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Friday December 12, 2008 1:02 pm

Werd: Pirate - Part Five


This week’s werd pirate, as told by the other OED:

pirate (n.)
  1254, from O.Fr. pirate, from L. pirata “sailor, sea robber,” from Gk. peirates “brigand, pirate,” lit. “one who attacks,” from peiran “to attack, make a hostile attempt on, try,” from peira “trial, an attempt, attack,” from PIE base *per- “try” (cf. L. peritus “experienced,” periculum “trial, experiment, risk, danger,” see peril). Meaning “one who takes another’s work without permission” first recorded 1701; sense of “unlicensed radio broadcaster” is from 1913. The verb is first recorded 1574.

From its earliest roots, we can see that the word is based on the seafaring attack definition that we know very well and “one who attacks.”  Then, in 1701, that very concrete definition gains an abstraction – it becomes the piracy of copyright, a taking of thought.  You can say that 1701 marks the death of the singular pirate and welcomes a broader definition founded in the world of Gutenberg’s movable type.

We should not find it ironic, then, that Captain William Kidd was executed in 1701 for his act of piracy.

In 1696, the Scottish-born Kidd left the port of New York City at the behest of American governor Richard Coote, Earl of Bellemont, to attack pirates and the French.  (Coote was, in that sense, a 1701 version of Rudy Guiliani promising September 12th retribution.)  A number of rich financiers (note: not taxpayers) backed the venture and Kidd sailed his ship towards Madagascar, where he suspected the most pirates would be hanging around.  After his ship rounded Cape Horn, he unfortunately found little but a disagreeable crew that was growing disappointed with his inability to plunder some booty. It was during this ineffective portion of the trip that:

Kidd killed one of his own crewmen on October 30, 1697. While Kidd’s gunner, William Moore, was on deck sharpening a chisel, a Dutch ship hove in sight. Moore urged Kidd to attack the Dutchman, an act not only piratical but also certain to anger the Dutch-born King William. Kidd refused, calling Moore a lousy dog. Moore retorted, “If I am a lousy dog, you have made me so; you have brought me to ruin and many more.” Kidd snatched up and heaved an ironbound bucket at Moore. Moore fell to the deck with a fractured skull and died the following day.

His only success during the attempted raids was a January 1698 capture of the Cara Merchant, an Armenian ship that was bringing valuable goods from the East and sailing under protection of the French.  Kidd’s pirates captured the booty, hoping that they could argue to the Crown that the ship was the French enemy they were commissioned to look for.  It would be the only measurable success of the voyage.

He finally reached Madagascar by April 1698, at which point he essentially let his entire crew jump aboard another pirate’s ship.  With only 13 mates remaining, he abandoned his leaky ship in the Caribbean (burning it and salvaging the metals) and returned to New York on a small sloop.  Despite assurances from Bellemont that he would be granted clemency, Kidd was imprisoned for over a year in New York, where he spent time in solitary confinement, slowly losing his mind.  He was then sent to England for a trial for murder and five counts of piracy.  Hoping his loyalty might save him, Kidd did not give up any of the names of his trip’s sponsors.  Sadly, his loyalty was not repaid, and he was hanged and then displayed for twenty years, hung in a cage above the Thames as a warning against pirates. 

After his execution, Kidd’s prolonged trip back prompted speculation about the possibility of hidden pirate treasure that Kidd deposited around the world before his return to New York.  Edgar Allen Poe, in 1843, published his short story The Gold Bug, which (though perhaps now more well known for its introduction of cryptography) was a story that popularized the legend of Kidd’s buried treasure to the American public.  To this day, Americans in Long Island and Connecticut dig up beaches in hopes of finding Kidd’s stash.[1] 

So in 1701, as Kidd is hanged, our werd, pirate, was simultaneously given a new life.  It moved from the root meaning that implies the seafaring “one who attacks” to the modern sense of the more general “one who takes.”  We are all pirates, now.

And if you don’t believe me, just read the about the root word of filibuster:

filibuster (n.)
  1587 as flibutor “pirate,” probably ultimately from Du. vrijbuiter “freebooter,” used of pirates in the West Indies as Sp. filibustero and Fr. flibustier, either or both of which gave the word to Amer.Eng. (see freebooter). Used 1850s and ‘60s of lawless adventurers from the U.S. who tried to overthrow Central American countries. The legislative sense is first recorded c.1851, probably because obstructionist legislators “pirated” debate. Not technically restricted to U.S. Senate, but that’s where the strategy works best.

Why do you think we’ve seen so many pirate movies in the past seven years?

[Kidd bio pirated from here.]

[1]  Indeed, some modern hedge fund analysts are calling this the investment derivative trend of the next decade.

Pirate - Part One
Pirate - Part Two
Pirate - Part Three
Pirate - Part Four
Pirate - Part Five



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