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Tracking the Origins of 7 Pirate Stereotypes

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Ahoy, flossers! Most fictional pirates fit a standard mold: everyone expects them to be eye-patched parrot fans with puffy Seinfeld shirts, swilling from jugs of rum while yo-ho-ho-ing below deck. Between hunting for buried treasure and sailing the seven seas, these caricatures kill time by making scallywags walk the plank. Also, they say “Arr!” a lot for some reason.

Why does everyone buy into this image? As Talk Like a Pirate Day 2015 drops anchor, let’s explore a few buccaneer stereotypes and where they came from. 

1. PARROT OWNERSHIP

A good percentage of the things we all associate with pirates trace back to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Published as a serial between 1881 and 1882 (and in novel form one year later), it’s been the guiding light for every buccaneer story from On Stranger Tides to Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.

Treasure Island also made celebrities out of its characters—especially Long John Silver and “Captain Flint,” his faithful parrot. Stevenson hinted that the bird was an homage to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719). Stranded on a desert island, Defoe’s protagonist goes for over 20 years without human contact and relies on a talking avian for company.

The literary pirate-parrot link has a slight basis in truth. Granted, the food supply was often low on many vessels, making pets a luxury that most buccaneers couldn’t afford. Nevertheless, seamen of the 16th to 18th centuries did frequently capture exotic animals as souvenirs. Since parrots sold for high prices in London’s markets, pirates were known to round them up. Stephen Haynes—a despised pirate captain—bribed high-ranking British officials with live ones.

2. WEARING EYEPATCHES

There’s an ingenious explanation for why pirates might have worn eyepatches. But this doesn’t mean that they actually used them.

Adapting to darkness can take the human eye as long as 25 minutes. During a pirate raid, if you’re walking around in pitch-black gloom below deck, those are 25 minutes that you might not have. Strapping a patch over one eye for an extended period keeps it dark-adjusted and ready for immediate use in low-light conditions. What a brilliant strategy!

Alas, the hypothesis has one fatal flaw. By buccaneer fashion standards, eyepatches were rare accessories. In fact, the only gentleman of fortune who unambiguously wore one was Rahmah ibn Jabir al-Jalahimah, a famous Arabian ruler and pirate. Having lost an eye in combat, he donned a patch.

The whole eyepatch-touting buccaneer concept was likely inspired by a revered non-pirate. At the 1794 siege of Calvi in Corsica, Lord Horatio Nelson sustained a serious facial blow that cost him the use of his right eye. To draw attention to this handicap, artists began painting the naval officer with an eyepatch (something he probably never used). Nelson’s heroic exploits turned him into a living legend and, over time, the public subconsciously started associating eyepatches with acts of nautical bravery.

3. FLYING "SKULL & CROSSBONES" FLAGS

The foreboding design goes way back: during the bubonic plague outbreak in the Middle Ages, it was used to symbolize death. By the early 1700s, buccaneers had started sewing skulls and crossbones onto black flags (a Caribbean terror named Emanuel Wynn may have kicked off the trend). Believe it or not, these sent a peaceful message. Unfurling a black flag of any sort meant that if a vessel surrendered its goods, the outlaws were willing to spare her crew. No such mercy accompanied a red flag. Sailors utterly dreaded this signal because it warned that the pirates were ready to slaughter every man aboard.

Of course, pirates—unlike, say, the Royal Navy—didn’t follow rigid style guidelines. While black skull and crossbone flags were popular, some captains used very different emblems. Thomas Tew (a.k.a. “the Rhode Island pirate”) went instead with an arm holding a cutlass. And Blackbeard scored extra points for creativity by choosing a horned skeleton that was clutching an hourglass while spearing a big crimson heart.

As far as what we call pirate flags, they were colloquially known as “Jolly Rogers,” but historians aren’t sure why. Some say the term descends from “joli rouge,” French for “red flag.” Others point out that “Old Roger” was the devil’s nickname in 18th century England, so perhaps “Jolly Roger” is a corruption thereof. 

4. MAKING PEOPLE WALK THE PLANK

At best, plank-walking deserves to be regarded as a historical footnote. Trustworthy accounts of it actually happening are very scarce. We know that when Caribbean pirates seized the Dutch ship Vhan Fredericka in 1829, her captured sailors did indeed meet this terrible fate. Seven years earlier, the captain of Blessing (a Jamaican sloop) was forced off a plank’s edge and shot before he could swim back.

Still, cases like this are—by a wide margin—the exception rather than the rule. Generally speaking, pirates kept their prisoners alive as hostages. And if a captive needed to be disposed of for some reason, tossing him overboard was a good deal easier.

In the world of Treasure Island, however, walking the plank is more common—Stevenson’s bestseller references the practice twice. Perhaps he’d read about American pirate Stede Bonnet, who was said to have made his prisoners walk the plank, but no extant records back this up. 

5. HOBBLING ON PEG LEGS

The cliché was probably single-handedly (or should we say “single-leggedly?”) cemented by everyone's favorite pirate, Long John Silver, and a famous literary sea captain. But more on that in a second. Stevenson could’ve based the character upon any number of real-life peg-leg owners. Francois Le Clerc, for example, once commanded a fleet of eight huge vessels and 300 seamen. During a spat with English forces in 1549, he lost a leg and seriously damaged an arm. Le Clerc later made a name for himself by stealing from the Spanish, who called him “Pie de Palo” or “peg leg.”

A more likely candidate wasn’t a pirate at all, but one of Stevenson’s close friends. At the tender age of 19, tuberculosis claimed young William Ernest Henly’s left leg. The limb was amputated a bit below the knee and its owner spent the rest of his life with a wooden substitute. An esteemed journalist and poet, Henly is best remembered for writing “Invictus,” which ends with the defiant stanza “It matters not how straight the gate/ How charged with punishments the scroll/ I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul.”

But weirdly, Long John Silver might not have used a peg leg (at least very often) in the book. He's clearly described as managing a crutch with "wonderful dexterity" under his left arm, and most of the early illustrations show him missing the leg entirely. Which makes sense, as he's described as the one-legged man. The peg leg was probably an addition of certain movie adaptations—possibly influenced by a literary sailor who definitely had a peg leg: Captain Ahab from Moby-Dick, who is described as having an ivory leg.

6. BURYING TREASURE

Pirates weren’t squirrels. When these criminals came into possession of some loot, they did what most criminals do: spend it immediately. Burying treasure together would have been a risky, inconvenient trust exercise to say the least.

Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that—like plank-walking—historical documents about buried treasure are almost nonexistent. We’d probably never link buccaneers with this practice at all if a notorious captain hadn’t stashed some loot underground. His name? William Kidd.

On one occasion, the Scottish pirate buried a sum of gold and other valuable items that were collectively worth about £20,000 (over $1 million in today’s dollars) on Gardiner’s Island—which sits near the forks of Long Island. Following his arrest in 1699, this cache was recovered. Kidd’s execution took place on May 23, 1701, yet the man’s legacy is still very much alive, thanks in no small part to long-lived rumors about an even bigger treasure of his remaining undiscovered somewhere.

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Gold-Bug” (1843) revolves around this notion, with the main characters using a cipher to hunt down Kidd’s lost bounty. Treasure Island blatantly rips off the premise, substituting a map for the cipher. As Stevenson himself admitted, “I broke into the gallery of Mr. Poe.” When all’s said and done, good writers borrow, great writers steal.

7. YELLING LIKE GRAVEL-THROATED ENGLISHMEN

In the golden age of piracy, British, French, German, and even Jewish buccaneers terrorized the oceans. So—with apologies to a certain holiday—the belief that they all spoke with a uniform “pirate dialect” is beyond ridiculous.

Treasure Island again deserves the blame here, but this time, we’re talking about Disney’s 1950 movie adaptation. Actor Robert Newton didn’t just give an inspired performance as Long John Silver—he fundamentally changed the way people think about pirates. Over 96 minutes, the man hollers and growls through an overblown West Country English accent. As linguist Molly Babel told the Vancouver Sun, “Speakers of [this] dialect tend to emphasize their r’s… They tend to replace ‘is’ and ‘are’ with ‘be,’ and indeed, use the word ‘arrr’ in place of ‘yes.’”

Newton was subsequently typecast in 1952’s Blackbeard the Pirate and 1954’s Long John Silver. Both performances came with a reprise of his harsh piratical voice, elevating it into a full-blown stereotype that’s still thriving today. If ye be celebrating Talk Like a Pirate day this year, raise yer glass in his honor.

All photos courtesy of iStock

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Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
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On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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Live Smarter
3 Reasons Why Your New Year's Resolutions Fail—and How to Fix Them
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You don’t need a special day to come up with goals, but New Year’s Day is as good a time as any to build better habits. The problem is, by the time February rolls around, our best laid plans have often gone awry. Don’t let it happen this year: Heed these three simple tips for fail-proof resolutions.

PROBLEM 1: THEY’RE TOO OVERWHELMING

Let’s say your goal is to pay off $5000 worth of credit card debt this year. Since you're giving yourself a long timeframe (all year) to pay it down, you end up procrastinating or splurging, telling yourself you’ll make up for it later. But the longer you push it off, the bigger and more overwhelming your once-reasonable goal can feel.

Solution: Set Smaller Milestones

The big picture is important, but connecting your goal to the present makes it more digestible and easier to stick with. Instead of vowing to pay off $5000 by the end of next December, make it your resolution to put $96 toward your credit card debt every week, for example.

In a study from the University of Wollongong, researchers asked subjects to save using one of two methods: a linear model and a cyclical model. In the linear model, the researchers told subjects that saving for the future was important and asked them to set aside money accordingly. In contrast, they told the cyclical group:

This approach acknowledges that one’s life consists of many small and large cycles, that is, events that repeat themselves. We want you to think of the personal savings task as one part of such a cyclical life. Make your savings task a routinized one: just focus on saving the amount that you want to save now, not next month, not next year. Think about whether you saved enough money during your last paycheck cycle. If you saved as much as you wanted, continue with your persistence. If you did not save enough, make it up this time, with the current paycheck cycle.

When subjects used this cyclical model, focusing on the present, they saved more than subjects who focused on their long-term goal.

PROBLEM 2: THEY'RE TOO VAGUE

“Find a better job” is a worthy goal, but it's a bit amorphous. It's unclear what "better" means to you, and it’s difficult to plot the right course of action when you’re not sure what your desired outcome is. Many resolutions are vague in this way: get in shape, worry less, spend more time with loved ones.

Solution: Make Your Goal a SMART One

To make your goal actionable, it should be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. When you set specific parameters and guidelines for your goal, it makes it easier to come up with an action plan. Under a bit more scrutiny, "spend more time with loved ones" might become "invite my best friends over for dinner every other Sunday night." This new goal is specific, measurable, time-bound—it ticks all the boxes and tells you exactly what you want and how to get there.

PROBLEM 3: YOU FELL FOR THE “FALSE FIRST STEP”

“A false first step is when we try to buy a better version of ourselves instead of doing the actual work to accomplish it,” Anthony Ongaro of Break the Twitch tells Mental Floss. “The general idea is that purchasing something like a heart rate monitor can feel a lot like we're taking a step towards our fitness goals,” Ongaro says. “The purchase itself can give us a dopamine release and a feeling of satisfaction, but it hasn't actually accomplished anything other than spending some money on a new gadget.”

Even worse, sometimes that dopamine is enough to lure you away from your goal altogether, Ongaro says. “That feeling of satisfaction that comes with the purchase often is good enough that we don't feel the need to actually go out for a run and use it.”

Solution: Start With What You Already Have

You can avoid this trap by forcing yourself to start your goal with the resources you already have on hand. “Whether the goal is to learn a new language or improve physical fitness, the best way to get started and avoid the false first step is to do the best you can with what you already have,” Ongaro says. “Start really small, even learning one new word per day for 30 days straight, or just taking a quick walk around the block every day.”

This isn’t to say you should never buy anything related to your goal, though. As Ongaro points out, you just want to make sure you’ve already developed the habit a bit first. “Establish a habit and regular practice that will be enhanced by a product you may buy,” he says. “It's likely that you won't even need that gadget or that fancy language learning software once you actually get started ... Basically, don't let buying something be the first step you take towards meaningful change in your life.”

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