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Pirates! A Word That Doesn't Work

The English language is an imperfect instrument. Actually, it isn't really an instrument at all. English (like any language) is more like a monster with many tentacles, about eight heads, and countless contagious viruses that spread and mutate in our brains. Williams S. Burroughs famously said, "Language is a virus from outer space." Who am I to argue?Because word evolution is as weird and wooly as biological evolution, sometimes the life of a word goes in a direction far afield from the stuff that word refers to-like pirate.As any news source, including GOOD can tell you, pirates remain a clear and present danger, even though the word pirate became cartoonish long ago. Something remains seriously off about the experience of reading a headline like "11 Pirates Seized by French navy". Before the recent piracy spree, such a headline would have seemed more suited to the Onion. I imagine the Onion's brainstorming session might have includes other suggestions such as hobos, leprechauns, flappers, and orcs.Pirate has been through so many spin cycles of language-like the goofy Talk Like a Pirate Day and those goddamn Johnny Depp movies-that any bite or menace or reality the word once had has come out in the wash. Present-day pirates committing actual piracy make the word sound weird, but not revitalized. Most of us are still thinking "Arrr!" when we should be thinking "Yikes."As Visual Thesaurus mastermind Ben Zimmer wrote recently, "Sometimes an incident like the seizure of the Maersk Alabama can be a kind of linguistic wake-up call, reminding us of the original dangers behind a word that has been rendered innocuous." But I hear another voice cooing in my ear: a call for a new word for pirates.Fortunately, we don't have to concoct a silly euphemism like man-caused disasters. There's no need to call pirates booty-focused plunderers or individuals with piratism. The Oxford English Dictionary lists many older words for pirate that haven't been chewed up and cartooned over by Disney. Let's resuscitate one of these old words. With apologies to marooner, freebooter, and privateer, the envelopes please:buccaneerThis word has also been thoroughly nice-ified but, hey… It's still fresher than pirate, by a nano-inch. The term originally meant "One who dries and smokes flesh on a boucan after the manner of the Indians." But then these innocent foodies became "piratical rovers," changing the meaning of this word as well as the fortunes of actual innocents on the unforgiving seas.gentleman of fortuneA polite-as-heck term that is probably too polite to catch on, which may be why it never really did. Bonus linguistic fact: a pig has sometimes been known as "the gentleman that pays the rent." I love my job.water-ratSince the watery location of pirates is what differentiates them from robbers, thieves, bandits, and other hoodlums, there is potential here, and a lot to choose from: past names for pirates in this vein have included water-dogs, water-thieves, sea-dogs, sea-rovers, sea-thieves, and sea-wolves. Sea-breath and water-wad remain utterly unused, except in my imagination.scummerUsed to describe pirates and rovers in the 14th century, scummer is in tune with familiar insults like scumbag and scumbucket and scum of the earth. Even the original meaning isn't flattering: "A shallow ladle or sieve for removing scum or floating matter from the surface of a liquid." Bonus word: scummerfare is a rare old word for piracy.picaroonI always liked insults that rhyme with moon, like maroon, loon, goon, and balatroon-an archaic word for a buffoon. Besides pirate, this word also means a thief or scoundrel of any sort, as it was intended here back in 1926: "Th' sliddherin' ways of a pair o' picaroons, whisperin', concurrin', concoctin', an' conspirin' together…"But if these old words don't quite swab your poop deck, I have another suggestion: kleptoparasite.This is a variation of my new favorite word-kleptoparasitism-which means "A form of parasitism in which a bird, insect, or other animal habitually steals prey or food-stores from members of another species." It applies to critters like the pirate bird, pirate fish, and pirate spider. Since these scurvy beasts borrowed the word pirate from us hairless apes, I don't think they'll mind if some human sea-dogs start muscling in on their term.Kleptoparasite sounds insulting enough to make a pirate question his life choices, while technical enough to appear in the latest scholarly journals. It's a little huge-o-normous for headlines, so maybe we could use a catchy abbreviation like klep-pa: "Klep-pas attack!" Perhaps an anti-kleptoparasitical spray could be developed.The mind reels and boggles at the possibilities, most of them awful. But at the very least, when a lookout shrieks, "Kleptoparasites!", no one will expect a dude with a peg leg and a parrot.

Illustrations by Will Etling

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