Dear Dr. Boli: Why do pirates say “R” so much? Don’t they know any other letters?—Sincerely, A New England Schoolmarm.

Dear Madam: The letter R is indeed highly favored among pirates, but certainly not for reasons of illiteracy. On the whole, pirates (who are greatly misrepresented in popular entertainment) are a remarkably literate lot. The long intervals of inactivity between plunderings—intervals that, in fact, make up most of a pirate’s career—are conducive to reflection and literary pursuits, and pirates while away the time in reading small-press literary magazines and composing sonnets in the Italian style after the manner of Petrarch.

Precisely because of their pronounced literary bent, pirates are zealous guardians of their own traditions. The chant of “R” began as a protest against the trial of Captain Jack Rackham, commonly known as Calico Jack on account of the large number of stray cats he had adopted. When Calico Jack was imprisoned in Kingston in 1720 (1573 old style), a large crowd of fellow pirates gathered around the governor’s mansion shouting “Rackham! Rackham!” The governor, however, hearing the chant through his closed bedroom window, mistook it for a crowd of townspeople shouting “Rack him! Rack him!” and accordingly sent Calico Jack to the rack. In order to avoid similar embarrassments at his trial, the pirates who protested shortened their chant to the unambiguous initial “R.”

Their protest was to no avail. Calico Jack was hanged after a brief trial, and a collection had to be taken up to provide for the stray cats. But pirates everywhere still honor his memory, and the initial they shouted outside the courthouse has evolved into a pirate’s favorite oath. When a pirate says “Arrr,” what he means is “By the bones of the lamented Captain Jack Rackham, may God rest his soul.”