Words-worth: Piracy

After years of being a white-collar crime, piracy has again come to mean an act of robbery on the sea...

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

...and it's all thanks to the activities of Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. The word is first recorded in English, with that meaning, in the 1500s. 'Pirate' came earlier, borrowed from the French; its ultimate source is an Ancient Greek verb meaning 'to attack'. Over time, the word came to cover thieves of all sorts. In the 17th century, the golden age of plagiarism, it applied to anyone who reproduced the work of others without payment. These copyists were known first as 'word-pirates' or 'land-pirates', then just as pirates. As technology has moved on, so have the pirates, from books through records, cassettes, videos, CDs, and, with file-sharing, anything in digital form. Unfortunately, the 'pirate' tag has never discouraged those who infringe copyright. Indeed, they revel in it: check out file-sharing hub The Pirate Bay, or Sweden's Pirate Party. It will take more than a few desperate Somalis to tarnish the word's glamour.

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