Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
We’re less than a week away from September 19 and one of the best holidays of the year: International Talk Like a Pirate Day! But before you start revving up your “ARRR”s or shivering your timbers, learn about the history of two words often associated with the high-seas adventures of pirates: swashbuckler and buccaneer.
Swashbuckler is a word that came together during the 16th century, and it’s a fairly simple combination of two pre-existing words: A buckler was a small shield one could hold by a handle. Swash was a verb meaning “to strike loudly or violently.” It later came to describe the sound of water splashing against a solid surface.
An overconfident duelist of the time might hit (swash) his shield (buckler) with his sword to goad his challenger on — the 17th-century version of “Come at me, bro.” So, naturally, one who showed such swagger and bravado came to be called … a buckler-swasher!
Well, no. Although we form words like that in English all the time (think dishwasher, copyeditor, and shoemaker), for some reason — possibly the influence of the French language — a person who swashed his bucklers was called a swashbuckler. These days, the word is more indicative of a person’s audacity and bluster than their skill with a sword and shield.
Though they contain similar sounds, buckler doesn’t figure into that other word for pirates, buccaneer. In the Spanish West Indies during the 17th century, French hunters and settlers learned how to smoke and cure meat from the natives using a wooden frame they called a boucan; they became boucaniers. When they were driven from their trade by Spanish authorities, some of them became pirates, and they took the name with them.