. Pirate school visits. Living history from the golden age of piracy

A glossary of pirate terms. A dictionary of pirate words and  a lexicon of the language of piracy.

Pirate Glossary

Thar be a bunch o’ words an’ sayin’s used by salty old sea dogs that don’t make much sense to a landsman, so here’s a few of ‘em to help yer get yer sea legs.

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ABBEY LUBBER : A loiterer that could work but will not.

ABEAM : The direction at right angles to the hull. To either side of the ship

ABLE SEAMAN : A skilled sailor

ABRAHAM MEN : Vagabonds that beg by pretendin’ to ‘ave been discharged with no money from ships.

ADDLE : Putrid water in the water barrels.

ADRIFT : Floating about out of control.

ADVENTURE : An enterprise in which something is risked or left to chance.

AFEARD : A common way of saying afraid.

AFT. or Abaft : The direction towards the stern of the ship. That’s the “back” for land-lubbers.

AHOY :  A shout used to get someone’s attention.

ALOFT : The top part of the masts and rigging.

AMBUSH : Hiding so as to attack without warnin’.

ARRR : A multipurpose mostly positive exclamation not to be confused with ARRRGH which is usually negative.

ARTHUR : A well known sea game.

ARTICLES : A set of rules which govern pirate’s behaviour on a vessel.

A SHORT DROP AND A QUICK STOP : A reference to hanging.

AURORA : The faint light seen before sunrise.

AVAST : Stop, hold, cease or desist.  AVAST YE SCURVY DOGS : Stop that now or there’ll be trouble.

AYE : A way of sayin’ yes.  AYE AYE : A way of sayin’ yes to someone that’s a bit deaf.

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BACK-O’-BEYOND : A long way from anywhere. Usually where ye don’t want t’ be

BACK-STAFF : A tool the navigator uses to work out how high the sun is in the sky. Helps ‘im work out where we are, while everybody else is scratching their heads.

BALLAST : Heavy stuff in the hold of the ship to keep her steady.

BARKING IRONS : Large duelling pistols.

BARNACLE : A type of shell fish that sticks to the bottom of the ship's hull. If too many get attached they’ll slow the ship down so they need to be scraped off regularly.

BATTEN DOWN THE HATCHES : Means cover the hatches to the lower decks with canvas during a storm to stop water from getting belowdecks.

BEATING : Sailin’ towards the wind in a zig zag line.

BEATING THE BOOBY : Slapping of hands around your arms to warm your self up on a cold watch.

BECALMED : Not able to sail because there is no wind.

BEFORE THE MAST : The station of a sailor that is not an officer.

BELAY : To secure, tie up or make fast, often another way of sayin’ stop.

BELAYING PIN : A wooden rod sitting in a hole on the rail that a rope can be tied to temporarily. A useful improvised weapon aboard a sailing ship because they’re everywhere and just right for a club.

BELL : Every half hour of a four hour watch the ship’s bell is rung to show how many half hours have passed. If an hour has past it would be rung twice and we would say the time was “two bells” of that watch.

BILBOES : A method of securing captives by means of a metal bar to which shackles be fixed. This is what we means when we say “Clap him in irons.”

BILGE : The lowest part of the ship. Wet, musty and full of rats. 

BLACK JACK : Another name for a pirate flag.

BLACK SPOT : A black mark on a piece of paper that means “We’re going to get ya” or somethin’ like that.

BLEEDING THE MONKEY : Stealin’ the grog.

BLETHERING : Talking nonsense.

BLOODY FLAG : A red flag we use to say ”We’re goin’ to kill the lot of yer.”

BLOW THE GAFF : Givin’ away a secret or informin’.

BLUNDERBUSS : A short fire arm with a wide mouth that scatters musket balls over a wide area.

BOSUN (also Boatswain) : An officer on the ship who is in charge of the ship’s rigging, anchors, cables, and deck crew.

BOOM : A long spar extending from the mast to extend the foot of a sail. Also the sound a cannon makes when fired at the enemy.

BOOTY : That be treasure to you or me.

BOREAS : A name for the North wind.

BOW : The front of the ship or boat.

BOW CHASERS : A pair of guns mounted in the bow to fire directly ahead.

BOWSPRIT : The slanted spar that sticks out over the bow of the ship and is used to support the fore-mast and spread the fore stay sail.

BRIGANTINE or Brig : A two-masted ship, square-rigged on both masts.

BROAD ARROW : The British royal mark for government stores.

BROADSIDE : Side by side with another ship, a good place to be if you have more guns than them, a very bad place to be if they have more than you. A “Broadside" has come to mean firing all the cannon on one side of one ship into the side of another.

BUCCANEER : A pirate, especially one that preyed on Spanish shipping in the West Indies during the 17th century.

BULLYRAG : Insulting in a noisy threatening way.

BURGOO : A dish made of boiled oat-meal seasoned with salt, butter and sugar.

BUTTER FINGERED : Careless, clumsy and likely to drop things.

BY THE WIND : Sailin’ in the same direction as the wind’s blowin’.

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CABIN : What land-lubber would call a “room” on a ship.

CABLE : A heavy rope or chain often used for mooring or anchoring a ship.

CABLE’S LENGTH : A measure of about 100 fathoms and used to estimate the distances of ships in a fleet.

CACKLE FRUIT : Hen’s eggs

CAESAR’S PENNY : The tip given by a recruiting sergeant. Taking this money meant you had received your first payment and therefor were recruited into service and could not refuse.

CALALOO : A dish of fish and vegetables.

CANISTER SHOT or Case shot : A package of small iron balls loaded into a gun to be used against sailors without causing too much damage to the ship.

CANVAS : A cloth made from hemp and used for the sails. A ship in motion by her sails is said to be “Under canvas.”

CAPTAIN or Cap’n : The master of the ship. A pirate captain was voted into command by the crew and had absolute authority in battle and ruled by consent at other times, assisted by the Quartermaster.

CAPSTAN : A winch used for hauling heavy weights like the anchor. A vertical cylinder with handles that is rotated manually by several of the crew and around which a cable is wound.

CARDINAL POINTS : The general name for the north, east, south and west points on the horizon.

CAREENING : Taking the ship into shallow waters or out of the water altogether to scrape off barnacles, weed and all the other pesky stuff that likes to grow on the bottom of the hull.  It’s a tough job but it has to be done if we want to keep the ship moving fast in the water.

CARPENTER : A skilled crew member in charge of repairing all wooden parts of a ship. As most of the ship is made of wood that makes him a very important person to have of board a pirate ship.

CASK : A barrel for liquid or solid provisions.

CAST-AWAY : Shipwrecked.

CAT O'NINE TAILS or Cat : A whip with nine lashes used for flogging, a punishment much used by the British Navy. Sometime made by untwisting a three strand rope and re-laying it into the nine strands.

CAULKING : Oakum or old rope jammed into cracks in the ships hull and treated with pitch to waterproof it.

CHAIN SHOT : Two cannonballs chained together and aimed high to cut the masts and rigging of a ship.

CHART or Sea chart : What some lubbers would call a map and not likely to be marked with an X that’s for sure.

CHASE GUN : A cannon mounted at the bow of the ship, used when chasing another ship.

CHIVEY : A knife.

CHOWDER : A stew of codfish, salt pork, biscuit and lots of pepper.

CHOWDER-HEADED or Chuckle-headed : Stupid or foolish.

CHRISTIAN : A Danish gold coin.

CLOSE-HAULED or Close to the wind : A ship sailing as much towards the wind as she can.

COCKED HAT : A three cornered hat with it’s brim turned up at the sides. Also called a Tricorne.

CODGER : An easy going but steady man, one that will not move faster than he pleases.

COD-LINE : A light line.

COLOURS : The flags or banners that mark ships of different nations. Pirates often flew false colours to get close to their targets before raising the black jack.

COMBING THE CAT : The Bosun running his fingers through the cat o'nine tails to separate them.

COMPASS : An instrument with a magnetic needle that points towards the North. It is marked with the cardinal points, north, east, south and west and then further divided into thirty two points in all. Modern compasses are divided into 360 points or degrees.

CONTRABAND : Cargo forbidden by law to be supplied to an enemy. A profitable trade for pirates.

COOPER : A skilled crew member in charge of making, repairing and taking apart barrels for storage.

CORDAGE : A general term for the running rigging of a ship and any rope kept in reserve.

CORSAIR : A pirate operating around the Mediterranean Sea.

COT : A wooden framed bed suspended from the beams of the ship for the officers. Slightly more comfortable than the hammocks used by the crew.

COXSWAIN or Coxson: The person who steers a ship's boat and is in charge of its crew.

CROW'S NEST : A small platform, near the top of a mast. A good place to watch out for other ships or land.

CUTLASS : A short sword used for fighting on board ships.

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DANCE THE HEMPEN JIG : To be hanged. The fate waitin’ for many a pirate.

DAVY JONES : The dark spirit of the sea.  DAVY JONES’S LOCKER : The bottom of the sea where nothing is lost because you know where it is. Where everything thrown overboard ends up, including the bodies of sailors buried at sea.

DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES : A good reason for leavin’ no survivors.

DEAD RECKONING : Estimating a ship’s position by working out speed and direction of travel. Not as accurate as using astronomical methods.

DITTY BAG : A small duffle bag used by a crewman to store their personal equipment and belongings.

DITTY BOX : A small box or chest for holding a seaman’s valuables.

DOG’S BODY : Dried peas boiled in a cloth.

DOUBLE DUTCH : Gibberish or any unintelligible language.

DOUBLOON : A golden Spanish coin.  Worth about seven week's pay to an average sailor.

DRAFT : The depth of a ship’s keel below the water line. The depth of water needed to float a vessel.

DUDS : Clothing, and not very good clothing at that.

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EAGLE or Spread Eagle : A punishment where the offender is tied hand and foot to the rigging and left there for a while.

St. ELMO’S FIRE : Electric light seen flickering about the masts, yard arms and rigging during a storm.

EYE OF THE WIND : Where the wind is blowing from.

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FATHOM : The full reach of a man with arms extended. A measure of six feet used to mark the depth of water using a lead or sounding line.

FILIBUSTER : A Spanish word for pirate. Trust them to have a fancy word for it.

FORE : The direction towards the stem of the ship. For land-lubbers, that’s the “front”.

FORECASTLE : The part of the upper deck forward of the foremast.  Often this was was a built up section where some of the crew is housed.

FOREMAST : The foremost mast of the ship.

FURL : To roll up and secure. Usually referring to the sails.

FUTTOCK : A curved timber that forms a rib in the frame of a ship. One o’ the bits yer trip over.

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GALLEON : A large Spanish merchant ship. Often full o’ booty, sometimes loaded with cannons. A bit old fashioned by the 18th Century.

GANGPLANK : A removable board or ramp used to board a ship from a pier.

GANGWAY : A passage along either side of a ship's upper deck that should be kept clear to move on at all times. Shouting “Gangway” is a good way to tell people they are in your way.

GIBBET : Chains or cages in which the rotting corpses of hung pirates are displayed in order to discourage piracy.

GO ON ACCOUNT : A gentlemanly way of sayin’ “I’ve become a pirate.”

GRAPE or Grapeshot : Small balls of lead or iron fired in quantity from a cannon. Makes a mess of soft targets like sails or people without damaging the ship too much.

GRENADE : An iron pot with a fuze, filled with gunpowder. Thrown onto the enemies decks before boarding.

GROG : Rum, sometimes mixed with water. Feelin’ “Groggy” is what ‘appens when yer drinks too much of it.

GUN : A cannon, not to be confused with a pistol or a musket.

GUNWALE or Gunnel : Originally the upper plank on the hull, binding the frame together. A term often used for the side of the ship, as in “Throw that bilge rat over the gunwale.”

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HAIL : To call another vessel, usually to ask where she comes from and where she’s going. A traditional pirate hail is “Hove-to or we’ll blow you out of the water.”

HALYARD : A line used to hoist a sail, spar, or flag

HANDS : The crew of the ship.

HARDTACK or Sea biscuit : A hard biscuit made from flour and water baked solid so it can be stored for a long time.  Often full o’ weevils an’ maggots. Better than eating bilge rats, but not by much.

HEAVE-TO or Hove-to : Slowing the ship down and fixing its course. Often called out as an order from one ship to another, demanding the other ship strike sails and stop moving in order to be boarded.

HEMPEN HARNESS : The hangman’s noose.

HOGSHEAD : A large barrel holding about a hundred gallons used for the shipment of wines and spirits.

HOLYSTONE or Bible : A stone used for scouring the wooden decks of a ship. About the size of an old Bible and used by sailors on their knees, hence the name.

HOLD : The interior of the hull below the decks.

HOVE-TO : Stop a ship from moving in the water.

HULL : The body of the ship, the bit that floats on the water below the masts, rigging and sails.

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IMPRESS : To force into service. If there weren’t enough willing to join a crew, others were recruited by force. A method often used by the British Navy.

IRONS or Bilboes : Long bars on which shackles are fixed with a lock at the end. Used for holding the legs of prisoners for as long as you need to.

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JACK : The British Union flag but also Jack or Jack Tar are familiar terms for an ordinary sailor.

JIB : A triangular sail in the forward part of the ship's rig and in small craft like sloops it is attached to the bowsprit or the bow.

JOLLY ROGER : A pirate flag often black an’ showing the skull-and-crossbones. Hoisted aloft it says “You’d better surrender because we’ll be annoyed if you don’t.” A red flag says "We’re annoyed now an’ we’re going to kill you all."

JURY-RIGGED : A ship fitted with temporary rigging, masts or sails when accident or attack has damaged  the proper rig.

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KEEL : The lowest timber of the ship's frame, running from Stem to Stern.

KEEL-HAULING : A horrific punishment where the victim is dragged under the ship with ropes attached to the other side of the hull. Not only was there a good chance of drowning but the barnacles and other encrustations on the hull would cause terrible abrasions as the victim was hauled under.

KNOT : A measure of the ship’s speed made by counting the knots on a log-line paid out to a float for thirty seconds. A ship travelling at 8 knots is moving 8 nautical miles an hour.

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LADDER : What an land-lubber would call “stairs” between decks on a ship.

LANDSMAN : A new recruit that has never been to sea before.

LANYARD : A short rope or cord used for hanging or securing something.

LEAGUE : A distance of three nautical miles.

LETTER OF MARQUE : A document given to a captain allowing him to attack enemy ships under the authority of the crown, in return for a cut of the loot. It makes a pirate sort of legal if you’re on the right side.

LINE : What a Land Lubber would call “a rope” in use as part of the ship's rigging, or as a towing line.

LOADED TO THE GUNNELLS : Drunk as can be. Not fit to sail a ship that’s for sure.

LOG : A record of the ship's course, progress, and any events of navigational importance.

LOG-LINE : A knotted length of line with a piece of wood at the end which is thrown into the water to determine how many "knots" run out in thirty seconds. See Knot.

LONG BOAT : A large boat carried by a ship which is used to move loads such as anchors, chains, ropes, or loot.

LONG CLOTHES : The type of clothing worn on land.

LOOKOUT : A crew member posted to keep watch, often from the crow’s nest, for other ships or signs of land.

LOOT : Stolen stuff.

LUBBER : An awkward, clumsy, unseamanlike fellow.  LAND-LUBBER : The worst kind of Lubber, one that’s never even been to sea before.

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MAIN-MAST : The largest and most central mast of the ship.

MAN-OF-WAR : A warship designed and equipped for battle

MARLINSPIKE : An iron pointed tool used to separate the strands of a rope for splicing

MAROONING : Abandoning a person on a deserted coast or island with very few supplies. Usually resulting in a slow death by starvation or thirst. If you were rescued you’d probably be hung because people presumed you were a pirate.

MAKE FAST : Tying or securing ropes. Fast is usually used in the sense of “fasten” on ship.

MIZEN-MAST: The aftermost mast of the ship. The one at the “back” for the land-lubbers

MUTINY : Revolt or determined disobedience on a ship. Punishable by death in the British Navy.

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NAVIGATOR : A crew member skilled in the art of navigation. Combining seamanship and knowledge of nautical astronomy. A skilled navigator could guide a ship from port to port often with no sight of land for months on end.

NEWGATE BIRDS : Men sent to serve on British Navy ships in place of serving a sentence in prison.

NO PREY, NO PAY : This means ye won’t get paid unless we capture some ships.

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OAKUM : The remains of old ropes that have become untwisted or picked to pieces, sometimes called “tow”. This material was often used to stuff into cracks in the ship’s hull with tar to seal it from water.

ORLOP: The lowest deck, immediately above the hold.

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PAINTER : A rope attached to the bows of a boat, used for making her fast.

PIECES OF EIGHT : Spanish silver coins worth eight "reales.," could be cut into eight pieces, each worth one reale.

PINNACE : A light boat propelled by sails or oars, used for travelling between ship and shore.

PIRACY or Pyracy : Robbery at sea.

PIRATE or Pyrate : Someone who robs at sea or plunders the land from the sea without letters of marque.

PIRATE ROUND : A route from North America to the Indian Ocean taking advantage of seasonal winds and trade.

PISTOL PROOF : Very lucky, the sort of fellow that always seems to make the right choices.

PLUNDER : To rob, steal and generally make of with everybody’s loot.

POOP DECK : The uppermost deck at the stern of a ship, usually above the captain’s quarters.

PORT : A seaport or the left side of the ship which is normally the side you bring in to port.

POWDER MONKEY :  A crew member whose job during battle was to run back and forth from the ship's powder hold carrying black powder for the guns.

PRESSGANG : A company of men sent a’shore to force men into service on a ship, usually a Navy one but sometimes a pirate ship.

PRIVATEER : Someone who robs at sea or plunders the land from the sea with letters of marque from a government.

PRIZE : A captured ship and its cargo.

PROW : For the lubbers that’s the pointy bit at the front of the ship.

PURSER : An officer on a ship responsible for provisions and clothing. Such provisions were often sold to sailors on credit against their next payment which meant the sailors never actually managed to keep any of their money when they were finally paid.

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QUADRANT : A navigation tool used to measure the altitude of the sun. Largely replaced by the back-staff.

QUARTER : If we offer you quarter it means we’ll treat you well if you surrender. If we say “No Quarter” it means we’ll kill the lot of yer.

QUARTER-DECK : The uppermost deck abaft the main mast. The “sticky up bit at the back” for the land-lubbers.

QUARTER-MASTER : On pirate ships the quartermaster was responsible for stores, provisions and booty. In most cases he was second in charge to the captain.

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RAMSHACKLE : Out of repair, disorderly.

RATLINE :  Horizontal lines run along the shrouds to form a ladder for the crew to use in getting up into the rigging.

REEF - An underwater obstacle of rock or coral that will tear a great hole in the bottom of the ship if ye hit it. Also “to reef the sails” means tying them up a bit to reduce to area of sail in a strong wind.

RIGGING : Any or all of the ropes or chains used to support the masts and arrange the sails. Those that are “standing” are fixed, while those that are “running” are used to adjust the yards and sails.

RIG OF A SHIP : The set of masts, ropes and sails that makes up the true character of a ship.

ROPE : Is made of hemp or other stuff, spun into yarns and strands and twisted together into cordage. When it is put to use in the rigging it is then called a line, not a rope. If a rope is just coiled up on deck, not being used for anything, then you can call it a rope, not a line.

RUTTER : A book of charts, a journal, log book or set of sailing instructions used by a navigator.

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SALMAGUNGI : A savoury dish made of cured fish and onions.

SCUPPERS : Vents on a ship's deck that allow water to drain back to the sea rather than collecting in the bilge. "Scupper that!" means get rid of something by chucking it overboard.

SCURVY : A common disease among sailors caused by vitamin C deficiency causing spongy and bleeding gums, bleeding under the skin and extreme weakness. This lead to the British Navy giving their crews lime juice and being called “limeys” by the American sailors.

SCUTTLE : To deliberately sink a ship by making a hole in the hull.

SEA LEGS : A man is said to have his sea legs when he can stand steady on the deck of a ship pitching and rolling on the waves. Sometimes a sailor, used to this motion, takes a while to get his land legs back when he goes a’shore which makes him swagger a bit as he walks.

SHEET : A line running from the bottom corner of a sail so ye can adjust it for the wind

SHROUDS : Part of the standing rigging used to support the masts.

SLOOP : A single-masted, fore-and-aft-rigged ship much favoured by pirates because of its speed, shallow draught and fast turning ability.

SLOW MATCH : A cord of braided hemp, often infused with saltpetre, that burned slowly like a candle wick and was applied to powder in the touch hole of a cannon in order to fire it.

SOUNDING LINE or lead : An instrument for measuring the depth of the water, a line with a lead weight on the end and marked in fathoms.

SPANKER : A fore-and-aft sail attached to a boom and gaff. The aftermost sail of a ship sometimes called the driver.

SQUARE-RIGGED : Fitted mostly with square sails.

STARBOARD : The right side of the ship when you are facing forward. Opposite side to port.

STARTING ROPE : A short length of heavy rope with a knot in the end that the Bosun uses to beat crew members to make them work harder.

STEM : The foremost timber of the frame.

STERN : The aftermost part of the ship. That’s the back for the lubbers.

STERN CHASER : A cannon mounted in the stern of a ship for use if the ship is being chased.

STINK POT : A grenade-like weapon that makes an awful stink which is lobbed aboard an enemy ship to sicken and disorient their crew before boarding.

STRIKE COLORS : To lower the ship’s flag as a signal of surrender.

SWAB : A mop used to clean the deck of a ship. A rude name for a seaman.

SWIVEL GUN :A small cannon mounted on a swivel mount on a ship's rail. Used to repel boarders or to clear an enemy's deck prior to boarding.

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TAR : A kind of turpentine extracted from pine and used to waterproof the standing rigging and canvas.  Also a good sailor that knows his job well. See Jack Tar.

TARPAULIN : Canvas painted with tar to make it waterproof.

TELL-TALE : A compass in the captain’s cabin showing the course of the ship.

THREE SHEETS IN THE WIND : Very drunk. If ye let three sheets of a sail flap about in the wind, the sails will flap and the boat will lurch about like a drunken swab. If a fellow is just a bit tipsy then we’ll say he’s just 'one sheet in the wind', or 'a sheet in the wind's eye'. Two sheets is somewhere in between.

TOGS : Clothes.

TOP SAILS : The second sails above the decks.

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UPPER DECK : The highest deck running the full length of the ship.

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VENT : A small hole in the barrel of a gun, primed with gunpowder and set light to fire a cannon. Called a “Touch-hole” on a pistol or musket.

VOLLEY : The simultaneous discharge of a number of firearms.

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WALKING THE PLANK : A reputed method of dispatching prisoners yet avoiding the charge of murder since the victim was said to have walked into the sea of his own accord.

WATCH : The crew is divided into two watches, port and starboard, depending where they hangs their hammock. Each watch is on duty for four hours before the other watch takes over and the word “watch” is also used to describe these times. FIRST WATCH : 8pm. till midnight. MIDDLE WATCH : Midnight till 4 am. MORNING WATCH : 4 till 8 am. FORENOON WATCH : 8 till Noon. AFTERNOON WATCH : Noon till 4 pm. DOG WATCHES : 4 till 6 pm. and 6 till 8 pm. making up an uneven number of watches to change the watches over.

WATCH GLASS : A half hour sand glass used keep time during the watches.

WEIGH ANCHOR : To haul up the anchor. Generally means “We’re Leaving.”

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X MARKS THE SPOT : As if I’d be mad enough to bury my treasure and leave a map lying about marked with a big cross. Most pirates spent their booty in the first port they came to.

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YARD : A timber held at an angle to the mast to spread a sail. YARD-ARM : Generally the end of the yard.

YELLOW JACK : A yellow flag flown to show there was sickness or plague aboard.

YO HO HO : The sort of thing a pirate says when he’s loaded to the gunnels.

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ZENITH : The point in the sky directly overhead. The pole of the Horizon.

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Pirate living history visits for education. School visits linking to the primary framework for literacy, unit 4, adventure and mystery. a pirate school visit is supported with a wide range of artefacts from the golden age of piracy and the presentation is designed to bring pirates, buccaneers and privateers vividly to life in the safety of your own school hall or classroom. Also learn to speak like a pirate with the Piratical Lexicon. A glossary of pirate words and terms..