The pirate song “Fifteen Men on a Dead Man’s Chest” from Treasure Island contains the expression yo-ho-ho.

Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest—
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest—
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

Does this signify laughter, a piratical variation of ho-ho-ho? It doesn’t seem like an amusing little ditty but then pirates probably would have a dark sense of humour. Or is it simply a more piratey song filler than na-na-na?


Accordin’ to yon pirate page, yo-ho-ho indeed be pirate laughter.

But there be also another source claimin’ that ’tis merely a scallywag’s variant of yo-heave-ho, the chant that all good sea-farin’ folk use to keep their rhythm when haulin’ cannon to the scuppers.

Seems ’tis likely yo-ho-ho be used to maintain the rhythm in yer fine sea chantey as well. When ye shipmates sing out yo, yer all be givin’ yon rope a hearty pull.

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    On the other hand, "yo-oh-no!" means "where has all the rum gone?" – user362 Sep 19 '11 at 13:30
  • Hah, this answer is brilliant! :D – jcora Oct 4 '12 at 19:46
  • Because I just have to be that guy, I must add that "scallywag" or "scalawag" is not a pirate expression at all. Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow uses it in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but it's a gross anachronism. The word was a Reconstruction-Era (1865 to 1877, long after the Golden Age of piracy) term for a white Southerner who allied himself with black freedmen and the carpetbaggers in support of Republican Party policies. Consider using the word "lubber" instead. – Malvolio Dec 25 '14 at 19:59
  • @malvolio Yargh, that I shall. Many thanks to you. – Kit Z. Fox Dec 25 '14 at 20:13

Yo-ho-ho is related to yoho, which is in the Oxford Dictionary of English:

An exclamation used to call attention: orig. in nautical use, hence generally; also sometimes used like yo-heave-ho int., q.v.

It dates from the 1700s:

1769 W. Falconer Universal Dict. Marine (1780) 11, Hola-ho, a cry which answers to yoe-hoe.

Yo ho ho may either have been extended to fit in the song, or an alternative version of yo heave ho or yoho.


During the construction of the Canals and railways in England, "Yo-ho, yo-ho" was called to signify the end of a shift.

English Navvies drank prodigious amounts of alcohol at the end of a shift. It would be nice to think that Robert Louis Stevenson made the parallel for Pirates.

Yo-ho and bottle of rum.

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    Hello James, can you add some reputable citations to your answer? – MetaEd Oct 2 '12 at 17:22

I think james is correct. In the patrick stewart version of a christmas carol, maybe in the book also, when fezziwig is closing shop, he says " yoho ebinezer, yoho dick", to signal shift is over.

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