Jolly Roger

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Wed Jul 31 19:00:08 UTC 2002

Just saw (1) in an internet mailing.  Neither theory strikes me as
particularly plausible or as definitively implausible, but I didn't
see a listing at Michael Q's worldwidewords and I'm not sure whom
else to trust.  Anyone?  [I see from other web sites that "jolie
rougère" is another and perhaps more phonologically likely version of
the first account..]  I've appended in (2) the
response to a similar query below, but as you see Cecil's rather
agnostic on this one.

Why is the skull and crossbones symbol called the jolly roger?

"There are many theories but two in particular stand out:
1. The 'Jolly Roger 'is a corruption of the French 'Jolie Rouge'or
'Beautiful Red'- describing the pennant often flown by pirates and
buccaneers to inform their enemies that no quarter would be given.
The term then adapted itself to any ships crew that would offer no
quarter in battle.

2. Bartholomew Roberts, a French buccaneer in the early 1600s flew
the skull and cross bones and he himself was often referred to as
'Old Roger', which was yet another name for the devil. Robert's
seemingly performed his pirate duties with enthusiasm and enjoyment,
thus, the 'Jolly Roger' or, in other words, the Happy Devil."
Dear Cecil:

Of course he's jolly because he hasn't any lips, but who was that
flayed "Roger" immortalized by the buccaneers on their skull and
crossbones? What part of the skeleton are the crossbones taken from?
Is he any relation to the "Roger" who is continually being evoked by
fighter pilots and other military types?
--Jeremy L., Baltimore

Dear Jeremy:

He's jolly because he hasn't got any lips? What kind of weird coastal
humor is that supposed to be? Better leave the witticisms around here
to me.

Jolly Roger bears no relation to Roger Wilco. The origins of the term
are disputed.

According to one theory, the buccaneers who operated around the West
Indies in the 1600s used a red flag dipped in blood or paint,
whichever could be gotten more conveniently.

The French supposedly called this the "joli rouge," which the
English, with their traditional disregard for the niceties of
pronunciation, corrupted into Jolly Roger.

Later the term was applied to the familiar black-flag-cum-bones that
began to appear in various forms around 1700.

An alternative hypothesis involves certain Asian pirates whose chiefs
called held the title Ali Raja, "king of sea." The English naturally
thought that THEY were the kings of the sea, and appropriated the
term, suitably amended, for their own use.

Unfortunately, both these explanations, as one historian puts it,
"are so plausible that neither can be accepted as correct,"
plausibility being pretty much a sure sign of error in the
etymology business.  Some venture the opinion that Jolly Roger may
simply derive from the English word "roger," meaning a wandering
vagabond, noting that "Old Roger" was a popular canting term for the

The bone of choice for the crossbones, I suppose, would be the femur,
or thigh-bone. Dare I ask why you want to know?


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