This stereotypically piratical expression found fame in Disney’s 1950 adaptation of Treasure Island, in which Robert Newton’s irascible Long John Silver uttered it in his native west country accent to exclaim shock and surprise (“here’s Jim Hawkins, shiver my timbers!”)The phrase wasn’t Newton’s invention. It had in fact been used several times in Robert Louis Stevenson’s original book, published in 1883, together with variations like ‘shiver my sides’ and ‘shake up your timbers’. Its first appearance in print, however, came even earlier, in Captain Frederick Marryat’s 1834 novel, Jacob Faithful (“I won’t thrash you Tom. Shiver me timbers if I do”).
- Pirate John Ward: the real Captain Jack Sparrow
It’s almost impossible to know whether pirates (or any seafarers) actually used the phrase, or if it lived only on the pages of Victorian adventure novels. But its meaning is clear enough. The word ‘shiver’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “to break into small fragments or splinters” while the ‘timbers’ refer to the wooden support frames of old sailing ships. So the saying ‘shiver me timbers’ was most likely alluding to the shock of a large wave or cannonball smashing into the ship and causing the hull to shudder or split asunder.
Answered by Dan Cossins, freelance journalist.
This article was first published by BBC History Magazine in 2010