By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today we’re looking at how the word ‘freebooting’ has gone from swashbuckling to social media.
Freebooting, which once referred to maritime piracy, has recently started to be used for a particular type of online piracy, or more precisely copyright infringement: the unauthorized rehosting of video, in particular on Facebook. This can lead to loss of income from ad revenue for the creator of the content. In theory such content is protected by copyright, but as often in the past, technology and common practise has outstripped the laws and systems to protect creators. This word ‘freebooting’, or rather this new sense of an old word, was coined by YouTuber Brady Haran in early 2014 in his discussion of the problem with CGP Grey on their podcast Hello Internet. Brady had been calling it stealing, which Grey found inaccurate in reference to copyright infringement. Wanting a term with more emotional impact than ‘infringement’, Brady scanned through synonyms for piracy and settled on freebooting. Unlike many coinages, this one is taking hold in the wider world, probably because it fills a real need for a new term for a new problem; it was quickly picked up by other YouTubers, notably Destin Sandlin, whose video & interview on the subject helped spread it into mainstream media. There is in fact considerable debate about using terms like ‘piracy’ and ‘theft’ for intellectual property, not actual physical objects, but the term pirate (in the delightfully formed expressions word-pirate and land-pirate) has been applied to the unauthorized copiers of texts since the beginning of the 17th century, well before the advent of modern copyright law.
Indeed it’s printed text that we have to thank for copyright law, which was later extended to include many other types of creative expression like YouTube videos. Until the 15th century, all texts had to be individually and laboriously copied by hand. But just like today, a technological advance was the driver of change, with the printing press, introduced in Europe by Johannes Gutenberg and in England by William Caxton, allowing mass production of books. The first problem this new technology raised was not ownership of intellectual property, but censorship of dangerous ideas, in particular in the ongoing tussle between Protestantism and Catholicism over the 16th and 17th centuries. In England, the Stationers’ Company, essentially a private syndicate of printers, was granted a monopoly on all printing in 1557, by Catholic Queen Mary, whose often violent suppression of Protestants earned her the nickname Bloody Mary. In exchange for the financial benefits of a monopoly, it became the Company’s responsibility to censor any politically or religiously dangerous or revolutionary texts. By the end of the 17th century, this monopoly ended with the lessening of religious tensions, and soon many were clamouring for new legislation. One of those advocating for a new law was the writer Daniel Defoe, who, though not the first to use the noun ‘pirate’ for those unauthorized copiers, is the first on record to use the verb ‘to pirate’ in this new sense. Finally the Copyright Act of 1709, commonly known as the Statute of Anne, named after the current monarch Queen Anne, was passed, the first copyright legislation granting legal protection to the authors, rather than the printers, for 14 years with the possibility for extension. The specifics of copyright laws such as the term of protection changed over the years, but this legislation has influenced similar laws around the world right up to this day.
Now, “freebooting” and “to freeboot” are actually backformed from “freebooter”, which is first recorded in English in 1570, with the other words first appearing about 20 years later. That word is actually a calque or loan translation from the Dutch word vrijbuiter, one of many nautical words English has borrowed from Dutch. A calque, by the way, is when a word or phrase is translated from one language to another with each element literally rendered word-by-word into the new language. The first element, free, has cognates with roughly the same meaning in all the Germanic languages, and goes back to a Proto-Indo-European root that means “to love”, which also gives us the words friend, Friday (named after the Germanic goddess Frigg or Frige, the wife of Odin), and afraid (which means literally “out of peace”). The word goes from meaning “to love” to its modern sense because it was used to refer to your family member, whom you love, as opposed to the slaves and servants also in your household, who aren’t free. The second element is not related to ‘boot’ meaning footwear, but to ‘booty’ meaning “spoils or plunder”. This comes into English in the 15th century through French, from a Germanic root meaning “booty” or “exchange”, though it may have been influenced by yet another unrelated boot-word, ‘boot’ in the sense “advantage” or “profit”, ultimately related to the words better and best. So it’s not surprising that we associate both the words freebooting and booty with pirates.
Interestingly, the Dutch word vrijbuiter has come into English twice. Besides the direct calque of “freebooter”, the word comes in more mangled forms through French and Spanish to eventually give us the word “filibuster”. Originally filibuster also meant “pirate or adventurer”, but in the middle of the 19th century in American English it came to refer specifically to adventurers from the US engaging in (at least officially) unauthorized military activities in Central America and the Caribbean in an attempt to foment rebellion and overthrow the governments, and from that it came to mean other similar acts of unauthorized and unofficial warfare in foreign states. Finally it was used for yet another kind of “rebellious” act, in political legislatures when a long speech is given as a delaying tactic, obstructing progress.
Of course there are many words for pirate in English. The word pirate itself comes through Latin from a Greek root that means “to attempt or attack”. The Proto-Indo-European root behind this also gives us words such as peril, experience, and fear, and may be related to a group of Indo-European roots which lead to a great many words in English, including privateer, a term for private sailors that were commissioned by their governments to attack & capture merchant ships from enemy nations. Similar in formation to privateer is buccaneer, whose root comes from the Caribbean Tupi language word mukem meaning a frame for smoking meat. The word comes to English from French, being originally applied to the displaced French hunters in the Spanish-controlled West Indies. Evidently they not only engaged in piracy against their Spanish enemies, but also enjoyed a good barbecue, because the word “buccaneer” mirrors the word “barbecue”, which comes from barbacoa, the Haitian word for the same contraption. And finally there’s “corsair”, from the root that gives us the word “course”, from the idea of going on a course or expedition for booty, but more on that one later.
Maritime piracy has no doubt existed ever since trade by ship started. For example, it was a big enough problem in the ancient Mediterranean that it affected Athenian and Roman politics. And perhaps the most famous medieval maritime raiders are the Vikings. But when we think of the word “pirate” today, it brings to mind peg-legged sea captains with eye patches and parrots on their shoulders. This cliche comes to us from the Golden Age of Piracy, a time of increased piracy from the 1650s to 1730s, when European powers were establishing colonies and global trade with ventures such as the East India Company, and is often particularly centred on the Caribbean. This made its way into literature, where events became romanticized, leading to our modern popular conception of the pirate.
The literary history of the pirate goes back a long way, too. The ancient Greek novel, forerunner of the medieval romance, told fanciful tales of young lovers travelling through exotic lands, encountering mishaps such as shipwrecks, imprisonments, and trials of their fidelity, and often featured pirates as antagonists. But pirates in popular fiction really took off in the 18th century with novels of travel and adventure such as those of Daniel Defoe (remember him?). Defoe is best known for Robinson Crusoe, which tells of many nautical adventures, including pirates, shipwreck, mutineers and cannibals. He was a bit of a pirate fanatic and included them in a number of his novels, and it’s been argued that Defoe wrote the very influential book A General History of Pyrates under the pseudonym Captain Charles Johnson. This semi-fictionalized biography of many notorious real-life pirates such as Blackbeard and Calico Jack popularized their exploits and introduced many of the now-standard pirate tropes such as buried treasure and the Jolly Roger, becoming a kind of sourcebook for pirate literature. The etymology for the name of that skull and crossbones pirate flag, by the way, is uncertain, but most likely it’s an alternate form of the expression Old Roger, a euphemistic term for the devil similar to Old Nick.
By the beginning of the 19th century, piracy had also become the subject of romantic poetry, in Lord Byron’s poem The Corsair, which told the tale of Conrad, who rebels against society and turns to piracy. Conrad is an example of the Byronic hero, a broodingly attractive, paradoxically noble but rebellious antihero, and a literary representation of Byron’s own persona. Byron, famously described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” was very much in the mould of the bad-boy rocker of more recent times, and the Byronic hero has since been a very influential trope in popular culture — think of contemporary teenage vampires, and of course the modern romanticized pirate. Byron himself tried to live up to his literary persona, and joined the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire; an action, I suppose, a bit like a filibuster!
But the most famous pirate book, of course, is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which established Long John Silver in the popular imagination as the quintessential pirate, and popularized the cliches of missing limbs, parrots, and pirate maps where X marked the spot. The character of Long John Silver was inspired by Stevenson’s pal, poet and editor William Ernest Henley, now most known for his poem “Invictus”, whose leg amputated below the knee and powerful presence made a suitably piratical impression on his friend. Henley may also have inspired another quintessential and influential pirate character, Captain Hook in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Henley’s daughter Margaret, who would refer to Barrie lispingly as “fwendy-wendy” inspired the name and character of Wendy Darling in Barrie’s famous play and novel.
Of course one of the popular modern pirate cliches is the famous Arrr!-filled pirate accent, now celebrated annually on International Talk Like a Pirate Day. This is actually an exaggerated West Country accent from the south-west of England, which includes areas such as Cornwall and Somerset. This was the native accent of the actor Robert Newton who famously realized the character of Long John Silver in the 1950 Disney adaptation of Treasure Island. Though there may have been some previous historical and fictional basis to this pirate cliche — the real-life Blackbeard was from that area, and the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance (another influential example of Pirate pop culture, which ironically enough was the focus of a battle over copyright and ‘pirated’ productions of the play in the US!) was set there — it’s really in Newton’s over-the-top performance that this accent cliche crystallized.
In fact Disney has produced several of the most influential pirate movies: Treasure Island, Peter Pan, and of course the Pirates of the Caribbean series. And funnily enough, Disney is also one of the strongest lobbyists for extending and increasing copyright protection, and is a fierce opponent of piracy. Actually, Brady’s podcast partner CGP Grey has made a video on this very topic, highlighting the paradox that what was intended to promote creativity is starting to stifle it. But over time these Disney films have become increasingly family friendly, and we see the genuinely dangerous, murderous pirates, which were preserved more in Newton’s portrayal, become tamed, more friendly and even cartoonish.
Robert Newton himself was a bit of a hard-drinking, rebellious, Byronic hero type, and was apparently a role model to other bad-boy types, including 60s rocker Keith Moon, drummer of The Who, also known for his dissolute and rebellious behaviour. Of course sometimes the influence goes the other way, as when the other famously hard-living 60s rocker named Keith, Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, influenced actor Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the pirate Captain Jack Sparrow in The Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Jack’s sometimes ally sometimes antagonist in the films, Captain Barbossa, is obviously influenced by Robert Newton, complete with broad West Country accent.
While we’re on the subject of 60s musicians, through the coincidence of his name, the basis of occasional jokes, Davy Jones of the Monkees is also tied into this story. In pirate terms, Davy Jones is the devil or spirit of the sea, and in nautical slang “to go to Davy Jones’s locker” is to go to the bottom of the sea, or die. Though there have been numerous folk etymologies proposed for the term, but the most probable is that it refers to St David, a frequent exclamation of Welsh sailors, and the biblical Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale. The expression, by the way, seems to be first mentioned in print by our friend Daniel Defoe.
But getting back to our original pirate word freebooting, one of the reasons Brady Haran picked this particular pirate synonym was that it sounded kind of computery, as in booting up a computer, when a bit of code is used to load and initiate the operating system and anything else the computer hardware needs to function. Booting in this sense is a shortening of bootstrapping, from the expression “to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps” meaning “to do a seemingly impossible task” or “to better oneself by unaided effort” , usually meaning a self-made man, who has figuratively lifted himself up by the little loops on the back of his own boots. On the subject of computing by the way, you may know Ada Lovelace whose work on algorithms for Babbage’s Analytic Engine earn her the credit as the world’s first computer programmer. Lovelace was the daughter of the premiere Byronic hero, Lord Byron himself. But going back to pirate connections, there’s Bootstrap Bill Turner from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, who was sent to Davy Jones’s locker by being thrown overboard with a cannon ball tied to his bootstraps. Pulled not up, but down, by his bootstraps!
This metaphor also gives its name to the bootstrap paradox, also known as a causal loop, a kind of temporal paradox in which a future event is the cause of a past event which eventually causes that future event, like a time traveller going back in time to give himself the time machine that he will later use to go back in time. The event has no origin and is thus a paradox. The term for this paradox comes from scifi author Robert Heinlein’s short story “By His Bootstraps” in which the protagonist Bob Wilson is literally a self-made man, as his future self travels back in time bringing him to the future and setting himself up as a despot in control of a time machine. The bootstrap paradox was more recently referenced in the Doctor Who episode “Before the Flood”. Google it.
Though he didn’t invent the time travel story, scifi author H.G. Wells certainly popularized it with his novel The Time Machine, which was dedicated to its editor and publisher, pirate-character-inspiring William Ernest Henley. Wells, of course, was influenced by fellow 19th century scifi author Jules Verne, whose novel Around the World in Eighty Days, when adapted to film in 1956, starred our other pirate cliche inspiration Robert Newton as Inspector Fix. For his part, Verne was inspired to write his own adventures stories after reading, as a child, the adventures of the outlandish hero Baron Munchausen written by Rudolf Erich Raspe. Baron Munchausen lends his name to a concept very similar to the idea of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. In one scene in the book, Munchausen pulls himself and his horse out of a mire by pulling on his own ponytail. This is the reference behind the Munchausen number, a natural number the sum of whose digits each raised to the power of itself is equal to itself. And it turns out that Brady Haran, our coiner of ‘freebooting’, made a video about the Munchausen number on his YouTube channel Numberphile.
Now, as I said, most newly coined words don’t catch on. Perhaps the fact that Brady chose a word with so many different connections to the thing it describes is part of the reason this one is having such success.
If you’re interested in the spread of the term or the problem it describes, there’ll be links after the credits to a number of other relevant videos, including the ones I mentioned already.
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