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Candidate Terminology (Vexillology)

Last modified: 2005-09-02 by phil nelson
Keywords: vexillological definitions: proposed |
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This is a page under constant development in that it reflects proposals to standardize language used in vexillology.

The following is the format of the terminology on this page:

  1. Proposed definitions
  2. Discussion on the definition

Terms may draw upon or be similar to those on our page on our Glossary of Flag Terms.

Proposed formats

Proposed definitions:

Proposed Formats

Convention for the writing of definitions

  • Keep it as simple as possible.
  • Make it as specific as possible (for instance, I prefer the Smihtsonian definition of tricolour above saying that a tricolour is any flag with three colours in the field no matter how they are arranged).
  • Retain any existing traditional and well-known definitions (even if it does not completely meet the first two strictures).
  • Keep as close as possible to existing standard definitions in heraldry.

Convention for describing the order of colours on the field of a flag

  • For vertically displayed colours: from the hoist. (Thus the French tricoleur would be described as a 'vertical tricolour b-w-r'.
  • For horisontally displayed clours: from top to bottom. (Thus the Dutch driekleur would be described as a 'horisontal tricolour r-w-b')
  • For gyronny displayed colours: from upper hoist corner with the order of colours and number of repetitions stated.

Convention for flag descriptions

  • Describe the primary field of the flag in the simplest possible terms using standard definitions (eg: the basic dominant colour, or bicolour, or triband, or tricolour, etc).
  • Add any deviations from the standard field.
  • Descibe any charges and their positions on the field, also using standard definitions if available and applicable (eg fleur-de-lis, armillary sphere, etc, etc).
  • Describe the division lines if it deviates from the straight horisontal, vertical or diagonal.
  • Provide the proportions of the field (if deviating from the norm of 2:3), the bars and cantons in the description.
A.P. Burgers, 1 July 2005

Candidate Terminology

Bicolor (Bicolour)

Proposed Definitions

Bicolour (bi-colour)
A flag whose basic design consists of two stripes (of even or uneven size) in two colours, whether disposed vertically, horizontally or diagonally (Christopher Southworth)
Bicolour (bi-colour)
A flag whose basic design consists of two major contiguous areas extending to the edges, in two colours. (Jorge Candeias)
Bicolour (bi-colour)
A flag whose field consists of just two areas of different colours (André Coutanche)
Bicolour (bi-colour)
a flag divided into two distinct horizontal, vertical or diagonal partitions each of a separate color. (Phil Nelson)


I also agree that unambiguous and agreed definitions would be a very good idea, but as for the bi(-)colo(u)r - Bahrain? Qatar? Excluded by the above definition - but should they be?
André Coutanche, 28 June 2005

But surely Bahrain and Qatar are not excluded by the above definition, both flags consist of two stripes in two colours? You would necessarily need to qualify the definition by stating that they were "vertical bicolours of uneven stripes" and go on in further detail, but does not the same also apply to Portugal?
Christopher Southworth, 28 June 2005

I think the question of Bahrain and Qatar would be clearer were the edges not serrated, "stripes" therefore becomes a grey defining term for those flags. I am also wondering if a flag divided like the Bhutan flag (without the dragon) would qualify under this definition?
David Kendall, 28 June 2005

Are we not unnecessarily complicating the issue here, I would call the flags of Bahrain and Qatar 'vertical bicolours of uneven stripes' under the possible definition I suggested, but only as a starting point of a more detailed description. The flag of Bhutan would certainly qualify since I included "diagonal" in the types of stripe.

I don't say that there aren't alternatives, but cannot think of more straightforward (or immediately recognizable) way of describing the flag of Portugal than as a 'vertical bicolour of uneven stripes, with an emblem centred on the dividing line'? If describing the flag in detail I would give its ratio, the proportions of red to green, the size of the emblem and of what it consists, surely as in essence it remains a red and green bicolour (and, incidentally, one of my favourite flags)?
Christopher Southworth, 28 June 2005

I'm all for keeping with the heraldry, i.e., the idea of fields and charges. If the background is split into two fields of colour, it's a bicolour. If it's split into three, then it's a tricolour. In heraldic blazonry, there is an (unwritten?) suggestion that tierced ("splitting in three") means doing so in the same way - for example, three stripes in the same direction. Anything else is a charge placed on the top. Similarly party ("split in two").

If we follow those rules, then the flag of the Benin has a bicolour design with a charge placed over the top - in exactly the same way as the flags of Haiti, the Czech Republic, and Bhutan. The flags of Japan and Switzerland are not bicolours, since they have a charge placed on a plain field. it would also rule out flags still covered by the description at the top of this email (such as Myanmar and Taiwan, for instance). As for Qatar and Bahrain, they would count - Party per pale dancetty offset to hoist. To put it simply:
heraldry ↔ vexillology
party ↔ bicolour
tierced ↔ triband/tricolour

Pudants out there will probably add that a triband in heraldry would simply be a single-colour background with one bar or fess over the top, but the design is equivalent to that of a tricolour.
James Dignan, 28 June 2005


Proposed Definitions

A strip, band or panel of colour - whether disposed vertically, horizontally or diagonally - which reaches the edges of a flag but which does not cover the whole area (Christopher Southworth)
A strip, band or panel of colour - whether disposed vertically, horizontally or diagonally - which generally reaches one or more edges of a flag, but which does not cover the whole area (Christopher Southworth)


I don't understand the need for "whether disposed vertically, horizontally or diagonally". If it covers all possible cases, why include it at all? If it doesn't cover all possible cases, then what is it aimed at excluding?
Jorge Candeias, 30 June 2005

Tribar/Triband/Tricolor (Tricolour)

Proposed Definitions

A flag whose field is divided horizontally, vertically or diagonally into three different colours. (Whitney Smith)
A flag divided into three distinct horizontal, vertical or diagonal partitions or panels composed of three separate colors. (Phil Nelson)
The field of the flag is divided horizontally into three bars, consisting of only one colour in two bars divided by a metal, or two bars of the same metal divided by a colour. (Whitney Smith)
A flag divided into three distinct horizontal or vertical partitions or panels composed of a minimum of two separate colors. (Phil Nelson)


'Tri-colour' is a literal description of a flag with three colours which, (almost certainly due to the influence of "le tricolore") now describes a flag of three colours in three stripes, whereas 'tri-band' is the literal description of a flag with three stripes without regard to the number of colours employed, and therefore, ideal to describe a flag which has only two.
Christopher Southworth, 19 June 2005

I would have said 'tricolo(u)r' refers to vertical stripes and 'triband' refers to horizontal stripes. So where does that leave Nigeria? And if the distinction between the two isn't the direction of the stripes, then we need words which do show this distinction!
André Coutanche, 19 June 2005

A valid point but one (if I might so suggest) which - if we adopted it as general practice - would be an arbitrary distortion of the language and unnecessarily arcane? The flags of Austria, France, the Netherlands and Nigeria can all be described as "tribands', but only two actually fulfill the description of "tricolour". My proposal does however (and as you point out), require the use of an extra word (vertical or horizontal).
Christopher Southworth, 19 June 2005

In my terminology, 100% common. A tricolour is, obviously enough, a flag with three colours, although usually the term is restricted to the variation which has these three colours as three parts of the field, similarly oriented.

A triband or a tribar is a flag with three parts in the field (and at least one band or one bar), although the term is usually restricted to the situation where the field is composed of elements with only two colours. So, tricolours are tribands. But the bicoloured tribands are not tricolours.
Jorge Candeias, 19 June 2005

Why are these words needed? France can be termed a "vertical tricolour", Nigeria a "vertical triband", the Netherlands a "horizontal tricolour", Austria a "horizontal triband".

I appreciate Andre's quest to simplify our vexillological lexicon, but, being a science, sometimes we have to have superfluous language so that we can describe things exactly. For example, while "a blue, black, and white flag" might be good enough for the layman to think Estonia (and, again, my cynicism tells me "educated layman", at least outside of any sphere of Estonian influence), the official description is "[…] a tri-color, with three equal horizontal bands. The upper one is blue, the middle one black and the lower white. The width to length ratio is 7:11, and the exact standard dimensions are 1000 by 1650 millimeters." (and that's not even addressing the shade of blue).
David Kendall, 19 June 2005

I've no problems in referring to the Nigerian flag as a triband. Or to the Netherlands flag as a tricolour, for that matter. Mind you, I tend to talk of them as vertical tribands and horizontal tricolours, to remove any confusion.

I'd add that Wikipedia describes "triband" as being either vertical or horizontal, and "tricolour" as the same (and a subset of triband). Then again, this cannot be relied on as a definitive source, since I did a lot of the writing on those articles!
James Dignan, 19 June 2005

If these definitions are accepted, triband and tricolour are therefore clearly two different descriptions. Both the Netherlands and French flags are therefore tricolours (le Tricoleur and the Driekleur), the one horizontal and the other vertical, while those of Austria and Spain are tribands.
Andreis Burgers, 20 June 2005

In Austria (and Germany, and other central-European countries) it is pretty difficult to say "horizontal" or "vertical" triband/tricolour, because of the high amount of vertically oriented flags (Banner/Hängefahne/Knatterfahne). Therefore in most cases you would see the Austrian flag as vertical flag with stripes "vertical to earth surface", which cannot be described as "horizontal",
Marcus E.V. Schmöger, 20 June 2005

There are a lot of flags here (large parts of Central Europe) that do not have "a horizontal original". Although official national flags do follow the "maritime flag" pattern of being horizontal rectangles, subnational flags and a lot of other flags in many circumstances are vertical. This has not been recognized properly by most of the vexillologists (i.e. not even mentioned in Smith's books, for instance); there are even German vexillologists who consider these vertical forms "not real flags". Drawing flags that are mostly or only used in vertical variants in a horizontal way, just to "conform to a standard" is pretty artificial.
Marcus E.V. Schmöger, 17 July 2005

Marcus may have bigger problem - some of "his" flags have only vertical variant, so what's the point in describing them as horizontal tribands... If there is ever such ambiguity, I tend to use term lengthwise and transversal. Austrian flag is a lengthwise triband - that should be clear enough. However, I would prefer to use these awkward terms only where ambiguity could come out and leave the simple horizontal and vertical triband (and tricolours) otherwise.
Željko Heimer, 21 June 2005

Smith's definition refers specifically to three horizontal, vertical or diagonal colours. It would seem to me that other design arrangements are not included in the specific designation 'tricolour' even though they include three different colours. There is also a bit of historical practice involved here. To the best of my knowledge the Dutch 'Driekleur' was the first horizontal tricolour to be given that name, followed by the French 'Tricoleur' for the vertical version. The word 'tricolour' can therefore be said to have assumed a proprietary meaning when it comes to the matter of three colours on the field of a flag, particularly where the Rule of Tincture is strictly applied. (Incidentally, the only diagonal tricolour on my 1997 flagchart is that of the Congo).

I interpret Smith's definitions to mean that a tricolour refers to three quite different colours on the field (whether horizontal, vertical or diagonal), while a triband refers to a field with only two colours arranged so that two bars of the same colour is separated by a bar consisting of a second colour. There can therefore be no comparison at all between tricolour and triband. The word triband after all means three bands (bars/stripes), while tricolour means three colours. I would also say that, although Smith does not mention vertical and diagonal arrangements in the triband definition, that the same should apply for the triband as for the tricolour in this respect. Thus Nigeria and Austria are also both tribands (as is the case for several others, with the width of the bars not being of consequence).
Andries Burgers, 22 June 2005

There is no consensus, and that is why we are having this discussion. However, I believe (from what I've seen being used for the last 8 years in this list) that there's a majority opinion against the use of Smith's definitions as they are. At the very least, Smith's definitions need urgent adaptations to be adequate to widespread vexillological use, and there are those of us who would defend that they should be simply forgotten and replaced by new, better ones. I am basically in agreement with Željko's points. We need to go down to the root of the words' meanings if we are to avoid endless and pointless misunderstandings and discussions, so taking as a base for the discussion that a tricolour is a flag with three colours and a triband is a flag with three bands seems to be an excellent idea.
Jorge Candeias, 22 June 2005

Smith's "definitions" from Flags Through the Ages and Across the World [smi75c] are not meant to be definitions of an automatic system - they are rather explanations for the laymen. Smith explains that tricolours are of three colours arranged vertically, horizontally or diagonally, but by no means does he intend (I believe) to say that these are the only possible arrangements.

I believe that if one would take all of the Smith's "definitions" under a magnifying glass, one could find for most of them exceptions and cases where they do not really "hold the water". That is they were never indented to be dogmatic, but rather illustrative.
Željko Heimer, 22 June 2005

I entirely agree with Željko's comments on the above. As a vexillologist I shall continue to refer to any flag of three stripes and three colours (whether disposed vertically, horizontally, diagonally or as in Madagascar/Benin) as tricolours - and any flag of three stripes and two colours as a triband. I believe that it is absolutely necessary that we should draw this distinction, and equally necessary that we do not attempt to confuse the issue with pedantic references to flags which undoubtedly have only three colours but which do not dispose those colours in stripes and have other salient design features.

By these rules the flag of Benin is a tricolour with one vertical stripe at the hoist and two horizontal at the fly, whilst the flags of (as examples) the Czech Republic might well be described as a white over red horizontal bi-colour with a blue triangle at the hoist, and the flag Norway as a blue Scandinavian Cross, fimbriated white on a red field.
Christopher Southworth, 22 June 2005

Actually, there is a serious problem: treats descriptions as if they are set in stone and the only possible descriptions for a given arrangement of the flag's elements. They are usually not. It's just as correct to describe Benin as a tricolour with one vertical stripe at the hoist and two horizontal at the fly, as it is to describe it as a horizontal bicolour with an added vertical stripe at the hoist. And the same kind of possible alternatives is true in a very large number of other situations.

What this means is that all we can do is to ascribe precise (and preferably unambiguous) meanings to our terminology, not to try to describe univocally the flags with that terminology.
Jorge Candeias, 23 June 2005

There is a vague consensus on the question of what exactly a tricolour or a triband is: a tricolour contains three colours in any design; and a triband consists of three bands/bars/stripes (whether vertical, horizontal or diagonal) generally of only two colours where one separates two bars of the other.

There also appears to be a consensus that at least some of Dr Whitney Smith's definitions as given in 'Flags across the World and across the Ages' [smi75b] are inadequate and should be updated.

If these conclusions are anywhere near correct, it would appear that it is past time to do something about the matter. We claim that vexillology is a science. Can a science exist without defined parameters, including definitions for its primary terminology which is mutually and internationally understood and accepted? Can meaningful discussions even be held if the participants do not know the precise meanings of the terminology in use?

During the discussion it was said that we should not be too dogmatic or pedantic about vex terminology. This is arguable - how can heraldry exist without a dogmatic adherence to precisely defined terms? Are vexillology and heraldry not sister sciences, and does the same dogma not apply in many instances - the Rule of Tincture for instance, even though it is honoured more often in the breach than the observance? Obviously, definitions often have exceptions to the rule, and in vexillology more often than not, but these, when they occur, can be stated if needed for further clarification of the primary definition. If exceptions are not stated, the definition is of course applicable as defined.
Andries Burgers, 28 June 2005