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We extort and pilfer, we filch and sack, maraud and embezzle and even highjack.

So. A few days ago, Annie Lowrey over at FP Passport approvingly passed along the suggestion that people should Stop calling them pirates. Matt Yglesias over at ThinkProgress responded by suggesting Let’s Call Pirates “Pirates”. My reaction was much the same as Mr. Yglesias’ses’es, mostly because, as Robert Farley over at Lawyers, Guns and Money put it, We Have Different Words Because They Refer to Different Concepts. Ms. Lowrey among others suggested calling them maritime terrorists, but there is no sense in which the Aden Coast Pirates are engaging in terrorism: they seem to have no political goals, and are largely trying to work the money/violence ratio as large as they can.

On the other hand, I do see that there is a cultural problem with connecting the current problem of piracy with Long John Silver, Captain Jack Sparrow and the Horrendous Hullabaloo. Yes, I do see that actual piracy was a lot more like what is going on in near Somalia and a lot less like singing with catlike tread upon our prey we steal. It’s also true that knights were the jackbooted thugs propping up the aristocracy, and that they killed more peasants than dragons. And while I do eventually want my Perfect Non-Reader to understand the reality, I don’t think it’s a good idea to try to stamp out her desire to play knights or pirates or samurai, or princesses for that matter. I can almost (but not quite) imagine my grandchildren playing terrorists, the way that my parents played cowboys and indians; a moderately innocent naughty thrill that indicates the absence of actual threat.

Still, at the moment, calling the pirates terrorists is not a good way to encourage sensible thinking about them, and very much not a good way to encourage sensible policy about them. So. I was trying to come up with a good term that sufficiently indicated what they were doing, and I was failing. There is a bit of a difference between the piracy there and the Piracy of old, which is that while (as I understand it) the pirates of old were essentially highway robbers on boats. Grab whatever loot you can, and if there happens to be somebody worth ransoming, then hold for ransom, but the business plan is cash-based, not extortion based. Or, rather, most of the extortion comes when you point the pistol and say Stand and deliver! These pirates are doing something more like kidnapping. Well, and they are doing kidnapping, too, but the ransoms are for the cargos and the boats, more than for the people.

So, here’s my question: is there a word for the specific kind of extortion where you take an object, rather than a person, and hold it for ransom? I mean a word (or phrase) that differentiates that kind of extortion from kidnapping or from robbery more generally. Blackmail can run on similar lines, only there doesn’t have to be an object, necessarily, and if there is one, the object has to (for the common cultural understanding of the term) reveal an unsavory secret about the victim. I can’t think of a term for it. It’s a common enough crime that there ought to be one. I believe that there were instances in Sherlock Holmes stories. In modern times, the typical extortion is (in my reading) where a government official holds your goods in customs until you bribe him, which perhaps should have its own term of art, as well, but is slightly different in connotation than this.

Leave aside the boats for a moment. If somebody steals your latop at gunpoint, and then offers to give it back if you give him $500, is there a word for that?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


hmmm--it seems like the only reason your kid is willing to play pirates is because "pirates" are something that happened a long time ago and we've lost the connotations of fear and terror and death that they used to inspire. Unfortunately, there ARE current-day pirates and they ARE extremely nasty and terrifying. (They are not, however, terrorists.)

Which is basically what you said.

is there a word for the specific kind of extortion where you take an object, rather than a person, and hold it for ransom?

You know, other than "holding it for ransom", I'm not seeing any phrase that would work.

If somebody steals your latop at gunpoint, and then offers to give it back if you give him $500, is there a word for that?

Yes. Craigslist.

When moving companies refuse to give you back your goods unless you pay them more money, it's called holding goods hostage, and it's a form of extortion. A SEAL team probably seems like an appropriate response there too.


Michael: HA! Also, dang.

Yeah, or "pawning." But in reality, neither of these things are really what V is describing, because in neither the craigslist nor the pawnshop case does the thief actually try to contact YOU to sell you your laptop back, it's just offering it for sale. In a kidnapping case, the kidnapper is offering to sell you back your kid so you can quit worrying and take a nap, or something like that.

Which makes me curious: with let's-just-call-it-piracy-for-fuck's-sake, does the pirate try to sell the ship and cargo to the original owner, or is it just a "hey, I've got a ship for sale with some crap on it!" kind of thing? In that case, Michael's more like correct and funny and horrible. But if it's more like kidnapping, that's different.

Grand theft shippo?


Hello from Russia)

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