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.
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.
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.
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.