The summer break is great for reading benders. I’ve managed to tuck into a few good reads, focussing on Tudor history (including John Matusiak’s biography on Wolsey, and Francis Bacon’s classic 17th century text on Henry VII) and some noted novels (including The Strange Case of Jekyll & Hyde, The Invisible Man, and Gulliver’s Travels). It’s given me some interesting ideas for the upcoming academic year, with tidbits of information scattered across all of these pages. But for the focus of this post I wanted to concentrate on one such tidbit from Tim Marshall’s book Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of Flags (passed onto me by Mr. B-S).

The book itself – as the title suggests – is an overview of flags and their history from around the world. Marshall is a well loved writer in the confines of the college, especially for his book on maps of the world and how they have defined the identities of various nations. And so, I was able to tuck into this one and devour it within a few days (which is quite something, as I am a rather slow reader).

On the section regarding the pirate flag – the Jolly Rodger – the author covers the possible origin of the whole ‘arrr’ business associated with pirates (p.256-257):

‘Finally to the “arrr”, which, while not related to the flag, is certainly worth relating. Our perception of “pirate speak” is almost entirely down to the 1950s actor Robert Newton, who, whether he played Long John Silver or Blackbeard, “arrred” his way through the roles. His greatest moment may have been in Long John Silver’s Return to Treasure Island when, after a [sic] saying a prayer over a dead sailor’s body, he managed to drawl “Arrrrrmen”.

It is an interesting theory, but one that I’ve taken umbrage with. Being from the west-country it is clear that the origin of ‘arrr’ goes much further back than the 1950s. It has been a noted feature of the Devonshire/Cornish accent for centuries, as shown in Queen Elizabeth I’s own mocking of Sir Walter Raleigh in the 16th century (whom she called ‘Warter’ on account of the pronouncing of his name). Furthermore, my own personal anecdote on the force of the ‘arrr’ comes from assemblies at my Church of England primary school in Plymouth, Devon. I didn’t realise that the word ‘Amen’ didn’t have ‘r’s in it until much later on. A hundred of us, all in union, would declare ‘Arrrrrrmen’ at the end of a prayer.