A listener asked why the
flag flown on a pirate ship was called a Jolly Roger. The Oxford English Dictionary brands this popular story as folk etymology: Their
red flag was called Joli
Rouge (pretty red) by the French, and may have been corrupted into English
as Jolly Roger.
The principal reason for doubting this explanation is that
the traditional pirate’s flag was always black.
the semantic motivation, the first element (Jolly) may refer to the appearance
of the skull, the conventional emblem adorning the flag, with the skull's mouth
humorously being taken as showing a broad grin.” [OED]
With the second element (Roger), the OED offers two
(1) Roger was the stereotypical name of a male person of a
particular class, such as a manservant.
Weever Ancient Funerall Monuments,
“The seruant obeyed,
and (like a good trustie
Roger) performed his Masters commandement.”
(2) Old Roger was a humorous or familiar name for the devil, and pirates were
considered anything but godly.
1725: New Canting Dictionary, Old Roger,
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