aaarr! [aargh!, argh!]

Discuss word origins and meanings.
Post Reply

aaarr! [aargh!, argh!]

Post by incarnatus est » Mon May 10, 2010 2:15 am

Help please...

I want to know as much as I can about how "aaarggh," or however you would spell it, has become the identifier for what Pirates say.

As in,
Ask a child what cows say, and he answers "moo."
What cats say, she answers "meow."

And what a pirate says: he/she answers "aarr."
Or, reversed, What goes "aarr"? And the child answers: "A pirate!"

How did this come to be?
I think most people would say it's an historical fact that all pirates preceded every utterance with that prefix.

From Robert Newton as Blackbeard the Pirate in the movie? Or from R.L. Stevenson?

Wadda ya think?

Hugh Gilmore

Re: aaarr!

Post by Bobinwales » Mon May 10, 2010 9:13 am

Without producing any evidence, it is my belief that it came from Robert Newton, not from Stevenson.

Mind you, saying that I have not produced evidence THIS mob may supply some information.

By the way, Robert Newton was Long John Silver when he did the "Ooo argh Jim lad" thing in 1950. He did play Blackbeard in 1952 but I have never seen the film, and I would have thought he was hopelessly miscast as Edward Teach who was a pretty formidable character, in his last battle he was supposed to have been shot five times, and had about twenty very severe cutlass cuts on his body. Not exactly the cozy image that Newton usually portrayed.
Last edited by Bobinwales on Mon May 10, 2010 3:18 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Signature: All those years gone to waist!
Bob in Wales

Re: aaarr!

Post by zmjezhd » Mon May 10, 2010 2:27 pm

It pretty much stems from the pseudo-Cornish (English) accent that Newton used in his portrayal of Long John Silver in Disney's 1950 film Treasure Island.

Re: aaarr!

Post by Ken Greenwald » Mon May 10, 2010 9:45 pm

Hugh, The only respectable mention of the meaning and origin of AARGH, ARGH that I could find was in the Oxford English Dictionary's listing in their June, 2008, update.

Some of the original uses of the interjection were as an expression of anguish, disgust, dismay, disappointment or frustration and, in fact, it is still widely used today with those meanings (see quotes below).

However, there is no mention of pirates or the faux pirates of the movies who seem to use it indiscriminately – which gives me the feeling that the pirate usage was recently concocted by movie script writers, as mentioned in the above postings. But, if real pirates or other seafaring folks did use it at all, the above-mentioned definitions could have been its original meaning before it degenerated into a meaningless piece of pirate speech filler. But one would think that the OED would have at least mentioned the pirate usage even if it is fake, since today it is so widely associated with pirates.

But, not to let an interesting word go to waste, I provide the OED's following discussion along with related quotes:


ARGH! interjection: Expressing pain or fright; (also) expressing anguish, disappointment, or frustration. [[Imitative of a prolonged cry or groan. Compare AH interjection, ACH interjection, OOH interjection]

(The following quotes are from the OED and archived sources. You may notice that I could not find one pirate ‘aargh’ quote. However it is seen in print in children’s books, comic strips, etc. and jokingly elsewhere as pirate talk.)
<1800 “When they [sc. the bearers at a funeral] come near any houses, they begin to cry Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Agh! Agh!.”—Castle Rackrent by M. Edgeworth Glossary, page xix>

<1867 “—inoffensive youths would suddenly assume the port and carriage of a bold buccaneer, and roar out lustily that a pirates life was the life for them . . . In the first place, there was some slight attempt at melody and grace in these old-world songs, comic or otherwise—a grace which we look for in vain in such modern productions as ‘The Three Magnificent Bricks,’ to which the chorus is, argh, argh we're going to Jerusalem! and a senseless Cock-a-doodle doo!’ . . .”— The Illustrated London Magazine, edited by R. B. Knowles, Vol. XXIII, New Series, page 242> [[Note: The ‘argh’ here did not specifically refer to pirates, but to the more melodious songs of an earlier era]]

<1919 “Agh! Ooh! Stop! Oh Lord!”—Great Catherine by George Bernard Shaw, iv. page 154>

<1947 Argh!!! You defense attorneys are all the same!”—Trial and Error by Z.D. Larkin, page 9>

<1955 “‘Wait and see when Shaffer come, he’ll back me up,’ the captain exclaimed. ‘Aargh, screeeech, hisssss,’ intoned the hapless jailbird.”—Mason City Globe-Gazette (Iowa), page 8>

<1962 AARGH! Says Fire Chief Hugh Morris, ‘My office never looked like this before.”—San Mateo Times (California), page 12>

<1986 “Argh. What a hangover.”—Demons by J. M. Dillard, x. page 181>

<1996 Aargh aargh. Have reached the age when men of my own age no longer find their contemporaries attractive.”—Bridget Jone’s Diary (1997) by Helen Fielding, page 148>

<2003 Aaargh, seven bogeys and three double bogeys”— Chicago Tribune (Midwest Edition), 13 April, III. page 1/1>

<2009 “‘Sorry, we are open at 9am on Saturdays.’ Argh! Had to sit there another hour. Phoned again. Yes! I'm talking to somebody. They ask for a security password. Oh no, what's that? ‘I'm sorry sir, I can't help you without your security password.’ Argh! I phone my computer doc in a flap. ‘Didn't you write it down?’ he asks. Argh!. He agreed to come over and see what he could do. Turning my spare room inside out, upside down, I found it -- the golden key.”—Daily Mail (London), 30 April>

Ken – May 10, 2010

Re: aaarr! [aargh!, argh!]

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Mon May 10, 2010 11:40 pm has

aah (ä)
Used to express pleasure, satisfaction, surprise, or great joy.

which is spelt differently, has no etymology given in support, and reminds me of an old advert for gravy. No doubt Robert Newton smuggled in a few extra pseudoCornish embellishments. And as Bob says, he ends up coming across more as Captain Pugwash than Blackbeard.

Re: aaarr! [aargh!, argh!]

Post by trolley » Tue May 11, 2010 1:48 am

Bobinwales wrote:
"By the way, Robert Newton was Long John Silver when he did the "Ooo argh Jim lad" thing in 1950"
....gotta agree with that, Bob. Robert Newton was Long John Silver as far as I was concerned. He absolutely terrified me.
"Them what dies'll be the lucky ones"
He shivered my timbers as Bill Sykes, too.
Although there probably isn't an "arr, argh, or yarr" attributed to pirates before 1950 it's not hard for me to imagine that it was some sort of pirate slang for avast or aye or ahoy. The word "yarr" does (or rather, did) mean to snarl or growl like a dog. The word "yar" has a nautical pedigree and describes a vessel that is swift, agile, and easy to handle. If Robert Newton did invent this bit of pirate-speak, he may have based it on something other than just a random sound.

Re: aaarr! [aargh!, argh!]

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Wed May 12, 2010 1:14 am

Yo - ho - ho.

Re: aaarr! [aargh!, argh!]

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Sat May 15, 2010 10:59 am

My wife Catherine agrees that aaargh! is different from agh! but I can't really see LJS or even Robert Newton using her suggested paraphrase:
"Tee hee, Jim lad!"
(Actually, this refers back to a bit of family history. No, I don't think we have pirates in our ancestries, but our daughter Elizabeth disproved our 'No one ever actually uses the expressions "Tee-hee" or "Boo-hoo"' beliefs in both cases.
She also decoded I-C-E---C-R-E-A-M correctly before she had uttered more than 50 intelligible words - but I think we had vanilla rather than rum-and-raisin for dessert that day.)

Post Reply