To a Pirate, what does Avast Mean?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

To a pirate or any member of the nautical community, “avast” means to stop or desist. The term avast has been integrated so thoroughly into piratespeak that few individuals are aware of the actual meaning of the phrase. It is commonly misused in place of “ahoy,” which is a nautical greeting. Individuals who would like to talk like a pirate accurately may want to invest in a nautical dictionary or do some research on traditional sailing terms.

In nautical terms, "avast" means stop or desist.
In nautical terms, "avast" means stop or desist.

The word "avast" was first documented in 1681, and likely originated from a Dutch sailing term, houd vast, which means to hold fast. The term could refer to military action or the necessity to hold firmly onto ropes and lines aboard a ship. Avast has been widely used in the maritime community ever since as an interjection much like stop or halt.

People wishing to celebrate "Talk Like a Pirate Day" on September 19th should do their terminology research.
People wishing to celebrate "Talk Like a Pirate Day" on September 19th should do their terminology research.

Like other nautical terms, avast has been integrated into the speech of other communities of individuals. Along with phrases like “me hearties,” “weigh anchor,” and “arr,” the term has been adopted by a portion of the counterculture movement which values the freedom traditionally associated with piracy. While pirates are romanticized in modern society, they lived difficult and often unpleasant lives. Modern day pirates pose a serious risk to shipping traffic in areas off the coast of Africa and in parts of Asia. It is assumed that most landlubbers masquerading as pirates merely wish to imbue their lives with a nautical flavor.

The term "avast" most likely came from the Dutch houd vast, which means to hold fast.
The term "avast" most likely came from the Dutch houd vast, which means to hold fast.

Avast should be used to attract attention, much in the way that someone shouts “stop” to a driver who is at risk of colliding with something. The term could be used in a casual greeting if the individuals in question were across a crowded room or another public area where getting attention might be difficult. Avast can also be used on a ship, of course, to indicate that a sailor needs to cease what he or she is doing, especially in an emergency situation.

Talking like a pirate or sailor does require some research, as some of the language can get quite complex. Salting your speech with a few nautical terms such as ahoy and avast can make your social experiences more entertaining, and come in very useful on International Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19th). People who are interested in learning more about pirates and nautical language may want to consider looking up “pirates” in their favorite search engine.

Modern day pirates pose a serious risk to ships off the coast of Africa and Asia.
Modern day pirates pose a serious risk to ships off the coast of Africa and Asia.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I'm Dutch. I can tell you according to both Dutch and British sources, "avast" does stem from the Dutch colonial "hou vast". Formally it's spelled "houd vast", but we drop the 'd' (compare "going to" to "gonna"). It does not refer to military action though, unless you mean "grab this weapon", it's your other explanation. Literally, it could be translated as "hold fast" but really the equivalent expression in English is "hold on" or "grab onto something". In the case of a pirate, the best choice would be a rope.

Did you know, by the way, the Dutch have the oldest anti-piracy laws in the world? Because the Dutch pirated Portuguese and Spanish ships for booty (yeah), they instituted a law to make it illegal if other nations would do it do them. Hypocritical? Yes. Useful? Certainly. We're not going to prosecute ourselves.

Coincidentally, this law was used to try Somalian pirates the Dutch Marines captured while they were holding a German ship hostage BR, Def


Avast! FrogFriend you must cease with ye simple speak. Many still use the term Avast and while it is somewhat confined to the nautical industries these days, I want to remind you that there are many ethnic backgrounds of both pirates and legitimate sailors.

England, once a hotbed for such marine activity is probably the more likely location for you to hear someone say avast in this day and age.


Haha, never had I thought that an actual pirate dictionary for a very own pirate language existed. Then again, it makes sense that the same terms would occupy the pages of a nautical dictionary.

I too was one of those people that often said, "ahoy" instead of "avast." I guess my pirate father and pirate mother didn't give me a proper pirate education.

In a sense, I think this is a good example of how parts of a language can get lost with the fall of an industry.

Sure there are still many in the shipping and naval industries but not near the percentage of the population that use to be. With more modern forms of transportation, why would we need to keep up archaic terms like avast.

I really wonder as well if today's pirates would actually say avast, after all the great majority of them are off the coast of Somali and of African dissent.


Brilliant, an intriguing insight into pirate life. A master piece, bravo!

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