What’s Up with the Jolly Roger?

(Last Updated On: September 18, 2022)

Anyone vaguely tuned into pirates in pop-culture is probably familiar with the Jolly Roger. If you’re not familiar with the name, “skull and crossbones” is probably immediately recognizable as the “pirate symbol” anyway. But what was the point? If you were going to be scooting around in the ocean looting everyone, wouldn’t it be effective to remain unidentified as long as possible? So, what’s up with the Jolly Roger?

Where Did the Name Come From?

“Jolly Roger” appears to have been used (in print) for the first time in 1724. Specifically, it appeared in Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates. Charles Johnson is actually a pen name, and their true identity was unknown for a while. The pen name would later be attributed to a guy named Daniel Defoe. 

The etymology for “Jolly Roger” is largely speculative. An 1866 definition of noun “Rodger” loosely means “any animal big and ugly” or a “a person of rude manners,” while the verb “rodger” means “to beat with violence.” “Jolly” in the 18th century wasn’t dissimilar to how you might envision the word now; meaning someone was “high-hearted.” 

If “Jolly Roger” was written down for the first time in 1724, we can be decently sure that the flag was flown under that name for a decent time before then.

The skull and crossbones were used by pirate captains like Black Sam Bellamy, Edward England, and John Taylor in the 1710s as a pirate-signifying plan. The skull and crossbones itself did not start with pirates, though–its origins date back to the Late Middle Ages.

However, the Jolly Roger’s design wasn’t constant. Not all even used a skull and crossbones. Consequently, the term “Jolly Roger” was probably just used as a generic term for pirate flags. 

What Was the Jolly Roger Used For?

Jolly Rogers were flown by pirate ships directly before or during an attack on another ship. The flag wasn’t flown often, and pirate ships typically flew false flags (if they flew a flag at all) until they got close to their prey. This was the only way pirates could get within firing range of other ships–since if you flew a Jolly Rancher during the Golden Age of Pirates everyone would just keep a wide berth from you.

Pirates weren’t the only parties going after merchant ships. Privateers (state-sponsored pirates) and government vessels were also known to target merchant ships, though they generally would not execute the victim crew if they surrendered–even if they resisted. On the other hand, pirates didn’t necessarily have that code, so a pirate vessel was on average more dangerous than a state-controlled one or a privateer’s. Because merchants reasonably believed their lives could be spared if they counterattacked but surrendered to a government or privateer vessel, they were more likely to resist in the first place. Pirates, then, flew the Jolly Rancher as a means of distinguishing themselves from coast guards or privateers. This increased the likelihood of merchants surrendering outright, and decreased the likelihood the pirates would have to engage in an expensive fight.

Because the Jolly Roger was meant to imply violence, its symbology often settled on skeletons, skulls, weapons, bleeding hearts, and hourglasses.

Also, only a pirate would ever have flown a Jolly Rancher, since being caught with one could have been grounds for execution. So there’s that.

The Pirate Brand

While pirates were criminals, it’s not like they didn’t have their own rules. Many pirates were merchants disillusioned by how poorly they were compensated, and preferred to just go it on their own with no loyalty to a given state. Pirates eschewed the strict laws that governed privateers, but they did have their own codes of conduct and a social order. You might have heard of the rules governing the distribution of loot in a crew

Infighting was not an entirely foreign concept to pirates, but they did generally cooperate and even fight for or alongside each other. So having a flag that signified you as a pirate to other pirates was also a good idea.

Historical accuracy aside, Pirates of the Caribbean is at least a fun movie. See if you know the script or something here.



About Kyler 727 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.