Shiver my timbers


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Shiver me timbers'?

An oath, expressing annoyance or surprise.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Shiver me timbers'?

Those of a certain age will remember Robert Newton, rolling his eyes and yarring it up in his archetypal Hollywood pirate role – Long John Silver in the 1950 film Treasure Island.

Robert Louis Stevenson used shiver my timbers several times in the original 1883 book, for example:

“Well, he [Old Pew] is dead now and under hatches; but for two year before that, shiver my timbers, the man was starving!”

Of course, Newton made the most of such ‘parrot on the shoulder’ phrases and it also appears several times in the film’s screenplay. Newton’s version, like that of all self-respecting stage pirates, was shiver me timbers, with the occasional ‘aaarh, Jim lad’ thrown in.

The first appearance of the phrase in print is in Frederick Marryat’s Jacob Faithful, 1834:

“I won’t thrash you Tom. Shiver my timbers if I do.”

One meaning of shiver, which is now largely forgotten, is ‘to break into pieces’. That meaning originated at least as early as the 14th century and is recorded in several Old English texts. A more recent citation, which makes that meaning clear, is James Froude’s Caesar; a sketch, 1879:

“As he crossed the hall, his statue fell, and shivered on the stones.”

So, the sailor’s oath shiver my timbers, is synonymous with let my boat breaks into pieces. The question is whether any real sailor used the term or whether it was just a literary invention. Well, we can’t be sure, but no one has yet provided any clear evidence that it is more than Newton-style hokum.

Trend of shiver my timbers in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.