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What is the origin of ‘swashbuckler’?

The traditional swashbuckler, described by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a swaggering bravo or ruffian; a noisy braggadocio’, was, indeed, someone who ‘swashed his buckle’. To ‘swash’, in the sixteenth century, was to dash or strike something violently, while a ‘buckler’ was a small round shield, carried by a handle at the back. So a swashbuckler was literally one who made a loud noise by striking his own or his opponent’s shield with his sword.

Errol Flynn also had roles as both a buccaneer and a musketeer. The origin of musketeer is quite simple: a soldier who fought with a musket. But a buccaneer may surprise. It originally meant someone who hunted wild oxen, because boucaner in French was to dry or cure meat on a boucan: a barbecue, in the manner of the Indians. The name was first given to the French hunters of St Domingo, who prepared the flesh of the wild oxen and boars in this way. This included hunters at sea: pirates who lurked off the West Indies, and so over time a buccaneer became a byword for a hostile sea rover.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning the Jolly Roger. Some linguists believe this name for a pirate’s flag, featuring a white skull on a black background, originated in the French words jolie rouge, meaning ‘pretty red’ for originally pirates used red flags as frequently as black ones. Supporting this theory is the fact that during the Elizabethan era ‘Roger’ was a slang term for beggars and vagrants and was also applied to privateers who operated in the English Channel. There are other theories too, including one plausible one that the term derives from a nickname for the devil, ‘Old Roger’: jolly perhaps because of the skull’s grin.

An extract from What Made the Crocodile Cry? by Susie Dent