Typically I find hearty to be used as an adjective, for example:

  • Thank you for this hearty meal

  • He gave a hearty laugh

The definition for which can be found in any dictionary and can mean things like warm-hearted, genuine, forceful, etc.

The noun meaning being

a brave or good fellow, especially with reference to a shipmate.

I couldn't find any reason why it should be especially applied to men of the sea.

Is there a reason why, for pirates in particular, shipmates are hearties?

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    I was thinking we might see a question related to "International Talk Like a Pirate Day"! Thanks for providing one! Sep 19 '13 at 16:23

The OED says

A hearty fellow; a brave, vigorous man; esp. in phr. my hearty!, my hearties! used in addressing sailors. Hence, a sailor, a jack-tar.

No mention of sea-shanties, and no suggestion that the "hearty work" accompanied by them had any particular relevance. Once again it is a fairly transparent use of a word which to my mind doesn't require any special explanation.

But it clearly is associated with the sea from the beginning: the earliest citation is from Phantom Ship by F Marryat in 1839.

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    Aye, sir, the meaning be plain, but not why it should be particularly for a man o' the sea. Sep 19 '11 at 12:47
  • I mean - I wouldn't call builders "hearties", or other labourers. It's specifically reserved for pirates these days. Sep 19 '11 at 12:53
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    Just a thought. The naval march 'Heart of Oak' was written in 1759 and refers to the oak from which the ships of the Royal Navy were built. Was the 'heart' bit subsequently transferred to the crew and did it become 'hearties' in the process? Possible, I suppose. Sep 19 '11 at 15:06
  • @Matt, you're right, the OED has no answer to why it's particularly for sailors. Note that it is almost always used with "my" - another unexplained restriction.
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 20 '11 at 12:09
  • @Barrie England: yes, that's possible, and quite attractive. But unless somebody can find any contemporary evidence, it will remain an idle speculation. Note that the OED's first attribution is eighty years later: the word was no doubt in use before recorded, and the march may have taken some years to become widely known; but there is still a gap.
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 20 '11 at 12:11

I believe this comes from similar roots as the tradition of sea shanties:

In the days when human muscles were the only power source available aboard ship, sea shanties served a practical purpose: the rhythm of the song served to synchronize the movements of the sailors as they toiled at repetitive tasks. They also served a social purpose: some find singing and listening to songs to be pleasant, and for these people it alleviates boredom and lightens the burden of hard work, of which there was no shortage on long voyages in those days.

There's plenty of references to hearties as workmates in sea shanties: the sailors are performing hearty work.

From Act I, Scene I of Shakespeare's The Tempest:

Heigh, my hearts! cheerly, cheerly, my hearts! yare, yare! Take in the topsail. Tend to the master's whistle. Blow, till thou burst thy wind, if room enough!

The sailors are being encouraged on to happily and joyfully use their hearts to perform this hearty work.

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    I think rather the sea shanties incorporated the word after it was already commonly used, but I also think you are onto something with the "hearty work" theory.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Sep 19 '11 at 11:57
  • The OED’s earliest citation for the nautical use of ‘hearty’ as ‘a brave, vigorous man’ is as late as 1839. That makes it likely that Shakespeare’s use of ‘heart' is rather as a term of endearment, used as such since the fourteenth century. Sep 19 '11 at 12:57
  • "In the days when human muscles were the only power source available aboard ship..." Sailing ships? I believe there was another source of power on those. Even galleys had sails on them.
    – nmichaels
    Sep 19 '11 at 19:12

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