Q From Roger Downham: I recently saw a toy advertised as a swashbuckling pirate game, and thought that the word mostly seems to be used in connection with pirates — and that I have no idea what it really means! Can you help?
A In this case, I can.
A swashbuckler these days is somebody who engages in romantic and daring piratical adventures with ostentatious flamboyance.
People who have fun with the word, as a writer in the Guardian did recently, usually talk about some film hero buckling his swash. A nice try, but there’s no verb buckle hidden in it — the verbal bit is actually swash. You should really say that the hero swashes his buckler, but it’s not as good a joke.
A member of this breed centuries ago actually did little more than that. A buckler was a type of small shield, held by a handle at the back, whose main purpose was to deflect blows from the sword of one’s opponent. Its name is from Old French (escu) bocler, literally “(a shield) with a boss” (this last word, for a protrusion at the centre of something, is itself from French). Someone who swashes is dashing about violently or lashing out with his sword, often in pretend fights. It seems to have been an echoic term from the sound of swords clashing or banging on shields.
In the sixteenth century swashbuckler was created from these two words to convey the idea of a swaggering, bullying ruffian or undisciplined lout, who made a lot of noise but to little practical purpose. It was most definitely not a compliment to be called one in those days — a writer in 1560 described a man as “a drunkard, a gambler and a swashbuckler”.
The romantic image came along several centuries later.