Pirate Glossary: A Guide to Pirate and Ship Terms
These definitions were developed using the following sources as core references:
Articles (Pirate): rules adopted and signed by a pirate crew stipulating proper behavior, punishment for bad conduct, and compensation.
Bosun or Boswain: ship’s officer in charge of sails, rigging, hull, maintenance, and other duties related to sailing the vessel.
Brig (or Brigantine): a two-masted sailing vessel, usually square rigged, often armed by pirates with 8-20 cannon.
Bow: front of a boat or ship.
Buccaneer: general term for pirates, particularly in the West Indies, but originally referring to hunters of wild oxen and pigs on Hispaniola (see Dave Cordingly’s book for more background).
Coxswain: a sailor in charge of steering a boat and its crew.
Corsair: pirates who plundered the Mediterranean Sea and North Africa, mainly of African origin.
Doubloon: a gold coin from Spain or Spanish America and the highest valued coin in circulation during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Fathom: a unit used to measure water depth equal to six feet.
Frigate: three-masted ship built for speed and often carrying 30 or more cannon.
Galleon: a large square rigged sailing vessel used from the 15th to 18th centuries for war and commerce (most commonly associated with Spain).
Gunwale (or gunnel): the upper edge of a ship or boat’s side.
Halyard: a rope used to hoist a sail (or spar).
Heave to: a maneuver that stops the forward movement of the boat by pointing the vessel directly into the wind.
Heel: when the boat tilts to one side.
Helm: the wheel or tiller that controls the direction of the ship.
“In Irons”: when a sailing vessel’s bow is directly in the wind so that the sails cannot fill properly and maneuver the boat.
Junk: ships in Chinese waters with a high poop deck, high pole masts, deep rudder, and little or no keel.
Keel: a flat surface built into the bottom of a boat.
Knot: one nautical mile per hour (6,076 feet per hour).
League: unit used to measure distance, varying between 2.4 and 4.6 miles in length.
Leeward: side of a ship away from the wind (downwind).
Nautical mile: 6,076 feet according to international standards (in use by the U.S. since 1959), and longer than the standard land mile of 5,280 feet.
Pieces of Eight: a silver coin from Spain of Spanish America worth eight reales (the Spanish monetary unit of the 16th century), also called a peso.
Pirate: a water-based outlaw who typically robs other ships of their cargo.
Poop Deck: the aft deck of a ship.
Port: left side of boat or ship.
Privateer: a ship (or captain) operating with the written permission of a nation (or king) allowing them to seize ships and cargo.
Quarterdeck: the portion of a deck, usually raised above the main deck, from which the captain controlled the ship.
Quartermaster: a ship’s officer that attends to the helm, stores, clothing, and other stores of a ship (often the second in command of a smaller vessel).
Schooner: two-masted sailing vessel.
Ship: in the 18th century, a sailing vessel of at least three masts and square rigged sails.
Ship of the Line: a ship large enough to form the core of a battle line at sea, often outfitted with 50 to 100 guns.
Sloop: a smaller sailing vessel with one mast, often used by pirates in the West Indies because they were fast and nimble.
South China Sea: part of the Pacific Ocean bordered by Southeast China, Indochina, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaya, and Borneo.
Spanish Main: the mainland of Spanish America, usually the northern coast of South America but also including the Caribbean Sea.
Spar: a wooden pole that could be used as a mast or a Yard.
Starbord: right side of a boat or ship.
Stern: rear of a boat or ship.
Tack: change direction of the ship, usually by zigzagging against the wind.
Tar: term used for ordinary seamen on a sailing ship.
West Indies: islands in the Caribbean Sea spanning the southern coast of North American, Central America, and the northern coast of South America.
Windward: the side facing the direction from which the wind is blowing.
Yardarm: the end of a long spar suspended from mast to set sails.
>> Return to Top