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Nautical Terminology: Talking Salty
Privateers, buccaneers and filibusters


Filibusters? Follow politics long enough, and you'll see the term filibuster used to describe a long, unlimited debate in the U. S. Senate, a tactic used to keep a vote from coming to the floor. But what's the word doing in a list of nautical terms synonymous with pirate?

Pirates, those outlaws who waylaid ships on the high seas for their own profit, have been the source of swashbuckling tales for young and old. Mention William Kidd or Blackbeard (Edward Teach), and people know what you're talking about.

Pirates have been around for a long time. The Roman historian Plutarch described the acts of Peirato against ships and maritime cities as early as 140 BC, and piracy is described in "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey".

During the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, owners of private vessels from Halifax to New Orleans were given permission to take enemy ships. These Privateers--a term used variously to describe the captains, owners or boats--reaped personal profits and served a patriotic cause at the same time.

The Dutch, long a force on the sea, used the word vrijbuiter (free booty) to describe plunderers. The Germans used freibeuter. We ended up with the English word Freebooters. Now add the Spanish word filibustero to the mix, and you find both flibutors and freebooters in William Garrard's "Arte Warre," an English-language book written during Shakespeare's time.

(Photo by Fred LeBlanc)
In 1792, Edmund Burke wrote of flibustiers who had brought calamities upon the Spanish colonies a century before. By 1854, the spelling had become filibuster and was used specifically to refer to a different type of adventurer, those who organized armed expeditions from the U.S. to revolutionize parts of Central America and the Spanish West Indies, even though we were officially at peace with them. The meaning was extended, and Filibusters soon became any acts of unauthorized or irregular warfare.

That's how we get to the U.S. Senate. A filibuster there is an irregular use of minority force used to obstruct the normal legislative process. One senator, or group of senators, can hold the floor until the majority grants concessions or gives up on competing legislation. Senate rules offer a work-around for unlimited debate, but they're rarely used.

We've left out the Buccaneers, the pirates of the Caribbean, referred to in the late 1660s by residents as boucaniers, a French word for pirates. Originally these men stole cattle and pigs and preserved the meat by smoking it, a method (barbicoa) taught them by native tribes. Barbicoa became "barbecue"--but that's another story unless we're talking about the Captain's Surf and Turf dinner served on board our weekend and three-day cruises.

Buccaneers eventually occupied Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Tortuga, creating difficult trading situations, but by the end of the 17th century, they fought in battle for the English.

Barbara Hatch



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