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Defining a flag

Last modified: 2006-09-23 by phil nelson
Keywords: flag: defining |
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Editor's Note: Vexillology is a study of flags. However, the meaning of a flag may differ according to the person who is seeing the flag. The discussion below is about defining flags for study.


It is astonishing that after some 40 years of organised vexillology, we still cannot agree on a definition for a flag. In Flags Through the Ages and Across the World, Whitney Smith originally defined a flag as:

A graphic and plastic medium of social communication, usually but not necessarily political in nature.

He must have felt this to be unsatisfactory, because in Flag Bulletin #185 (1999), he proposed the following definition for debate:

A flag is the intentional combination of colors and shapes in a symbol, usually manifested on a piece of cloth or other flexible material, created to serve as a political or social communication between the user or users and one or more other individuals.

To my knowledge no debate ensued - not in the Bulletin at any rate.

The second definition seemed a bit too academic for a practical sailor type and for my own use, I have devised the following definition with a deep bow in Whitney's direction:

"The word flag refers to any identifying symbol made of a plastic material such as bunting or any other similar cloth, of any formal geometric shape and of which the field consists of a colour or combination of colours in a fixed pattern, with or without additional designs on the field."

For me, if I may use an Americanism, it covers all the bases.

A flag, however it is defined, can be hoisted, hung over a balcony, framed, used as an altar cloth, or a coffin shroud, or draped over a podium, or displayed hanging from a cross bar or against a wall, etc, etc. The method of display has no relevance to its intrinsic existence as a flag. While the design of the flag is a permanent feature, the method of display is adapted to circumstance.

A flag is primarily a method or symbol of identification. All other uses are additional to this basic purpose. Flags, particularly national flags, are prone to becoming the objects of veneration, love, hate, pride and every other relevant human emotion. Meanings can also be arbitrarily assigned to flags, which have nothing to do with its design, or however it is defined. These emotions and meanings are the baggage flags tend to pick up during their active existence and is once again irrelevant to the basic definition of what a flag actually is. We have seen the same kind of pride, veneration and meaning attached to the Eagles of the Roman legions and they can at best be defined as vexilloids.

Whitney Smith laid stress on a flag as a means of social communication and so it is, but this is subordinate to its function as a symbol of identification, whether that be for a country, a province, a state, a municipality, a civil or commercial organisation, or a private individual.

Exceptions prove the rule. Advertising banners fall outside my definition of a flag as there is no element of identification in them. They simply tell you where you can get a coke or a Big Mac. Signal flags on the other hand, meet most of the criteria for a flag, but they are functional in nature in that they are used singly or in combination to convey information and have no identification or social communication role.
Andre Burgers, 28-29 August 2003


If two objects are structurally the same and convey the same message, they, for all practical purposes, "are" the same. If two pieces of cloth are designed to be flown, for instance incorporating a sleeve, or holes to put a rope through, they are structurally identical. If these two pieces have different patterns but convey the meaning of "K", they do convey the same message. So they are the same for all practical purposes, except when legislation or tradition requires to use one instead of the other. This means that it is wrong to call them different things. If one is a flag, the other is a flag too.

Even further: a plain green piece of cloth is even less meaningful, in abstract, than a piece of cloth with a letter in it. But... oops... there's Libya calling it it's national flag...

You can't decide what is and what isn't a flag that arbitrarily, or else you soon become entangled in a huge mess of exceptions and caveats.
Jorge Candeias, 29 August 2003


As other provided some definitions that include naming of types of flags, we should be aware that flag is a generic term that encompassed not only the "flags-in-the-strict-sense", but also pennants, banners, standards etc. even some weird things like wind-socks and so on. If banners are flags then of course a religious processional banner is a flag, too.

One should bear in mind, especially when dealing in a multilingual environment, that what the term flag encompasses is not the same in all languages. As someone pointed our recently, if I remember correctly the Portuguese speaker would never call a processional banner a flag. At the same time other languages (I think Italian might be good close example) would call the banners and gonfalons for flags without much hesitation. The English language makes distinction between the ensigns and the flags (even though an average English speaker might willingly accept that an ensign is a kind of a flag), while most other languages use one and the same term for the two items. I think we could name hundreds of similar examples.

Going back to the definition of a flag - we may try an other approach. The logic science provides other types of definitions, not only those we were discussing until now. The typical definition of a term uses a superordinated term and "distinctia specifica" - the characteristic that differs the term we want to define from other members of the superordinated set. However, problem with that type of definition is that it usually fails in defining the generic terms.

There are several other types of definitions but I wanted to point out one of them (I would have to check my old school books for others, but maybe someone else can try other approaches), namely the "enumeration" (if that is the appropriate English name). We may list all the objects we consider flags, and then everything else is not a flag. It may seem a futile task, but we may try with an approach like this:

    - Flags are those listed on FOTW or broader:
    - Flags are those objects listed on FOTW, those that would be listed on FOTW if time permits, except those objects
       listed at FOTW that are explicitly not considered flags there [this is to exclude coats of arms, roundels, etc., that we do list but
       do not consider flags] hoping that FOTW may be considered vexillologically relevant,
we may generalize
    - Flag are objects of vexillological study

But then the vexillologists are strange creatures and do study many things beside flags. I meant not only vexilloids, but let's concentrate on them for the moment - they are certainly objects of vexillological study and I believe that there are numbers of works on the ICV's that deal with vexilloids. Most people would agree that they are not flags even in the broadest sense, and yet they are of utter interest to us. Some of you may even remember the strange object designed by Gaudi presented in one paper at the Stockholm congress. In casual conversation after the presentation, I found out that most people agreed that they would never call it a flag even remotely. Other objects are studied by vexillologists and are not flags at all - streamers, finials, paintings showing flags, flag usage practices, regulations and documentations and so on in a long list. However, these all must somehow be connected with flags.
Željko Heimer, 29 August 2003


I would like to attempt a summation of the discussion thus far. The most obvious point that comes to the fore is that no consensus could be reached over a standard definition of what flags are. It was perhaps too much to ask and it is probably doubtful that we will soon, if ever, arrive at a generally acceptable standard definition for a flag. The field is simply too wide and there are too many variations on the basic theme of the coloured rag tied to a stick - which is probably still the most generally applicable primitive definition for a flag!

The list of definitions posted by Phil Nelson from the various dictionary and vexlit sources provides an interesting example of the existing variations on the theme. One might be tempted to ask whether vexillologists have had influence in devising any of the dictionary definitions? I would also add to this list the definition posted by Jarig Bakker for the Leermens (NL) flag competition (which would appear to be one of the few intelligently conducted local community flag competitions I have read about):

"A flag is a colourful, waving piece of cloth, which can be hoisted on a mast, or carried around on a stick, which is a recognizable sign and a coherent element for a group of people"

Perhaps not surprisingly, I consider my own as still the most suitable generic definition for a flag:

"A flag is any identifying symbol made of a plastic material such as bunting or any other similar cloth, of any formal geometric shape, and of which the field consists of a colour or combination of colours in a fixed and ordered pattern, with or without additional designs on the field."

The key phrases in this definition are "formal geometric shape" and "colours in a fixed and ordered pattern". These two aspects are governed by design rules dating back to the year tut. Any flag not subject to these two aspects should probably not be considered as a flag in the vexillological sense.

I initially limited this definition's application to identification type flags, but Jorge Candeias's eloquent argument about the identifying role of some commercial type flags, made me aware that one cannot draw the lines too rigidly when it comes to vexillology - there are always exceptions to the rule.

From the overall discussion one thing became clear - the field is chaotic. Everyone has his/her own opinion on the matter. There is no sign of academic dogmatism about the discipline (a good thing), but also no discernible order in our approach (not such a good thing) to classifying and studying the vast volumes of incoming information about flags. This inflow shows no sign of decreasing or reaching a peak. Stemming from my background of naval discipline (40 odd years of it), I have the instinctive urge to try and create some sort of order from this apparent chaos.

Without being dogmatic about it, I would therefore propose that flags can be fruitfully divided into the two broad categories of 'Regulated' and 'Unregulated' flags.

"Regulated" flags are the category of which the designs are subject to the rules of heraldry and vexillology. In this category would be included sovereign flags (national to local government), military flags (regimental colours, pennons, ensigns, rank flags etc), organisational flags (inter-statal, commercial, non-governmental, religious, civil, sport) etc, etc. All these would be flags primarily serving as symbols of identification no matter what other roles or meanings may be assigned to them. They can be studied using the scientific method as proposed by Peter Orenski in Quo Vadimus? To them are also applied the design criteria proposed by Ted Kaye in Good Flag, Bad Flag. It is to this group that the science of vexillology would mainly apply.

The "Regulated" category can of course be further divided into a great many different subcategories, and each subcategory could be separately defined. The problem of language will, however, complicate finding generally applicable definitions, as was pointed out by Zjelko Heimer. The word flag and its variants in English might be rendered quite differently in other languages and vice versa.

This group would also include the subcategory of "functional" flags of which the designs may or may not be entirely subject to the vex design rules. By the word "functional" is meant a flag or combination of flags which are used for a specific purpose such as signaling. This subcategory includes signal code flags, and any other type of functional flag laid down by national legislation. Flags ZULU and ECHO of the International Signal Code for instance, do not comply with the Rule of Tincture, while there are nationally legislated functional flags with letters or words on the field.

"Unregulated" flags are that multitude of flags subject to no design rules at all and of which the variety is potentially infinite. This category includes the commercial advertising banners we see everywhere. I would also include here the majority of special demonstration flags (created for the occasion), whether for religious demonstrations of protest marches for any other reason. Although there are no doubt exceptions, they usually carry contemporary messages, rarely serve as identification symbols and would seldom have permanence in the way flags in the "Regulated" group have. Although I do not entirely rule them out of consideration, it would probably be an impossible task to apply any scientific vexillological study or classification to this "Unregulated" category - except perhaps as a sociological phenomenon. It would certainly be a space wasting effort to try and include them on FOTW.

Adopting this Regulated/Unregulated approach and terminology might help in reducing the confusion and chaos just slightly. (Although I might now have introduced another rich field of argument about which flags should be included into which category!).
Andre Burgers, 2 September 2003