Pirate Exclamation “Arr!” a Hollywood Invention, but Jolly Roger Real

pirate pop culture scrutinized in wondrium series

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

When delving into the world of pirates, some debunking is in order. Buried treasure doesn’t make the cut, but the Jolly Roger does. In this week’s Wondrium Short, “Arr!” walks the plank.

Jolly Roger pirate flag
The well-known pirate flag, the Jolly Roger, warned approaching ships of death if they came too near. While the origins of its name remain a mystery, black flags, either plain or decorated with bones, go back to at least the medieval period. Photo by patrice6000 / Shutterstock

One of Wondrium’s most beloved courses, The Real History of Pirates, does some pirate mythbusting while establishing facts that one-up fiction. On one hand, pirates just didn’t say “Arr!” until early 20th-century novels and movies. On the other hand, not only did the skull-and-crossbones flag, known as a Jolly Roger, exist, but the origins of its name remain a mystery to this day.

How did both of these equally ingratiate themselves into pirate culture so heavily, if one is fact and the other is fiction? Dr. Manushag N. Powell, Professor of English at Purdue University, explains the origins of “Arr!” and the Jolly Roger.

Talk Unlike a Pirate Day

“As you may have heard, September 19th has been—since time out of mind or at least 2002—observed as International Talk Like a Pirate Day,” Dr. Powell said. “The idea came first from two Oregonians: John Baur and Mark Summers. Talk Like a Pirate Day has since become an opportunity for frolicsome good fun for pirate lovers of all creeds and ages—fun for all, except for tiresome pedants like me, who every year grit our teeth and roll our eyes because pirates did not really say ‘Arr.'”

According to Dr. Powell, the earliest recorded use of the well-known pirate growl comes from books and movies about pirates in the first half of the 20th century. It was first popularized by actor Robert Newton in the 1950 film Treasure Island, based on the Robert Louis Stevenson novel of the same name. Newton, a native of Dorset, added a rolled “Arr” when he spoke his lines.

“Now, certainly there were some west country sailors who turned pirate, and they may well have retained their dialect rolled ‘Arr,’ but they would hardly have represented the majority of pirate speakers,” Dr. Powell said. “In fact, pirate crews in piracy’s golden age were polyglot, made up of men from not just all over Britain but all over Europe, and indeed the world. Pirate crews were even more likely to be multi-ethnic than naval and merchant crews.”

You’ve Got to Admit, It’s a Cool-Looking Flag

One of the most popular associations we have with pirates is a black flag with a white skull and crossbones on it. Known as the Jolly Roger, it’s as recognizable as it is intimidating. Fortunately, this piece of pirate pop culture is more historically accurate than the sound that gave us the joke, “Why couldn’t the little pirate go to the movie? It was rated Arr.”

“Possibly the first pirate to try out the effect of what is now their traditional Jolly Roger was Emmanuel Wynn, who in 1700 unfurled a sable ensign with crossbones, a death’s head, and an hourglass,” Dr. Powell said. “Black flags, either plain or decorated with bones, can be found going back to at least the medieval period. And it’s also possible that the Caribbean use of such flags was inspired by the designs on the flags of the Barbary Corsairs in the Mediterranean.”

According to Dr. Powell, the design caught on throughout the Caribbean in the 18th century. Customized versions soon appeared with skeletons, daggers, hourglasses, initials, and other items on them. The ships would also have more than one flag onboard to use for various purposes. Sometimes, pirate ships would pretend to be official ships from a country’s navy until they got close enough to their victims to board and loot them, while different colors meant different things.

“Real pirates used both red and black flags, and the one you really didn’t want to see was the red one, which might have a skull and crossbones on it or might not,” Dr. Powell said. “A black pirate flag meant ‘quarter would be given’ if the enemy surrendered, meaning they’ll spare your life after rifling through your cargo.

“Red, though, was the traditional nautical symbol for ‘no quarter given.'”

According to Dr. Powell, the purpose of the Jolly Roger was to remind victims that things would be much worse if they didn’t cooperate.

This article is part of our “Deeper Dive” series where we examine the stories behind our Wondrium Shorts on YouTube.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily