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Words that retain a certain roguish appeal

The Monitor's language columnist considers the swashbuckling vocabulary of piracy.

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Remember when piracy was mostly just about DVDs and downloaded music? And then before that, when it was Captain Hook and Peter Pan?

That has abruptly changed. However grateful Americans may be that Navy SEAL sharpshooters were able to liberate Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama, hundreds of hostages of other nationalities, and well over a dozen ships, remain in pirate hands.

But wait! That other form of piracy, the digital kind, is still very much with us as well. A Swedish court ruled last month against the founders of a downloading website called Pirate Bay. They've been ordered to pay $4.3 million and sentenced to a year each in jail.

Stephen J. Dubner, of the New York Times Freakonomics blog, mused not long ago that, given events off the coast of Somalia, piracy may no longer be the most appropriate term for illegal downloading. He challenged his readers to come up with a new term. After a review of the submissions, he decided that "downlifting" was the most apt – a blend of "downloading" and "shoplifting," plus the paradox of "lifting" something "down."

We'll see how downlifting does in the verbal marketplace. But I'd take Dubner's point further and say that the whole vocabulary of piracy is full of terms more colorful than these seaborne muggers deserve.


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