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?
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!”
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.