November 16, 2004

*Ask Jen: Walk the Plank Edition

Tim wants to know "about the history of Jolly Roger."

Well, as everyone knows, the Jolly Roger is the pirate with a white skull and crossbones. Every pirate ship had one, bought from Flags-R-Us, and if they didn't have one, the Democratic Order of Pirates made them walk the plank, me hearties.

Sorry, slipped into Talk-Like-a-Pirate-Day-speak for a moment.

The truth is, the Jolly Roger as we know it is probably more of a Hollywood creation than anything. All pirate ships had their own flag--some with skull and crossbones, some with crossed swords, some with whatever other frightening imagery they came up with. And the flags came in different colors, too. It is possible that "Jolly Roger" is derived from "joli rouge"...French for "pretty red".

Do you have a question for me? You can e-mail it. If I know the answer, I'll answer it. If I don't, I might make something up.

Posted by Jennifer at November 16, 2004 02:15 PM


I've heard another possible etymological source as well. A common nickname for the Devil in the 18th century was "Old Roger". It's possible that Jolly Roger was a play on this as both dealt with fear and death.

Posted by: Jim at November 16, 2004 03:01 PM

You're entirely correct.

Posted by: Jennifer at November 16, 2004 03:03 PM

Patrick O'Brian in - I think - "The Wine Dark Sea" suggests that a plain black flag was a recognized signal for "no quarter asked or given" - a standard pirate practice. It might be possible that a skull and/or crossbones were added to such a signal to put a little extra scariness into it.

Posted by: Robert the Llama Butcher at November 18, 2004 03:40 PM