Shiver those timbers

I’ve been sharing some examples of nautical slang over the last few days, and my friend David mentioned ‘shiver me timbers’! I didn’t know if it was an actual piece of sailor-speak or made up by Robert Louis Stevenson in his wonderful book, ‘Treasure Island’. The phrase was in the original, but I think it was brought into common parlance by the different actors who over the years have played the part of the most famous pirate of them all, Long John Silver.

So many different actors have taken on this role on radio, TV, film, including:

  • Wallace Beery
  • Robert Newton
  • Orson Welles
  • James Mason
  • Peter Jeffrey
  • Jack Shepherd
  • Brian Blessed
  • Charlton Heston
  • Eddie Izzard
  • Anthony Quinn
  • Bernard Miles
  • Peter Vaughan
  • Alfred Burke

Back to the shivering of timbers; these days the word shiver is nearly always used for something trembling or shaking, often with cold or fear. The timbers of a ship in a storm would shake or tremble – and also in a battle, or when coming into contact with rocks!

However, shivering could also mean splintering or shattering – and I guess the timber parts of old ships often did splinter and smash, thorough violent weather or contact with rocks and reefs. When cannon and guns began to be used, the damage inflicted by shattering wood was horrific; timbers would almost explode and splinters of flying debris could kill a sailor or maim him for life. Shivering, or splintering timbers were a most dreadful thing.

So did sailors actually say ‘shiver me/my timbers’? Yes, apparently they did! Stevenson was careful to be accurate with his language, and he used nautical language to add colour and realism to his stories and tales… you can find a list here of various terms – including seamen’s slang, here:

And here is a rather saucy cartoon using ‘shiver me topsails’ – other variations include ‘shiver my hulk’.

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