What is a "Swashbuckler"?

The Legal Definition of a Swashbuckler:
  1. A flamboyant swordsman or adventurer

  2. A sword-wielding ruffian or bully

  3. A dramatic or literary work dealing with a swashbuckler

Although you and I may associate "swashbuckling" with pirate stories and Hollywood movies, the term was originally anything but complimentary. A "swashbuckler," when the word first appeared around 1560, was swaggering braggart, bully or ruffian. "Swashbuckler" actually came from the antiquated words "swash" (to make a noise by striking) and "buckler" (shield).

A "swashbuckler" was originally a mediocre swordsman who compensated by making a great deal of noise, strutting through the streets banging his sword on his shield, challenging passersby to duels, and just generally acting like a jerk.

Although the real swashbucklers were mostly cheap bullies, swashbuckling got a romantic spin in popular adventure novels, and later in dozens of Hollywood "swashbucklers," pirate movies starring the likes of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Errol Flynn. Thanks to this movie magic, "swashbucklers" were transformed from loudmouthed losers into daring adventurers, roving the world in search of thrills and treasure. Just how effective this historical rewrite was can be judged from the fact that "swashbuckler" has lately been adopted by investment bankers and corporate takeover artists to affectionately describe the most rapacious members of their breed. Methinks it may be time to dust off my favorite old pirate tradition for these people: walking the plank.

Click on the Piece of Eight to return to the Main Page