We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.

Advertiser Disclosure

Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.

How We Make Money

We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently from our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.

Why is a Pirate Flag Called a "Jolly Roger"?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 29, 2024
Our promise to you
LanguageHumanities is dedicated to creating trustworthy, high-quality content that always prioritizes transparency, integrity, and inclusivity above all else. Our ensure that our content creation and review process includes rigorous fact-checking, evidence-based, and continual updates to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

Editorial Standards

At LanguageHumanities, we are committed to creating content that you can trust. Our editorial process is designed to ensure that every piece of content we publish is accurate, reliable, and informative.

Our team of experienced writers and editors follows a strict set of guidelines to ensure the highest quality content. We conduct thorough research, fact-check all information, and rely on credible sources to back up our claims. Our content is reviewed by subject matter experts to ensure accuracy and clarity.

We believe in transparency and maintain editorial independence from our advertisers. Our team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers, allowing us to create unbiased content that prioritizes your interests.

Many people associate a black flag featuring a skull and crossbones design with pirates, and many use the term “Jolly Roger” to refer to such a flag. Given that the pirate flag is not terribly jolly and it does not seem to involve anyone named Roger, many people wonder what the origins of the name are. As is often the case with popular folk terms, the meaning behind the Jolly Roger is somewhat obscure and uncertain, although several hypotheses for the name have been put forward.

Pirates have been plying the seas for centuries, typically attempting to capture ships with their crew and cargo intact. Many early pirates actually ran quite democratic ships, encouraging the crews of captured ships to join forces and merely imprisoning those who resisted until the next port of call. Pirates used flags to communicate their intentions to other ships, typically flying false colors until they got close enough to capture a ship. The Jolly Roger was flown to encourage a ship to surrender.

Pirates typically flew black flags, with a red flag indicating that the pirates would give no quarter to resisters. The use of bones on pirate flags dates back to at least the 1600s, and possibly earlier. Many cultures associate potent symbolism with bones, which are meant to remind people of their own mortality and failings. Numerous variations on the skull and crossbones designs were used by pirates, and by 1720s, several accounts referred to pirate flags as “Jolly Rogers.”

One theory behind the name is that it may be a corruption of the French jolie rouge, for “pretty red,” in a reference to the red flags flown by some pirates. However, historians do not see much evidence for the use of jolie rouge in reference to a pirate flag. Some theorists have also suggested that it may be an Anglicization of “Ali Raja,” an infamous Tamil pirate who terrorized the seas and presumably flew a black flag as well. Both of these folk etymologies derive the meaning of "Jolly Roger" backward, trying to come up with old terms which could have been transmuted into a modern phrase.

Although both of these explanations are colorful, the real origins are probably more mundane. In England, “Roger” is closely related to “rogue,” and many people refer to the devil as Old Roger, or say that they are “rogering” someone when they are making trouble for them. Since pirates are associated with roguish behavior, naming their flag the Jolly Roger would have made sense, since rogues tend to be particularly jolly when they are making mischief, as pirates often are.

LanguageHumanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a LanguageHumanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Pippinwhite — On May 28, 2014

I don't know that most people are even interested in the origins of the name. The Jolly Roger has become such an iconic symbol that not many even seem to wonder at the name, anymore.

It's not even really a morbid or fearful symbol anymore. When chain seafood restaurants start passing out paper pirate hats with the Jolly Roger emblazoned on them to kids, I think the fear element has pretty much disappeared.

By Lostnfound — On May 28, 2014

I've never heard the term "Old Roger" used for the devil. I've heard "Old Nick" and "Old Scratch" and even "Old Slewfoot," but not "Old Roger."

I think the term "jolly Roger" is just one of those idioms that really doesn't have a definite origin. Someone used it once, it sounded good and the name stuck. Knowing the British sense of gallows humor, calling a grinning skull "jolly," is right in line.

English expressions are funny things, and I just think there will never be a real consensus on how this term came to be.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Read more
LanguageHumanities, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

LanguageHumanities, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.