Word Stories - January 3, 2022 - 4 min

Holiday Visits From the Outlaws

The home delivery industry has gone through the roof in these times of pandemic, and in recent months the holiday gift-giving season has added to the flow of commercial packages. One group of entrepreneurs that has enjoyed riding this wave is the modern class of casual thieves known as porch pirates, who quietly collect packages that have been delivered but not yet taken inside. One grassroots response that has been trending this year is the rise of the reverse porch pirates: locals who take it upon themselves to cram packages into mailboxes (or otherwise hide them), and then leave notes saying where the proper recipients can find their goods. Both types of pirates are wiling to trespass a little, and to break a few laws about meddling with mail destined for others. Their Battle of the Boxes is a seasonal reminder that many of us in the modern western world are happy to think of ourselves as outlaws or anti-heroes in some sense. We tend to associate a certain glamour with the swashbuckling boldness of breaking the rules and taking matters into one’s own hands. This month’s Word Stories instalment explores the way this cultural dynamic has played out in the words and images most commonly associated with piracy.


Pirates are outlaws who use boats to raid coastal areas or other boats. A ship used for this kind of armed robbery is sometimes also called a pirate, but it’s much more common now to call such a vessel a pirate ship. The roots of English noun pirate stretch back through French (pirate) and Latin (pīrāta) to Greek (peiratēs). The Greek word came from the verb peiran (“to attack”) and thereby ultimately the noun peira (“an attempt”), all of which makes good sense given that pirates live by attacking or “making attempts upon” profitable targets.

English speakers inherited the word pirate from Latin or French in the 1300s, and in the 1600s added the noun piracy (based on the related Greek and Latin words peirateira and piratia). These words soon showed a tendency to take on figurative senses. English bookmakers complained, for example, about the “Word-pirates” and “Land-Pirats” who reprinted the work of others without permission (T. Dekker, The Wonderfull Yeare, 1603, J. Hancock, Brook’s String of Pearls, 1668). Such unauthorized reproduction was in their eyes barbarous “Piracy” (J. Mennes, Recreation for Ingenious Head-peeces, 1654). In today’s Digital Age, the unauthorized reproduction of copyrighted materials is commonly called piracy. By extension, people often speak of pirating movies, sharing pirated music, etc.

Thanks to such figurative uses, and to the swashbuckling pirate characters of modern English fantasy literature, the connotations of pirate and piracy are no longer purely negative. There are even professional sports teams named for pirates, like the well-known Pittsburgh Pirates. It would be strange to hear of a team similarly called the Philadelphia Felons. Such uses show the extent to which the ancient figure of the pirate has been romanticized in recent centuries, on the model of the outlaw anti-hero.


The word corsair is often treated in everyday English as synonymous with pirate. Until recently, though, these two terms meant different things. Pirates were outlaws who sailed and raided at will. Corsairs, on the other hand, had official royal permission to attack (and loot) the ships of enemy nations. Because they had been granted authorization (in the form of a “Letter of Mark”), corsairs were seen as mercenaries carrying out legal expeditions. The word corsair is in fact derived from the French coursaire (“someone on an expedition”), and thereby ultimately from the Latin cursus (“expedition”). This family tree makes it a cousin to the Italian forms corsale and corsaro, which were also used in English until corsair dominated the field.

The distinction between pirates and corsairs was blurred over the years by the fact that people being looted didn’t see much of a difference between the two types of looting, and also by the fact that unemployed corsairs sometimes resorted to outright piracy between wars. Given these realities, the concepts and the words tended to overlap. English writers can therefore be found discussing the need “to kepe the seas against Corsales, and Pyrates” (W. Thomas, The Historie of Italie, 1549), or complaining about the barbarism of “the Turkish Cursaros, or as we call them Pirates” (W. Malim, The True Report, 1572). Over the centuries, this overlap has all but erased the difference in English between a pirate and a corsair.


Like the word pirate, the word privateer is used to describe sailors who attack and loot other ships. The term privateer is also, like pirate, traditionally used to refer to any ship used for such raids. Unlike pirates, though, privateers are (in theory at least) entrepreneurs - not outlaws. Properly speaking, privateers are like corsairs: they are sailors authorized by wartime governments to attack the ships of enemy nations. A privateer is therefore a mercenary with a license to loot, as opposed to a blatant criminal like a pirate.

In recent centuries, the nautical word privateer has - again, like pirate and piracy - taken on more figurative meanings. Companies that capitalize upon the privatization of public services are sometimes called privateers, for example, as are motorsport competitors who operate without official sponsors. Such wider modern uses are only connected to the original vocation of the privateer by connotations of entrepreneurial independence and the pursuit of private gain.


The roots of the word buccaneer go back to the Caribbean of the 1600s. The French verb boucaner referred to the process of drying and smoking meat on a Caribbean wood grill. A boucanier was therefore the rough kind of person who lived on wild game cooked this way. The first English references to “Buckaneers” accordingly describe Jamaican rovers and hunters, whose ranks at the the time included Frenchmen (Edmund Hickeringill, Jamaica Viewed, 1661).

When many such local bands of men took to thieving and raiding for survival in the late 1600s, buccaneers became synonymous with pirates. The first edition of the New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (1699) defines “Buckaneers,” for example, as “Pirates” and “rabble.” Over the years, the word buccaneer evolved by extension into a synonym for pirate, and its original associations with Caribbean campfire cuisine have been lost completely.


In modern English, a brigand is simply a bandit, but this wasn’t always the case. The word is derived from the Old French brigand, and thereby from the Italian brigante, both of which denote a lightly armed foot soldier. Technically speaking, a brigand was therefore a member of the military. The Italian root brigare (“to fight”) stands behind all three words - along with other related military words like brigade.

This original military meaning of the word brigand survived in English from the 1400s to the 1800s. Robert Southey’s epic poem Joan of Arc (1796) still uses the word in its technical and neutral sense, for example, in describing armies composed of “Archers… Brigans and pikemen”. The negative secondary sense of brigand as “armed robber” emerged very early on, though. William Caxton refers explicitly to the social problem of “theves and brygauntes,” for example, in his English edition of The Foure Sonnes of Aymon (1490). The term brigand seems to have taken on its criminal connotation the same way the words corsair and privateer did: armed raiders have an unfortunate historical tendency to raid and loot on their own initiative, when tensions get high or when times get tough. The image of a common foot soldier plundering under orders - or just to get by - has therefore evolved over the years into the image of the brigand who lives by armed robbery.

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