Jolly Roger

hello jolly roger by Nathan Cozzitorto

The Jolly Roger is any of various flags flown to identify a ship’s crew as pirates. The flag most usually identified as the Jolly Roger today is the skull and crossbones, a flag consisting of a human skull above two long bones set in an x-mark arrangement on a black field. This design was used by several pirates, including Captains Edward England and John Taylor. Some Jolly Roger flags also include an hourglass, another common symbol representing death in 17th- and 18th-century Europe. Despite its prominence in popular culture, plain black flags were often employed by most pirates of that era. Historically, the flag was flown to frighten pirates’ victims into surrendering without a fight, since it conveyed the message that the attackers were outlaws who would not consider themselves bound by the usual rules of engagement—and might, therefore, slaughter those they defeated (since captured pirates were usually hanged, they did not have much to gain by asking quarter if defeated). The same message was sometimes conveyed by a red flag.

It is assumed by most that the name Jolly Roger comes from the French words jolie rouge, meaning ‘pretty red’ and referring to a plain red flag which was flown to indicate that the ship would fight to the death, with no quarter given or expected. During the Elizabethan era ‘Roger’ was a slang term for beggars and vagrants who ‘pretended scholarship.’ ‘Sea Beggars’ had been a popular name for Dutch privateers since the 16th century. Another theory states that Jolly Roger is an English corruption of Ali Raja, supposedly a 17th century Tamil pirate. Yet another theory is that it was taken from a nickname for the devil, ‘Old Roger.’ The ‘jolly’ appellation may be derived from the apparent grin of a skull.

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