Yo ho! Did the Pirates Ever Say It?

I’ve read a couple of books that claim no pirate ever said “Yo ho!” They say that no contemporary source records such a phrase, and that it was invented by Robert Louis Stevenson in Treasure Island, where Billy Bones is heard singing the famous sea shanty that goes:

“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest–
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest–
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”

Well, maybe they’re right. But I’ve got an alternative hypothesis.

I recently came across a most fascinating link about early 18th-century nautical lingo that was actually written by an English sailor in 1707. According to that source, sailors back then would hail another ship with the words “Hoa, hoa!” (“Ahoy” didn’t come into use until 1751, according to my Merriam Webster’s Collegiate). I am guessing that “Hoa, hoa” would have been pronounced like “Ho, ho,” the “oa” rhyming with the “oa” in “boat,” “loaf” or “shoal,” and that this could easily have been corrupted to “Yo ho!”

It’s one of those hypotheses that’s so neat, I want it to be true, which doesn’t mean that it is. Any pirate enthusiasts out there able to shoot this hypothesis down or raise it above the level of speculation?

I never thought they actually said that - I just thought it was some of those nonsense syllables you get in songs like “fol-de-diddle-i-ay” or “do be do be do”

Pirates said “Yo ho!” whenever they wanted servicing from the local prostitutes… :smiley:

Ummm… probably.

Treasure Island was written in 1883, and I’ve been able to unearth songs using the phrase “Yo Heave Ho” dating back to 1814 at the latest:

“And even with brave Hawke have I nobly faced the foe;
Then put round the grog, so we’ve that on our prog,
We’ll laugh in care’s face, And sing Yo! heave ho!
We’ll laugh in care’s face, And sing Yo! heave ho!”

(Written by Charles Dibdin (1740-1814))

Of course, the golden age of piracy was considerably earlier than that, around 1710-1725. But it’s not much of a stretch to think that the songs were based on actual nautical language.

Infoplease turned up this somewhat-helpful definition…

Which leads me to believe that your hypothesis may be partly correct, with the terms “Hoa Hoa” and “Yo Heave Ho” merging, at least in popular fiction, over time.

By the way, in looking about on this one, I found a rather grisly explanation for the whole “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest” song…

Interesting question. I’ll keep looking into it.

Hm. When I was a kid I visualized 15 men sitting on a dead man, and couldn’t figure out how they all fit. Later, I assumed that there were 15 men on a dead man’s sea-chest.

Did he drop them from a helicopter?

Re the OP, pirates never personally said “Yo ho.” They left that to the parrots on their shoulders.

A pirate walks into a bar with a large green parrot on his shoulder. The bartender says, “Where did you get that?”

The parrot says, “Dry Tortugas!”*

*[sub]You can substitute “Caribbean” if you want.[/sub]

Well that’s kind of neat. I’d heard before that the Dead Man’s Chest was the name of a real island, but the whole Blackbeard-and-mutinous-crew legend is a new one on me. I’d wager that the story (like 90% of all stories about Blackbeard) is apocryphal, as real pirate captains usually couldn’t get away with that kind of behavior to their crews; they were elected by their men and depended on the men’s favor. But true or not, it certainly clarifies the meaning of Billy Bones’ shanty.

For the curious, a turn-of-the-century musical playwright wrote an extremely lurid continuation of Billy Bones’ song, apparently without knowledge of the Blackbeard story.

I think every kid who’s ever heard the song thought the same. :smiley:

Anyway, thanks for the links, everyone – this stuff is really interesting. (Though now, by pure association, I’ve got “I Am a Pirate King” stuck in my head… :eek: )

Now I’m wondering about that Broadway musical…

One particular variation I heard on the famous rhyme is

“Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest
Yo ho ho, no wonder he’s dead!”