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Glossary of Flag Terms

Last modified: 2006-03-04 by phil nelson
Keywords: vexillology | terminology | flag terms | glossary |
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Vexillological Terminology

image by Zeljko Heimer, 21 May 1996
based on image from World Book Encyclopedia

Below is a  table partly from World Book Encyclopedia, Vol. F, Flag, p. 193, written by W. Smith, named Flag terms, augmented by contributions from numerous members of the Flags of the World mailing list.

- see charge

1. A flag-like cloth draped or stretched between two anchor points, usually bearing a slogan.
2. A flag with heraldic arms placed on it overall (in other words, not in a small shield shape). Often called a heraldic banner. The U.S. state of Maryland is an example.
3. Poetically, any flag carried by a military force.

(obsolete) a small flag (usually square) which displayed a single quartering from a deceased's coat of arms for use at funerals. Christopher Southworth

Battalion ring
a band of metal around the staff of a military colour and mounted below the flag itself.
Christopher Southworth, 27 January 2006
In the Imperial German Army, one ring bore the battalion and regiment designation; others were added to commemorate a colour bearer who was killed in action.
Ian Sumner, 27 January 2006
In addition, bands with battle honors engraved on them were placed in chronological order below the unit designation band on the regimental color. The Army abandoned the battle honor bands when streamers were introduced following World War I. The last use of silver bands in the US Army was abolished in late 2004, and they were replaced with streamers.
Joe McMillan, 27 January 2006
Battle flag
is carried by armed forces on land.

Battle streamer,
attached to the flag of a military unit, names battles or campaigns where the unit served with distinction.

Bend on
means to attach signal flag to a halyard.

a flag of two colors, usually in equal fields. Bicolors are generally horizontal (such as Ukraine or San Marino) or vertical (such as Malta or the Vatican). The colors are listed top or hoist first (e.g., blue-yellow, for Ukraine).
[Ukraine]   [Malta]

a mostly obsolete practice of edging a flag in a different color than the field, either for decorative purposes or to prevent fraying.

a British measurement for flags, is 9" (23 cm) wide. A four breath-flag is 36" (91 cm) wide. The term originated when flag cloth was made in 9" strips.

A flag is "broken" when it is hoisted wrapped in a bundle, then broken open to fly free when it is already at the top of the mast or pole. The bundle is made by folding or rolling the flag tightly, then wrapping it with a thin string tied to the lower halyard. When the halyard is tugged sharply, the string breaks allowing the flag to fly. Joe McMillan

Broad Pennant
a Broad Pennant is carried by a ship bearing an officer with the rank of commodore and replaces the masthead pennant when flown, whereas a unit command pennant (in its various forms) does not and is flown subordinate to it.
Christopher Southworth, 24 January 2006

is cloth decorated with the national colors. The term is also used for the woolen cloth used in making flags.

1. a tapered flag or pennant, often used by a sailing club, that ends in a swallowtail of two points.
2. a mark of personal rank or command, it is a pennant that tapers down on the upper and lower edges and has a shallow swallowtail.
Joseph McMillan, 23 January 2006
3. a shortened pennon. It is sometimes called a cornet.
David Prothero, 24 January 2006
citing Hulme in Flags of the World [hul95a]
Canadian pale
a pale in the shape of a square, as used on the Canadian flag.

is the upper corner of a flag next to the staff where a special design, such as a union, appears.

- an emblem, object, device, or design superimposed on the field(s) of a flag. A coat of arms or simple heraldic device used as a charge is sometimes called a badge.

Civil Flag
The official (or unofficial) flag of the country used by the people, as opposed to the state flag reserved for the government or the military. A civil ensign is a flag used at sea by private (or any non-government) ships - Nathan Augustine, 1996-09-27.
Peru civil flag

1. in heraldry, any hue which is not a metal.
2. a flag carried by a military unit as a unit or national identification. Military forces of English-speaking countries often carry a pair of colors, one national or royal and the other of the unit itself. As distinguished from a standard, a color is used by foot units.
  • French - drapeau
  • Spanish - bandera (de regimiento)
  • German - Fahne or Truppenfahne
  • Italian - bandiera
  • Russian - znamya
  • Danish - fane
  • Dutch - vaandel (Netherlands), vlag (Belgium)
  • Swedish - segerfanan
  • Romanian - drapelul de lupta

Commission Pennant (also known as Masthead Pennant, Commissioning Pennant).
a very long and narrow pennant flown from the main mast of a naval vessel, used to indicate the public character of a ship, also called a commissioning pennant, masthead pennant, narrow pennant, coach whip pennant.
  • French - flamme de guerre
  • Spanish - gallardete
  • Russian - vympel
  • Portuguese - flãmula

somewhat similar to a cavalry guidon or standard, i.e. a small perhaps swallow-tailed flag. "Cornet" was an 18th-century junior cavalry officer's rank, e.g. in the Russian Army; the cornet bore the regimental standard. In like manner, the infantry rank of "ensign" applied to the junior officer who carried the regimental colors. Tom Gregg, 6 August 1997
a) a term prevalent in the 17-18thC for small swallow-tailed flags; b) alternative to GUIDON as a term for the standard of a cavalry regiment; c) Cavalry officer responsible for the standard - from a report entitled "The Dictionary of Flag Terminology", by William Crampton, Convenor; David Lister; Louis Loynes; and Miss P.M. Moyce, submitted to the Flag Section of the Heraldry Society of Great Britain (later to become the Flag Institute).

Courtesy flag
is the national flag of the country a merchant ship or yacht visits, hoisted as the ship enters port.

Cross barby
A cross terminating in arrowpoints.

differencing a flag by adding something to it, such as a charge, a badge, or writing. Used especially on colonial flags. Note that this term does not have the usual meaning of "vandalizing" when used in vexillology.

is an emblem or design, usually on the fly.

the design of a flag as a variation of another flag, either by changing a color, adding or removing a charge, etc. Usually done to indicate a close cultural, historical, or geographic tie. For example, the flag of Italy was differenced from that of France by changing the blue stripe to green.

a method of saluting using a hand-held flag. The flagstaff is brought down to an almost horizontal level, with the flag almost trailing the ground, then raised smartly back to its original position. Most only see this on one occasion: the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games.

a flag flown at the stern of a ship, primarily for the identification of the nationality of the vessel. The ensign may be the same flag used as the national flag, or a specially designed version of the national flag. Nations may have one ensign or several different ensigns which may be used by various types of vessels (naval/war, state/government, civil/merchant) as well as specially designed flags for various organizations (yacht clubs, customs vessels, coastal authorities, etc.), or indicating a status of a ship's captain or crew (naval reserve). In some countries, the term ensign includes flags not intended to be hoisted on vessels.
  • French - pavillon
  • Spanish - pabellón, enseña
  • German - flagge
  • Russian - flag, kormovoi flag
  • Italian - bandiera
  • Dutch - natievlag
  • Polish - bandera
  • Danish - flag
  • Portuguese - pavilhão

Ensign staff
is the staff at the stern of a ship.

is the background (predominant color) of a flag.

is a narrow line separating two other colors in a flag.

the ornament on the end of a flagstaff or flagpole.

A piece of cloth, varying in size, shape, color, and design, usually attached at one edge to a staff or cord, and used as the symbol of a nation, state, or organization, as a means of signaling, etc.; ensign; standard; banner; pennant. - from

Flag hoist
is a group of signal flags attached to the same halyard and hoisted as a unit.

is the free end of a flag, farthest from the staff. The term is also used for the horizontal length of the flag.

Garrison flag,
in the United States Army, flies over military posts on holidays and special days. A garrison flag is 20 feet (6 m) wide by 38 feet (12 m) long, twice as wide and long as a post flag.

is a metal ring place along the hoist of a flag to attach the halyard.
Two piece metal grommets were first used in the US about the time of the Civil War or just after. They were usually steel until the late 19th century, when brass began to be used. Except for World War II, brass became common after about 1910. Three piece metal grommets were used between about 1880 and 1920, although never common and usually made of steel.

is the background of a flag.

1. In the U.S. military, a small swallowtail flag used by formations below the battalion level (company, battery, troop, platoon, detachment). It is a small flag carried at the front or right of a military unit to guide marchers.
2. Any small swallowtail.

The heraldic way of solving this is applying the usual rules of pre-eminence to partitions, successively. In a quartered banner-of-arms, for instance, the dexter chief (i.e.. top hoist) quarter would be described first.
  • In a gyronny of eight banner-of-arms, one should
    • (a) take only the top hoist quarter
    • (b) consider it is divided "per bend" and hence describe first the top (chief) triangle.
  • If it were a gyronny of sixteen, on top of the "bend" would be two triangles, so the one dexter (i.e.. to the hoist) would go first.
  • If the gyronny is such that one of the gyrons fits the top hoist corner, that one goes first.
In practice, the first gyron is the one which occupies the area immediately to the right of the top hoist corner -- whether such gyron starts there or occupies also the contiguous area below the top hoist corner.

is a rope used to hoist and lower a flag.

a heavy cloth strip, usually canvas, sewn to the hoist edge of a flag and often with grommets for hoisting.

Heraldic Banner
see banner.

is the part of the flag closest to the staff. The term is also used for the vertical width of a flag.

Honor Point
the place on a flag where the color or charge with the greatest or highest symbolism is placed -- almost always the upper left.

House flag
a corporate or personal flag; a flag which does not signify nationality or citizenship. Often flown by a merchant ship to identify the company that owns it.

Individual Flag
in military usage, a flag denoting an officer's rank.
  • Rank Flag
  • Positional flag

a flag hoisted at the bow of a ship. In navies this is, as a rule, a flag identifying nationality, but not necessarily in the same design as the ensign, while on non-naval vessels, the jack may have other meanings, or be decorative.
  • French - pavillon de beaupré
  • German - gösh
  • Spanish - torrotito, bandera de tajamar
  • Russian - gyuis
  • Dutch - gues
  • Polish - proporzec
  • Portuguese - jaco, jaque

Note: The Oxford English Dictionary records the first written use of "jack" for the naval flag in 1633, in a manuscript of instructions that is equivalent to the Bluejackets' Manual.
Bill Dunning, 18 June 2005

Jack staff
is the staff at the bow of a ship.

the maximum length of a flag, measured straight from hoist to fly.

Merchant flag
is a flag flown by a merchant ship.

in heraldry, the colors yellow (or) and white (argent). The rules of heraldry forbid placing color on color, or metal on metal.

National flag
is a flag of a country.

Outrigger pole
A flag pole coming off the side of a building at an angle.
John Niggley, 21 November 2000

Synonymous with pennant.

Paying off pennant
Since before the Napoleonic wars it has been the custom for HM ships to fly a paying-off pennant at the main truck when they leave their fleet to return to their home port to pay-off. Custom ordains that the length of the pennant should equal the length of the ship if she leaves her station at the end of a normal period of foreign service. If however a commission has been extended, the length of the pennant is increased in proportion to the extra length of service (e.g. ship 480 feet in length that had it's 2 year commission extended to 2 years and 2 months would have a pennant 520 feet long). It is similar to, and flown in place of, the masthead pennant, and is displayed by a ship from a foreign station when entering or leaving harbors during her passage home, and by a ship of the Home Fleet on leaving for and arriving at her home port." Admiralty Seamanship Manual 1951. A hydrogen balloon was sometimes attached to the end of the pennant to keep it flying.
David Prothero, 25 June 1997

Pennant (pennon)
is a small triangular or tapering flag. It is not always easy to distinguish a pennant from a flag. W. Smith stated that "the common denominator distinguishing a pennant from a flag seems to be that the former is always secondary to the latter in importance and differs in shape, proportions, size, and/or manner of display". In naval terms certain pennants have a significance out of all proportion to their size. For example, for the Russian-American Company flag a ship flying the flag was a merchant ship but a ship flying the same flag and a pennant was a warship.
David Prothero, 25 June 1997
most non-rectangular flags of whatever shape in English-speaking countries. The caveat is necessary because the naval ensigns of a number of northern European countries are not rectangular.
Joseph McMillan, 23 January 2006

Pilot flag
is flown from a ship that wants the aid of a pilot when entering port. Before the International Code of Signals was established many maritime countries adopted the practice of using their national (not merchant) flag with a white border as a signal meaning "I require a pilot". I don't know where the practice originated, but Britain adopted a white-bordered Union Jack, called the "Pilot Jack", for this purpose in 1822 (Carr, 1961 p51). Today the International Code of Signals "G" flag (six vertical stripes of three yellow and three blue alternating). Ships under pilotage fly "H" (white and red vertically).
Roy Stilling, 27 October 1996
  • German: Lotsensignal

Port-epee, or dress knot
a knot of rope attached to the sword. National colors may be displayed from the Port-epee.

Positional flag
see Individual flag

Post flag,
in U.S. Army, flies regularly over every Army base. It is 10 feet (3 m) wide by 19 feet (5.8 m) long.

the relationship of a flag's width to its length, e.g. France is 2:3; Germany is 3:5, Russia is 1:2.

Rank flag
see Individual flag

means to pull the halyard through the truck, raising or lowering a flag.

an aircraft marking, often round in shape.
  • French - cocarde (cockade)

Saint Andrew's Cross
a cross from corner to corner of the flag, forming an "X". Also called a saltire. Properly, the Saint Andrew's Cross is a white cross on blue, and as such is the civil flag of Scotland.

Saint George's Cross
a cross with arms vertical and horizontal, forming a "+", out to the edges of the flag. Properly, the Saint George's Cross is a red cross on white, and as such is the flag of England.

Scandinavian Cross
a Saint George's Cross, off-centered towards the hoist, as seen in Scandinavian and Nordic flags.

Signal Flags
A set of flags used to signify letters and numbers, hoisted to communicate between ships at sea.

is a pole a flag hangs on.

a flag around which people rally. Today, term usually refers to the personal flag of a ruler, such as the Royal Standard of a British monarch.
1) - an identifying flag, equivalent to a color, carried by mounted or similar units.
  • French - étendard
  • Spanish - estandarte
  • German - Standart
  • Russian - shtandart
  • Portuguese - estandarte
  • Italian - stendardo
  • Danish - estandart
  • Dutch - standaard (Netherlands), vaandel (Belgium)
2) a flag based on a heraldic shield
3) a flag representing a military unit;
4) the personal flag of a king, president or other high official
in the U.S. military, an obsolete term for the regimental flag used by cavalry regiments.

State flag
is the flag flown by the government of a country. Many state flags are the same as national flags but with the country's coat of arms added.
the official flag of the country used by the government; perhaps government flag would be clearer. As opposed to the flag used by the people or the military (see civil, war and national flag, below). A state ensign is a flag used at sea by government ships. Where they differ from civil flags, state flags often carry a coat of arms.
See Civil flag
in the U.S., Mexico, Australia, and some other countries which have sub-national units called "states", the state flag may also refer to them.

Storm flag,
in U.S. Army, flies over an Army base in stormy weather. It is 5 feet (1.5 m) wide by 9 feet 6 inches (2.9 m) long, half as wide and half as long as a post flag.

a long, narrow flag.

flag which comes to two or three points at the fly end.

an uncommon method of saluting using a flag on a pole. The flag is lowered until it just touches the ground for a few seconds, then raised smartly back up the pole. Practiced in some monarchies as a salute to a royal member.

see tricolor.

a flag of three stripes, usually equal in size, arranged either horizontally (such as the Netherlands or Lithuania)
or vertically (such as France, Italy, or Belgium).
Those arranged vertically are sometimes called tribands. Some similarly-arranged two-color designs (such as Canada and Peru) are also called tricolors.

is the wooden or metal block at the top of a flagpole below the finial (staff ornament). It includes a pulley or holes for halyard.

is a design that symbolizes unity. It may appear in the canton, as the stars do in the U.S. flag. Or it may be the entire flag, as in the Union Flag of the United Kingdom.
United States

a rigid sign carried on a pole, especially those used by ancient Roman legions as unit identifiers; the forerunners of modern flags.

is the study of flag history and symbolism. The name comes from the Latin word vexillum, which means flag. The word was coined by Dr. Whitney Smith of the Flag Research Center.

War ensign
a flag flown by a naval vessel. See Ensign

War Flag
The official flag of the country used by the military.

War Pennant
See Commission pennant.

British usage of the term ensign

To further confuse things, the British custom is often to refer to the civil ensign as the Merchant Naval ensign, and the White ensign as the Royal Naval ensign. This dates from times when Britain was still a powerful enough seafaring nation to have a governmental freight navy ("The Merchant Navy"). The term 'merchant navy' is still sometimes used to refer to British based trading vessels.
James Dignan, 30 September 1996

I believe merchant ships continue to wear the Red Ensign on such duty, unless, of course, they meet the conditions of having a captain a certain percentage of the officers holding commissions in the Royal Naval Reserve, in which case they would be entitled to wear the plain Blue Ensign instead. Though given the perilous state of our merchant fleet today I wonder if any merchantmen still qualify for that privilege..
Roy Stilling, 30 September 1996

The title 'Merchant Navy' was awarded by King George V in 1922 as an honorific in recognition of the work done by Britain's merchant fleet during the First World War. There is no blanket provision for the wartime requisition of British-registered flags. This is done by arrangement with individual companies or by legislation.
Edwin King, 17 March 1998

Another table from the same source gives Interesting facts about flags:

The first "flags" consisted of symbols attached to the tops of poles. Such flag like objects appear in Egyptian art of the mid-3000's B.C.

Cloth flags were probably first used in China about 3000 B.C. These flags were made of silk.

Knights in the Middle Ages carried pointed flags called pennons. A knight's promotion to a higher rank was symbolized by having the end of pennon cut off. The resulting square flag was called the banner, and the knight become a knight-banneret.

National flags are among the most recent kinds of flags. They first came into use during the 1700's in Europe and North America. Until then, most flags stood for the personal authority of rulers.

Flags at sea. Before the days of radio, a complicated system of flag design and display grew up around the need for communication at sea. Flag codes enabled the sending of messages between ships or from ship to shore. A ship would salute another vessel by dipping, or lowering, its flag. Such salutes played a major role in international diplomacy.

Flag colors. Most national flags use one or more of only seven basic colors. These colors are red, white, blue, green, yellow, black, and orange.

Flag symbols often reflect historical events. The cross that appears in many European flags originated in the flags carried by Crusaders to the Holy Land. Some flags used in Arab nations show the eagle of Saladin, a Muslim warrior who fought the Crusaders in the 1100's.

Burning is considered the most dignified way to destroy a flag that is no longer fit for display. But burning a usable flag often signifies political protest.

The following is from WorldWide Words newsletter:

3. Weird Words: Vexillology


The study of flags.

It may seem surprising that such an odd-looking word for an obscure field of study should have gained acceptance, but it's relatively common and is recorded in most recent dictionaries (they have to be fairly new, since the word was coined only in the 1950s). The word comes from the Latin 'vexillum' for a flag, which derives from the verb 'vehere', to carry (from which we get 'vehicle' as well). A related Latin term was 'vexillum', for a body of men grouped under one flag. This suggests that the original Latin referred to a flag that was carried rather than flown from a mast. Someone who studies flags is a 'vexillologist', and the adjective is the mildly tongue-twisting 'vexillological'. These two terms may be modern, but the Latin root turns up in a number of obscure terms, such as 'vexillator' for a banner-bearer in a mystery or miracle play. 'Vexillum' is also used in modern botany for the large external petal of a legume flower.

Edward Smith, 13 November 1999