AskDefine | Define crossbones

Dictionary Definition

crossbones n : two crossed bones (or a representation of two crossed bones) used as a symbol danger or death

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A representation of two bones crossed diagonally, especially as a symbol of danger or death

Derived terms

See also

Extensive Definition

A skull and crossbones is a symbol consisting of a human skull and two bones crossed together under the skull. Today, it is generally used as a warning of danger (usually in regard to poisonous substances).
The symbol, or some variation thereof, was also featured on the Jolly Roger, one of the many flag designs of European and American pirates; it is thought of as the stereotypical pirate flag, although it has historically been used for other purposes as well.
Traditionally, the crossbones behind the skull indicates poison, while the crossbones under the skull (the "Jolly Roger") indicates pirates or piracy.

History of the symbol

The original image was used by the Knights Templar. Early pirates dating back to the Crusades would thus fly the skull and bones imagery on their own mast to trick other ships into thinking they were friendly.
Actual skulls and bones were long used to mark the entrances to Spanish cemeteries (campo santo). The practice, dating back many centuries, led to the symbol eventually becoming associated with the concept of death. Some crucifixes feature a skull and crossbones beneath the corpus (the depiction of Jesus's body), in reference to a legend that the place of the crucifixion was also the burial place of Adam or, more likely, in reference to the New Testament statement (King James Version: Matthew 27:33, Mark 15:22, and John 19:17) that the place of his crucifixion was called "Golgotha" (tr. "the Place of a Skull").
Today, an example of a real skull and crossbones may be seen in the 1732 Nuestra Señora del Pilar church overlooking the famous Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It contains several altars rescued from other early Spanish churches in South America. One of these has twenty rectangular window boxes arrayed behind and above the altar, five wide by four tall. The size of these glass window boxes is such that the femurs of the priests interred thusly are a bit too long to lie flat and so must be leaned up in an "X" formation. The other bones fill in the spaces around the femurs with the skull sitting prominently on top of the bone pile centered above the "X".
In 1829, New York State required the labeling of all containers of poisonous substances. The skull and crossbones symbol appears to have been used for that purpose since the 1850s. Previously a variety of motifs had been used, including the Danish "+ + +" and drawings of skeletons.
In the 1870s poison manufacturers around the world began using bright cobalt bottles with a variety of raised bumps and designs (to enable easy recognition in the dark) to indicate poison, but by the 1880s the skull and cross bones had become ubiquitous, and the brightly coloured bottles lost their association.
The sign of Skull and Crossbones is used in Freemasonry to denote a master mason.

Modern uses

Today, the skull and crossbones is still the only standard symbol for poison. It is, however, less common outside industrial usage than it once was. Apart from its negative marketing effect on environmentally conscious consumers, it may actually attract children due to its association with pirates, a popular toy and play theme. For this reason, in the United States there has been a proposal to replace the skull and crossbones by the "Mr. Yuk" symbol. However, Mr. Yuk and his graphic rendering are registered trademarks and service marks of his creator, the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, and the rendering itself is additionally protected by copyright. This means that the name and graphic image cannot be used without a license from the owner—unlike the Skull and crossbones, which is in the public domain.
Variations on the symbol have been used by several military forces.
The skull and crossbones has been used by a succession of lancer regiments in the British Army. The Queen's Royal Lancers continue to use the skull and crossbones in their emblem, inherited from its use by the 17th Light Dragoons - a unit raised in 1759 following General Wolfe's death at Quebec, with an emblem of a death's head and the words 'Or Glory' in commemoration of him. The cap badge was later used by the 17th/21st Lancers and its present-day successor, the Queen's Royal Lancers who are still nicknamed the 'Death or Glory Boys'.
In World War II, Nazi SS troops made use of the "Totenkopf" (German word for "dead man's head") as an insignia (in particular, the 3rd SS Division, which was a part of the larger Waffen SS).
United States Marine Corps reconnaissance battalions also use a skull and cross bones on their emblems. VFA-103, Strike Fighter Squadron 103 (the Jolly Rogers) is a U.S. Navy fighter unit that was formed in the Pacific and adopted the skull and crossbones on all-black tails on their aircraft and is today perhaps the most recognizable squadron markings in the world. In Unicode, the "skull and crossbones" symbol is U+2620 (☠). The HTML entity is ☠.
It is also used by the Skull and Bones Society, a secret society at Yale University, as well as the Kappa Sigma, Sigma Phi Epsilon, Sigma Sigma Sigma and Phi Kappa Sigma Fraternities. Poole Pirates Speedway Team in the United Kingdom have the Skull and Crossbones as their team badge.
The logo of the Blackshirts, the starting defensive unit for the Nebraska Cornhuskers football team, is a Skull and Crossbones with the skull wearing the team helmet. The players and fans often celebrate by "throwing the bones", where they cross the forearms in front of the chest, in a 'X', imitating the logo.

See also


  1. "Wal-Mart pulls T-shirts with Nazi skull logo", Associated Press, Nov 14, 2006.

External links

crossbones in Bulgarian: Череп и кости
crossbones in French: Tête de mort
crossbones in Lithuanian: Kaukolė ir sukryžiuoti kaulai
crossbones in Hungarian: Halálfej
crossbones in Japanese: 髑髏と骨
crossbones in Narom: Cranne ès os crouaîsis
crossbones in Chinese: 骷髏畫

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Azrael, Black Death, Calvary cross, Christogram, Death, Greek cross, Grim Reaper, Jerusalem cross, Latin cross, Maltese cross, Pale Death, Reaper, Russian cross, T, X, angel of death, ankh, avellan cross, chi, chi-rho, christcross, crisscross, cross, cross ancre, cross botonee, cross bourdonee, cross fitche, cross fleury, cross formee, cross fourchee, cross grignolee, cross moline, cross of Cleves, cross of Lorraine, cross patee, cross recercelee, cross-crosslet, crosslet, crucifix, cruciform, crux, crux ansata, crux capitata, crux decussata, crux gammata, crux immissa, crux ordinaria, dagger, ex, exing, fork cross, gammadion, inverted cross, long cross, memento mori, pale horse, pale rider, papal cross, pectoral cross, potent cross, rood, saltire, sickle of Death, skull, skull and crossbones, swastika, tau, that fell sergeant, that grim ferryman, trefled cross, voided cross, white cross
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