Hey, pirate dinosaurs would be very cool….

Dear Word Detective: I’m trying to find the origin of the word “pirate.” Is “pirate” of European descent? — Brent Lilly.

Oh boy, pirates. At one point in my youth, after my passion for dinosaurs had cooled but before I became fixated on shortwave radio, I decided that I really wanted to be a pirate. My unlikely ambition was almost certainly inspired by the classic over-the-top performance of Robert Newton as Long John Silver in Disney’s 1950 movie of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” It turned out, however, that pirate captains rarely recruit in suburban Connecticut, and eventually I moved on to wanting to be a disk jockey, which was just as well. Modern pirates, who now operate largely off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden, are simply thugs, kidnappers and murderers. (I realize that description also fits my beloved 18th century pirates, but at least they were nice to their parrots.)

“Pirate” is indeed of European descent, in that it is based on an Indo-European root and came to us, as many English words do, through Greek, Latin, and Old French incarnations. The Indo-European root in the case of “pirate” was “per,” which carried the sense of “try” or “risk.” Its Greek descendant “pieran” meant “to attempt” as well as “to attack,” and eventually we had the Latin form “pirata,” which meant “attacker, robber,” and later specifically “sea attacker.” From there on, the various forms carried the sense of “one who attacks at sea,” although figurative use of “pirate” in a more general sense to mean “one who exploits or plunders” was also common.

To double back to that Indo-European “per” (meaning “try” or “risk”) for a moment, it’s interesting to note that the same root ultimately also produced the modern English words “expert,” “experience” and “peril,” among others.

In English, “pirate” appeared in the late 14th century with the meaning of “a person who robs ships at sea,” with the figurative use meaning “robber, marauder, plunderer” on land as well as sea arising about 100 years later. I was surprised to learn that “pirate” in the sense of “one who uses another’s work without permission,” much in the news lately with regard to people “pirating” software and music, was actually first used all the way back in the late 17th century (“Some dishonest Booksellers, called Land-Pirats, who make it their practise to steal Impressions of other mens Copies,” 1668). “Pirate” in the sense of an unlicensed radio station dates back to 1913, or pretty much as soon as there were radio stations. Unlicensed taxicabs (and even buses) have also been known as “pirates” since 1889, though, at least in New York City, they are more commonly called “gypsy cabs.”

7 comments on this post.
  1. Stew:

    But how much more interesting if the origin were from the phrase “pier rat”.

  2. Brad Patterson:

    I had fallen prey to this “pier rat” urban etymology legend as well.

    Wonderful site here. Just subscribed ! Cheers, Brad

  3. SMH021:

    Land rat
    Sea Rat
    Pi Rat

  4. Carl:

    Very interesting, ya’ bunch of PIER-RATS! LOL! Just kidding…

    I was always curious about the origins of the word Pirate anyway… Thanks! ~carlbigman

  5. Jadzia:

    Why are pirates called pirates – because they aarrrrrr (to be said with a pirate accent)

  6. Roy:

    The word “pirate” derives from the Gallic (French-Galician) language from which the English language derives over 80 percent of its words. The word “pirate” actually means to run away fast. A word still used in other Gallic languages like Galician and Portuguese.

  7. Roy:

    It derives from two words pira-te which means “I turn and run”.

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