What Is A Pirate?

Pirate Captain On DeckPirates and piracy have been around ever since men took to the sea in ships. The Phoenicians, the Romans and the Greeks all dealt with pirates and piracy. Even today, piracy off the African coast has been in the news.

Pirates truly sailed against all flags. Although modern movies have romanticized the pirate image the bitter truth is for the most part they were a bunch of murderous scoundrels. There are many true accounts of their barbarity and inhumanity. Since the punishment for piracy was hanging there was little reason to leave survivors who could later identify you and put a noose around your neck. The expression “Dead men tell no tales” bears witness to this fact.

But have you ever stopped to wonder where the word pirate actually comes from? I was curious and started doing some research and here’s what I found:

“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.”


Of course whether you were considered  a pirate or not often depended on whose side you were on. Governments, particularly England, often had privateers who were legally allowed to attack enemy ships.

Privateers were armed ships whose captain  carried a document called a “letter of marque and reprisal” that allowed them to be recompensed for past damages. Originally these documents were given to merchants who had suffered a pirate attack. For England this soon became a cheap way to maintain a navy without having to pay for it.

But if you were on a French or Spanish ship they attacked they were just pirates to you and if somehow caught they would be tried as such.

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