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How International Talk Like a Pirate Day Became a Cultural Phenomenon

Black & White illustration of pirate battle
Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard, 1718 depicting the battle between Blackbeard the Pirate and Lieutenant Maynard in Ocracoke Bay Jean Leon Gerome Ferris / Public domain

It’s not a “real” holiday in the technical sense, but International Talk Like a Pirate Day has quite a following all the same. Celebrated every year on Sept. 19, it encourages people across the globe to spend an entire day speaking in pirate slang, complete with a classic pirate accent. You’ll know what day it is when you hear: “Aye!” “Avast!” “Belay that talk!” And, of course, “Arrrrr!”

The funny thing is, International Talk Like a Pirate Day started out as a joke between two friends. When John Baur and Mark Summers dreamed up the idea back in the mid-‘90s, they had no idea that it would become as huge as it eventually did.

Here’s how International Talk Like a Pirate Day started—and how it grew into a beloved parody holiday still observed by the piratically inclined today.

The Origins of International Talk Like a Pirate Day

The way Summers and Baur tell it, it all began on June 6, 1995. The pair had recently begun playing racquetball together at their local YMCA—an activity they didn’t particularly enjoy doing, but which they had taken up for the sake of health and fitness. But on that fateful day, they did something during their game that helped pass the time a little more quickly than usual: They started talking like pirates while they played.

They’re not totally sure why they started exchanging piratical quips and barbs. They sometimes say that they “[suspect] one of us might have been reaching for a low shot that, by pure chance, might have come off the wall at an unusually high rate of speed,” resulting in one of them “[straining] something best left unstrained”—and subsequently uttering a pained “Arrrrr!” in response. But that’s possibly a piece of mythology; as Baur and Summers note on the International Talk Like a Pirate Day website, “Who knows? It might have happened exactly that way”—implying that it also might not have happened that way at all.

Either way, the two friends realized after their nautically themed game of racquetball that they enjoyed yelling things like “That’d be a fine cannonade!” at each other, so they opted to observe a day every year upon which they would converse only in pirate slang. Since June 6 is, uh, D-Day, and therefore an inappropriate day for a pirate-themed holiday, they chose Sept. 19 instead.

Why Sept. 19? Well, because it was a date they could easily remember: It’s Summers’ ex-wife’s birthday. (According to Baur and Summers’ book, Pirattitude! So You Wanna Be A Pirate? Here’s How!, “The date was stuck in [Summers’] head and he wasn’t using it anymore.”) The ex in question is, for the most part, fine with their choice of date; as Baur and Summers wrote in Pirattitude!, “She’s okay with it, once she understood that we weren’t being mean. We just needed a date we’d be able to recall. In fact, she now says she’s never been so proud to be his ex-wife. That’s what we call a good sport!”

The Growth of a Movement

For the next seven years, Baur and Summers celebrated their made-up holiday annually on Sept. 19—whenever they remembered to, at least. (Their friend, Brian Rhodes, helped them keep track of it thanks to the wonders of pre-programmed calendar reminders.) In 2002, however, Baur made a discovery that dramatically changed the game:

He found Dave Barry’s email address.

Yes, that Dave Barry. Humorist Dave Barry, whose weekly syndicated humor column was a staple of newspapers across the United States for 22 years.

At the time, Barry had been writing his weekly column for almost two decades. The column began in 1983 after fellow humorist and editor Gene Weingarten (then with the Miami Herald’s Sunday magazine) spotted a guest column Barry had written for a Philadelphia-area paper and subsequently hired him for the Herald. Barry went on to win the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. In the years since, his work has included several dozen books (some of which have been adapted for film and television), numerous collaborations, some audio recordings, and, of course, his column, which ran until 2005.

In 2002, Barry was still a few years away from stepping back from his weekly column—and, when he received an email from Baur and Summers telling him about their parody of a holiday, he liked the idea enough that he made it the subject of one of his columns.

That column, “Arrrrr! Talk Like a Pirate—or Prepare to Be Boarded,” was published on Sept. 8, 2002, bringing national attention to Baur, Summers, and International Talk Like a Pirate Day. (Barry later wrote the introduction to Pirattitude!, which was published in 2005.) And from there everything snowballed, aided by the growth of internet culture, the rise of social media, and a renewed interest in pirate culture (spurred on in large part by the success of Disney’s 2003 film PIrates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, an adaptation based on the classic Pirates of the Caribbean theme park ride).

And although International Talk Like a Pirate Day may not have quite as many followers now as it did during the mid-2000s, it’s still celebrated every year on Sept. 19 by those who, like Baur and Summers, enjoy bellowing the occasional “Arrrrr!” and “Avast!” from time to time.

How to Celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day

So, how exactly does one celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day?

The very obvious answer is, of course, to talk like a pirate. According to the Dialect Blog, what most of us usually think of as the classic “pirate accent” is actually a version of West Country English—a collection of dialects that originated in areas of South West England, including Cornwall, Bristol, Gloucestershire, and Devon. These dialects are characterized by their rhoticity—that is, most “r” sounds are pronounced at the end of a syllable or before a consonant.

print engraving of pirate standing on deck of ship leaning on his rifle
Print engraving of Stede Bonnet in Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, circa 1725 Charles Johnson / Public domain

Although many real-life pirates from the historical period known as the Golden Age of Piracy, which ran roughly from 1650 to the 1730s, did hail from areas in which West Country dialects were (and are) common, it’s believed that this accent became associated with pirates in popular culture much later on—in 1950, to be precise. That’s when Disney’s adaptation of Treasure Island was released with Robert Newton in the role of Long John Silver. Newton was originally from Dorset and received his education in both Cornwall and the West Country-adjacent county of Berkshire; he chose to use his natural accent for Silver, and voila: the famous “Pirate accent” was created.

To “talk like a pirate,” all you have to do is pair that accent with a little pirate vocabulary, most of which is derived from nautical terms, and you’re all set to celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day. However, you can also celebrate pretty much however you like—by reading pirate books, watching pirate movies, hanging out with your favorite talking parrot, and so on and so forth. Baur and Summers are adamant that dressing like a pirate is not essential to any Talk Like a Pirate Day celebrations—as they state explicitly on the International Talk Like a Pirate Day website, “It’s talk Like a Pirate Day, not dress like a pirate”; dressing up “seems like a lot of trouble to us.” However, they do note that “you can certainly dress up in pirate garb if you want to.” In short, you do you, and all that. Just don’t forget to let out a few “Arrrrr, mateys!” while you’re at it.

The Truth About the Golden Age of Piracy

It’s worth noting, of course, that International Talk Like a Pirate Day doesn’t actually celebrate piracy or even pirate history; instead, it celebrates the highly romanticized, fictionalized version of the Golden Age of Piracy.

This romanticization is far from new. In fact, it’s rife throughout pop culture, starting with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (originally published serially between 1881 and 1882) all the way up through the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise today. Indeed, much of what still forms the basis of cultural depictions of the Golden Age of Piracy dates back to 1724—the end of the period itself—thanks to the pseudonymously published A General History of the Pyrates. This book, which Stevenson and J. M. Barrie of Peter Pan and Wendy both cited as an influence on their work, contains brief biographies of 34 pirates, including Calico Jack Rackham, Blackbeard, and Anne Bonny (and a few pirates we now believe to be fictional, as well)—but it’s far from an academic piece of writing. Rather, A General History of the Pyrates paints its subjects with a myth-tinged brush—and with many writers and other storytellers taking their cues from it, it contributed greatly to how piracy is depicted in popular culture throughout each of the following centuries.

Now, actual piracy? Not so great—either during the Golden Age of Piracy or today. But as long as you keep in mind that International Talk Like a Pirate Day essentially celebrates adventure fiction and ageless fun, then go ahead and celebrate to your ocean-faring heart’s content. Ahoy!

Lucia Peters Lucia Peters
Lucia Peters is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared at Bustle, The Toast, Crushable, The Gloss, and others. She also writes and manages The Ghost In My Machine, where she haunts readers several times weekly with spooky stories of the strange and unusual. Her first book, Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, was published by Chronicle Books in September of 2019. Read Full Bio »