Today we associate swashbuckling with the exploits of Elizabethan sea heroes, like Francis Drake, and pirates of the Spanish Main, all as portrayed in Hollywood films by the likes of Errol Flynn and Johnny Depp. But exactly what is a swashbuckler?

The word dates to at least 1560, so Drake may have been called a swashbuckler by his contemporaries, but the word is not particularly nautical in flavor. The association with piracy and sea is largely a modern invention from the Hollywood usage. Originally, a swashbuckler was any boastful ruffian, a Hector. The word first appears in Bishop James Pilkington’s 1560 Aggeus the Prophete:

Too be a dronkarde,...a gamner, a swashe-buckeler, he hath not alowed thee one mite.

The word is a compound of swash, meaning to strike or slash with a sword, and buckler, meaning a small shield. So a swashbuckler is someone who made a great show of fights, making a lot of noise by hammering on an opponents shield.

The noun swash, echoic of the sound of a heavy blow or fall, appears as early as 1538. From John Bale’s A Comedye Concernynge Thre Lawes:

Haue in than at a dash, With swash myry annet swash.

By mid-century, swash was also being used to mean a boastful person, a swashbuckler. From Thomas Chaloner’s 1549 translation of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly:

Commenly thei that bringe any valiant feate to passe, are good blouddes, venturers, compaignions, swasshes.

A buckler is a small shield. It is from the Old French boucler. English use dates to the beginning of the 14th century. From the c.1300 poem Kyng Alisaunder:

Laddes, That sweord and boceleris hadde.

And Chaucer, in the c.1386 Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, describes the burly and rough Miller as having:

A swerd and a bocler baar he by his side.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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