Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Jolly Roger

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.

As for 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 possibilities.

(1) Roger was the stereotypical name of a male person of a particular class, such as a manservant.
            1631:  J. 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, the Devil.

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to and clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find about a month’s worth of podcasts there under The Ron Jolly Show.


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