Shiver my timbers
"Shiver me timbers" (or "shiver my timbers" using the possessive pronoun) is an exclamation in the form of a mock oath usually attributed to the speech of pirates in works of fiction. It is employed as a literary device by authors to express shock, surprise or annoyance. The phrase is based on real nautical slang and is a reference to the timbers, which are the wooden support frames of a sailing ship. In heavy seas, ships would be lifted up and pounded down so hard as to "shiver" the timbers, startling the sailors. Such an exclamation was meant to convey a feeling of fear and awe, similar to, "Well, blow me down!", or, "May God strike me dead". Shiver is also reminiscent of the splintering of a ship's timbers in battle – splinter wounds were a common form of battle injury on wooden ships ('shiver' means splinter in some English dialects).
Although the Oxford English Dictionary says the expression "shiver my timbers" probably first appeared in a published work by Frederick Marryat called Jacob Faithful (1835), the phrase actually appeared in print as early as 1795, in a serial publication called "Tomahawk, or Censor General", which gives an "extract of a new MS tragedy called 'Opposition'." In the words of the "old sailor":
- "Peace? Shiver my timbers! what a noise ye make – ye seem to be fonder of peace than ye be of quiet."
- "Lather me! – Shiver my timbers. if so be he comes athwart me – I'll soon lower his topsails for him – Here's King George and old England for ever!"
The expression is a derivative of actual 18th century nautical slang, when the phrase "timbers!" or "my timbers!" meant an exclamation (cf. "my goodness!") as can be seen in Poor Jack, a song from 1789 by Charles Dibdin.
- Harry: I say it's false.
- John: False! Shiver my hulk, Mr. Buckskin, if you wore a lion's skin I'd curry you for this.
"Shiver my timbers" was most famously popularized by the archetypal pirate Long John Silver in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883). Silver used the phrase seven times, as well as variations such as "shiver my sides", "shiver my soul" and "shake up your timbers".
Marryat and Stevenson both wrote grammatically correct Victorian fiction, even when their characters were pirates. The use of "me" instead of "my", which is common to many British regional accents, has appeared in popular culture such as with Popeye; in fact, one of his earliest cartoons from 1934 is entitled Shiver Me Timbers!. The phrase was also commonly used in Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons books, where it was said at least once in almost every book, most commonly by "Amazon Pirate" Nancy Blackett.
In popular culture
- The opening number of the children's film Muppet Treasure Island is entitled "Shiver My Timbers." Several of the variants used in the original book are present in the chorus, including "shiver my soul," "shiver my bones," "shiver my sides," and "shiver my sails."
- In the Canadian CGI-animated action-adventure cartoon series ReBoot, the software pirate captain Gavin Capacitor uses the pirate catchphrase mutation "Shiver me templates!".
- In the Monk episode "Mr. Monk is On the Air", Steven Weber's radio jockey character says his new catchphrase "shiver me timbers" on the air, and this is revealed to be an important plot device in the episode.
- "Shiver". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 1989. "c. shiver my timbers: a mock oath attributed in comic fiction to sailors. 1835 MARRYAT J. Faithful ix, I won't thrash you Tom. Shiver my timbers if I do."
- Tomahawk, (November 6, 1795), p. 37.
- "Timber". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 1989. "c. Naut. slang, in exclamations, as my timbers! shiver my timbers! (see SHIVER v.). 1789 DIBDIN Song, Poor Jack ii, My timbers! what lingo he'd coil and belay."
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