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Hello,

I was editing this morning and one scene included a jolly roger flag. I already knew this pirate flag wasn’t linked to an actual pirate called Roger (although King Roger II of Sicily tries to claim it), but it seemed like a good time to delve deeper.

Unfortunately the origins of this catchy flag name are confused at best. Experts disagree on when it entered English with dates ranging from the 11th to the 18th century. Stealing on the high-seas is an old tradition so I’d lean towards the earlier dates.

The best explanation I can find for its origin comes from British naval history. In 1694 the British Admiralty commanded English privateers (state-approved pirates) to fly a plain red flag to identify themselves. This makes sense as otherwise they might be mistaken for mere thieves (heaven forbid!) or the Royal Navy itself. Thereafter the term “red jacking” came to mean piracy.

However a plain red flag already had a meaning well-known to sailors – danger. In particular, the red flag signaled an explosive cargo or illness aboard. The red flag meaning “this ship’s captain will not give quarter” became known as La Jolie Rouge (the pretty red in French) but the confusion was there.

Privateers went for a plain black flag instead. If you were attacked by a ship flying such a flag you knew to give up or face death. Over time the privateer captains embellished their flags, to be more fearsome I imagine. Each pirate captain ended up with a unique version of the jolly roger.

It probably helped that in English slang Roger was alternative name for the devil.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and avoid those pesky pirates,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

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