Okay, I've heard the phrase so many times; I've even muttered it myself while drunk. But what does it really mean?

The phrase is either an oath or an expression of surprise, probably based on "My Timbers!" an oath that was in use during the late 18th century. It was popularized by Robert Louis Stevenson in his Treasure Island, although the phrase he used is "Shiver MY Timbers!". In the movie, 'my' was changed to 'me', and the classic "Arrrrr, Matey!" was introduced.

Stevenson was not the first, though; in Jacob Faithful by Frederick Marryat (1834), the first use of the phrase in print appears:

"I won't thrash you Tom. Shiver my timbers if I do!"

The literal meaning of shiver is to shatter or splinter. Timbers could refer either to the hull of the ship or to wooden legs or legs in general. So, the meaning of the phrase becomes "Sink my ship!" or "Break by leg!".

As a side note: the phrase has also been adopted by Cricket players to refer to the scattering of wickets.

See also: Talking like a pirate is fun but annoys people

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