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Words that retain a certain roguish appeal

The Monitor's language columnist considers the swashbuckling vocabulary of piracy.

By Ruth Walker / May 14, 2009



Remember when piracy was mostly just about DVDs and downloaded music? And then before that, when it was Captain Hook and Peter Pan?

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That has abruptly changed. However grateful Americans may be that Navy SEAL sharpshooters were able to liberate Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama, hundreds of hostages of other nationalities, and well over a dozen ships, remain in pirate hands.

But wait! That other form of piracy, the digital kind, is still very much with us as well. A Swedish court ruled last month against the founders of a downloading website called Pirate Bay. They've been ordered to pay $4.3 million and sentenced to a year each in jail.

Stephen J. Dubner, of the New York Times Freakonomics blog, mused not long ago that, given events off the coast of Somalia, piracy may no longer be the most appropriate term for illegal downloading. He challenged his readers to come up with a new term. After a review of the submissions, he decided that "downlifting" was the most apt – a blend of "downloading" and "shoplifting," plus the paradox of "lifting" something "down."

We'll see how downlifting does in the verbal marketplace. But I'd take Dubner's point further and say that the whole vocabulary of piracy is full of terms more colorful than these seaborne muggers deserve.

Pirate itself comes from Latin via Old French. Follow the trail and you go back to a Greek word meaning "one who attacks." So far, so good. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that pirate in the sense of "one who takes another's work without permission" goes back to 1701. The idea of a "pirate" (unlicensed, that is, rather than larcenous) broadcaster goes back to the very early days of broadcasting, to 1913.

Note the distinction between a privateer and a buccaneer. A privateer is a privately owned ship, or its captain or one of its crew, that is authorized by a government during wartime to attack and capture enemy vessels. Today we would probably call this "state-sponsored terrorism."

Buccaneer is a slightly older term, and basically refers to the rascals' barbecue equipment. (Seriously: The term comes from the name of a kind of native Caribbean grill for roasting meat. The French term for this was "boucan.") Buccaneers, or freebooters, to use another term, had no governmental commission. They were in it for themselves.

Corsair is yet another swashbuckling synonym for pirate. Rooted in the idea of "running" swiftly off to pillage, corsair can be either a pirate or his ship, often with a governmental commission.

This is where we came in. The First Barbary War (1801-05) was the first war waged outside United States borders after the independence and unification of the country. The action was off the coast of North Africa rather than the Horn. But there's a full-circle quality, alas, to the whole business, even down to the name of the ship that rescued Captain Phillips: The USS Bainbridge is named for one of the most famous (and successfully rescued) hostages of that first war.

Among the English words that stem from the same Indo-European root as pirate are peril and experience. Experience comprises the lessons you learn after you emerge out of peril. We don't really want any more experience with pirates, though. What we've had so far is plenty, thanks.

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