Well blow me down!

Pirate culture - Shiver me timbers and pieces of eight: learning how to speak like Bluebeard and co

Astronauts have had their time in the sun, and that time was the 1960s. Firefighters (the New York Fire Department aside) now seem prosaic after too many Sunday-evening dramas. And apparently you can train to be a pilot in only 35 hours - so where's the fun in that? The only childhood heroes who can claim to have kept their edge in the new millennium are those whose catchphrase has rung out through the cen-turies: "Arrr!"

An annual celebration has just taken place whose narrow focus puts even Hallmark holidays and the likes of Take a Cheese-Grater to Work Day in the shade: 19 September was International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Perhaps not surprisingly, this event was born in America. It was created by two Oregonians, John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur and Mark "Cap'n Slappy" Summers, who have been celebrating the day in their native Albany since the mid-1990s. In recent years, due largely to the internet, it has been celebrated internationally, and Baur and Summers have been interviewed on radio and TV stations around the world. This year, they have even published a book, Well Blow Me Down!: a guy's guide to talking like a pirate.

Their website, www.talklikeapirate.com, is the focus of the day's celebrations and impersonations. It boasts a vital resource in the form of a pirate glossary, which leads the ingenu beyond "Arrr!" and "Ahoy!" to more complicated parlance such as "bung hole" and "bilge rat". There is also a kind of "agony pirate" advice service for lovelorn wenches and swabbies, some bawdy pirate chat-up lines and, as an acknowledgement that the whole project is really orientated towards big kids, a separate section for "junior pirates".

As far as the British side of the festivities went this year, celebrations tended to be discrete, fairly autonomous affairs. Much like the terrorist modus operandi of "leaderless resistance", it seems as if British pirate-talkers operate in independent cells, this year comprising office jokers, local radio DJs, art students, trendies with a fondness for puffy shirts and, most peculiarly, vegan activists hoping to turn the day into a campaign for people to give up meat products. Captain Long John Tofu and the Pirates of the Carob Bean attempted to lead by example, rejecting blood and guts, and including the following pirate-themed message on their website: "Forget Atkins, GI and the South Beach diets, we says: try our pirate diet - recipes suitable for everyone, even blinkin' vegans. We be a new breed of pirates (some call us PC pirates) - no rapin' without written consent, no pillagin' without a receipt, and definitely no blood and guts. We 'ave considered the issue of weapons o' mass destruction and considered the main culprits to be ye 'umble plate, knife'n'fork . . . We uses our cutlasses for splicing pineapples, cutting the eyes out of potatoes and chopping heads of cabbage."

Although the focus of the global pirate renaissance seems to be the annual pirate day, pirate fever has been quietly building steam during those long months throughout the year when all the buckles have been swashed and all the timbers shivered. While modesty is not supposed to be a pirate's virtue (one recalls the celebrated salvo "Oh, better far to live and die/under the brave black flag I fly" - thank you, Messrs Gilbert and Sullivan), Baur and Summers cannot claim all the credit for revitalising Bluebeard and co. Johnny Depp, who starred in last year's film Pirates of the Caribbean, is due some of the metaphorical (and most of the actual) treasure. Receiving mixed reviews from critics, and uncomprehending glances from those who couldn't make out Depp's Keith Richards homage of an accent, the film nevertheless became a huge hit. A light-hearted romp full of scene-stealing louche-ness from Depp as the debonair Jack Sparrow, it grossed more than $300m in the US and spawned two sequels, the first of which is slated for 2006.

What has been less thoroughly reported is the ardent cult the film has left behind. When the Internet Movie Database invited fans to end the sentence "You know you're obsessed with Captain Jack Sparrow when . . .", more than 300 messages were posted in response, most of them along the lines of ". . . you use the word 'strumpet' more than would seem sensible" and ". . . you spend an hour before school every day applying kohl around your eyes to look like Jack". There is even such a thing as Pirates of the Caribbean "fan fiction" - the ultimate signal of cult status.

If pirate fever has already spread beyond young children to affect web-savvy blockbuster audiences and geeks, it has also taken hold among the interminably hip. McSweeney's, the uber-trendy publishing empire established by Dave Eggers, runs its very own pirate shop in San Francisco's Mission District. 826 Valencia, named after its location, was set up to offer free tutoring, workshops and storytelling to anyone aged between eight and 18 with an interest in developing their writing skills. It has pursued this noble end with considerable aplomb. But as you wend your way through the shop to get advice from the volunteering literati at the back, you encounter a ridiculous, unnecessary and hilariously authentic pirate environment, packed with intriguing crates of loot, mysterious drawers containing eyepatches, scurvy warnings and wittily instructive signs to the crew such as "No mast jumping", "No forgetting to swab" and "No first mate shall grow his beard longer than the captain". The store's "Why the hell not?" attitude is typical of McSweeney's, and is the stuff of legend in the Bay Area.

826 Valencia's enthusiasm for pirates is based on no other reason than "they seem kinda cool" (as I was told by a shop assistant - sorry, "wench"), but this intangible affection is by no means isolated. Dodgeball, this autumn's comedy smash from Ben Stiller and his numerous "frat pack", went similarly beyond the call of duty by incorporating a pirate character called Steve, apropos of absolutely nothing. The film is set in the present day, among habitual landlubbers, and is entirely about the loopy American gymnasium-based sport that involves dodging medium-sized balls. Amid all the madness, Steve the pirate stands out because he, well, stands out. But the way things are going, this may not be the case for long.

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