Them’s fightin’ words!

At bedtime in my house we’re reading Treasure Island. Last night, Long John Silver delivered a brief speech that included this line:

Have I lived this many years, and a son of a rum puncheon cock his hat athwart my hawse at the latter end of it?

Somehow son of a rum puncheon cock his hat athwart my hawse isn’t what most people think to say on Talk Like a Pirate Day. Then you mostly hear “Arrrh” and “Avast” — and maybe, if you’re really lucky, “Shiver me timbers!”

After consulting a dictionary, I believe rum would either be the alcoholic beverage or (more likely?) a British word meaning odd or presenting difficulty. Puncheon has various obscure meanings but the key point seems to be something long and thin and upright. Whatever a rum puncheon is (the phrase occurs three times in the book) a son of one would, presumably, be worse. “Cock his hat” might to mean to tilt or turn up or to one side, usually in a jaunty or alert manner. Athwart means so as to thwart; perversely, and the hawse is the area in front of an anchored ship between its bows and the anchors. So, honestly, I still have no idea what the devil he’s talking about.

But his “crew” understands him. He continues his speech:

You know the way; you’re all gentlemen o’ fortune, by your account. Well, I’m ready. Take a cutlass, him that dares, and I’ll see the colour of his inside, crutch and all, before that pipe’s empty.”

Not a man stirred; not a man answered.

“That’s your sort, is it?” he added, returning his pipe to his mouth. “Well, you’re a gay lot to look at, anyway. Not much worth to fight, you ain’t. P’r’aps you can understand King George’s English. I’m cap’n here by ‘lection. I’m cap’n here because I’m the best man by a long sea-mile. You won’t fight, as gentlemen o’ fortune should; then, by thunder, you’ll obey, and you may lay to it.

(In an interesting coincidence, we’re not alone in our reading. The Washington Post’s book critic is also enjoying this classic.)

1 thought on “Them’s fightin’ words!

  1. Pingback: Mess of Pottage » Talking Like Pirates

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