The Flags of the World FAQ
(American English language version)
last updated 24 April 1998
written and compiled by Steve Kramer [email@example.com]
The following document is an attempt to answer the most common questions a layman might have about the field of vexillology, the academic study of flags. There's no attempt to provide a scrupulously complete answer to every question one might have, but instead give the reader a simple answer to a simple question, as well as provide some background information from which to research further. As such, reading the entire document through should provide an introduction to the field.
The source for all of this information is the Flags of the World Internet mailing list, an ongoing discussion by an international group of vexillologists and vexillophiles using the medium of the Internet. Some members gained the information through books or similar sources; others learned through direct observation or their own research. As such, it is hard to pin exact bibliographical sources on many of the answers. A polite request for sources to the List, at firstname.lastname@example.org, will usually get you something more definitive for use in serious research.
The first and second section deal with the terminology and abbreviations used in the discussion of vexillology; thus, it can be referred to at any time you find it hard to understand a particular bit of jargon. The third section deals with a special topic: "families" of flags, created by one flag designs influence on another. If your question is of the variety, "Why are these two flags so much alike?", this section may provide your answer. The final section answers specific questions about flags, flag protocol, and vexillology, with sub-sections that deal in depth with the flags that draw the most questions: the Stars & Stripes of the U.S., and the Union Jack of the United Kingdom.
I. TERMINOLOGY Here is a glossary of words commonly used in vexillology. In addition to these, the terms of heraldry are often used in the description of flags. A few heraldic terms which are most commonly used in or have a specialized meaning in vexillology are listed, but for terms such as achievement, bend, blazon, coat of arms, dexter, gyronny, lozenge, motto, mullet, pale, roundel, sinister, supporter, and so forth, it is recommended that the reader consult a reference on heraldry.
badge See charge.
banner. 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.
bicolor. 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).
bordering. A mostly obsolete practice of edging a flag in a different color than the field, either for decorative purposes or to prevent fraying.
bunting. Decorative fabric, usually hung horizontally or between two anchor points. Often used when flag usage would be inappropriate.
burgee. The flag of a boating club, usually in the shape of a tapered
Canadian pale. A pale in the shape of a square, as used on the Canadian flag.
canton. The upper hoist corner of a flag, separate from the field. In U.S. or British Commonwealth flags, this is also called the union.
charge. 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 version of the national flag for use by a country's private citizens.
color. 1. In heraldry, any hue which is not a metal. (See metal.)
2. A general name for a flag when used in the military. Examples include National Color, Queen's Colour, regimental color, positional color, etc.
commission pennant. A pennant, sometimes very long, flown from the main mast of a naval vessel, used to indicate commissioned status in the national service.
defacing. 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.
differencing. 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.
dipping. A method of saluting with a flag. 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. Using a flag on a mast or pole, the flag is lowered a few widths and again raised smartly back to its original position.
ensign. A flag for use by ships at sea. Nations may have civil, state, and war ensigns.
field. A background or predominant color.
fimbriation. A thin stripe placed around a field or charge of a (usually) contrasting color. Fimbriation is often used to make the charge stand out more, or to avoid violating the rules of heraldry.
finial. The ornament on the end of a flagstaff or flagpole.
fly. The edge or end of a flag furthest away from the pole.
guidon. 1. In the U.S. military, a small swallowtailed flag used by formations below the battalion level (company, battery, troop, platoon, detachment).
2. Any small swallowtail.
halyard. A rope used to raise a flag.
header. A heavy cloth strip, usually canvas, sewn to the hoist edge of a flag and often grommeted for hoisting.
heraldic banner. See banner.
hoist. The edge or end of a flag nearest the pole. Commonly shown on the viewer's left, except in the case of some Arab flags.
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. Not defined for all flags.
house flag. A corporate or personal flag; a flag which does not signify nationality or citizenship.
individual flag. In U.S. military usage, a flag denoting an officer's rank.
jack. A small flag designating nationality, flown from the bow of a naval vessel while in port.
length. The maximum length of a flag, measured straight from hoist to fly.
metal. In heraldry, the colors yellow (or) and white (argent). The rules of heraldry forbid placing color on color, or metal on metal.
pennant (pennon). Any triangular or roughly triangular flag.
persoflag. Personal flag; the flag of an individual. A term specific to the list, coined by Philippe Bondurand of France.
proportion. See ratio.
ratio. The relationship of a flag's width to its length, e.g. France is 2:3; Germany is 3:5, Russia is 1:2.
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.
saltire. See Saint Andrew's Cross.
Scandinavian cross. A Saint George's Cross off-centered towards the hoist, as seen in Scandinavian and Nordic flags.
standard. 1. In the U.K. and other monarchies, a flag used by a member of the Royal Household.
2. In the U.S. military, an obsolete term for the regimental flag used by cavalry regiments.
state flag. The version of the national flag for use by a country's government. (Note: The U.S., Mexico, Australia, and some other countries have sub-national units called "states". This usage is separate from the flags of those states.)
streamer. A long, narrow flag.
swallowtail. A flag which comes to two or three points at the fly end.
trailing. 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.
triband. A flag of three stripes, usually equal in size, arranged either horizontally (such as the Netherlands or Lithuania) or vertically (such as France, Peru, or Belgium).
tricolor. A triband of three different colors. Many tribands are more properly termed tricolors. The flag of France is often called "Le Tricolore".
truck. A plate at the top of a mast or pole, often with sheaves mounted in it for flag halyards.
union. See canton.
vexilloid. A rigid sign carried on a pole, especially those used by ancient Roman legions as unit identifiers; the forerunners of modern flags.
vexillogram. A picture or design specification of a flag.
vexillographer. One who designs flags.
vexillology. The academic study of flags. The word was coined by Dr. Whitney Smith of the Flag Research Center.
vexillophile. A flag collector or flag enthusiast.
war flag. The version of the national flag for use by a country's armed forces.
wearing. A synonym for "flying", when applied to the ensign of a ship at sea.
width. The *height* of a flag along the hoist, just to be confusing...
A. The Flag Information Code
The Flag Information Code, a convention for the shorthand description of flags, has been recommended by FIAV. 1. COLORS
Ag = Silver Au = Gold B = Blue
G = Gray M = Brown N = Black
O = Orange P = Purple R = Red
V = Green W = White Y = Yellow
2. COLOR SHADES
- = light
-- = very light
+ = dark
++ = very dark
(e.g., V++ = very dark green).
The ratio of a flag is given as width:length (e.g., 3:5).
Approximate ratios are indicated by +/- (e.g., +/- 3:5). Some list members will also use a code to indicate the usage of a national flag. There are six possible uses for a national flag: civil flag, state flag, war flag, civil ensign, state ensign, and war ensign. These are indicated by a six-letter code, flags before the slash, ensigns after:
CSW/CSW, or ***/***
Thus, the U.S. flag, which is used in all cases, would be coded as above. A flag which is only for use on land would be coded as follows:
CSW/---, or ***/---
and a flag which is only used as the national ensign by warships would be:
---/--W, or ---/--*
B. Other Abbreviations Commonly Used on the List
AFAIK/AFAICT. As far as I know/as far as I can tell.
BOA. Banner of the arms.
BSF. "Building Site Flag" or "Bedsheet Flag". A somewhat disparaging term used to describe a flag design consisting of a single color flag (usually blue or white) charged with a corporate logo or a coat of arms in the center. Besides being unimaginative, such designs tend to defeat their own purpose by being hard to read or discern at a distance (it's difficult to pick out certain specific U.S. states in a display of all fifty states' flags, for example, because so many are blue with a COA in the center). The term was coined by the late Dr. William Crampton, who likened such flags to those seen outside of housing developments under construction; "bedsheet flag" was coined on list, as Dr. Crampton's term doesn't translate well from English.
For the term building site flag or bed sheet flag, it might amuse people to know
that in the 1970's and 1980's when many California cities and Native American
Indian tribes were adopting flags, the art and screen printing departments at
the Paramount Flag Co. referred to any with a white background and centered seal
as CCD flag, which stood for Cop Car Door flag. This of course derived from a
common design for American police cars, namely black with white doors and roof. Jim Ferrigan, 26 November 2002
COA; CoA. Coat of arms.
FIAV. Fédération internationale des associations vexillologiques (The International Federation of Vexillological Associations), the pre-eminent international authority on flags.
IIRC/IIUC. If I recall correctly / If I understand correctly.
IMHO. In my humble opinion
ISTR. I seem to recall
LOB. Logo-on-a-bedsheet or Location of Business flag: an unimaginative
flag consisting of a seal or trademark on a plain, usually white, field.
However, a large number of US state flags are LOBs, "Logo on Blue." Generally, a
dismissive put-down, since the seals or coats of arms are so detailed that from
a distance they all look alike.