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