Flag terminology
Flag terminology is a jargon
Jargon is terminology which is especially defined in relationship to a specific activity, profession, group, or event. The philosophe Condillac observed in 1782 that "Every science requires a special language because every science has its own ideas." As a rationalist member of the Enlightenment he...

 used in vexillology
Vexillology is the scholarly study of flags. The word is a synthesis of the Latin word vexillum, meaning 'flag', and the Greek suffix -logy, meaning 'study'. The vexillum was a particular type of flag used by Roman legions during the classical era; its name is a diminutive form of the word velum...

, the study of flag
A flag is a piece of fabric with a distinctive design that is usually rectangular and used as a symbol, as a signaling device, or decoration. The term flag is also used to refer to the graphic design employed by a flag, or to its depiction in another medium.The first flags were used to assist...

s, to describe precisely the parts, patterns, and other attributes of flags and their display.

Description of standard flag parts and terms

Badge: a coat of arms
Heraldry is the profession, study, or art of creating, granting, and blazoning arms and ruling on questions of rank or protocol, as exercised by an officer of arms. Heraldry comes from Anglo-Norman herald, from the Germanic compound harja-waldaz, "army commander"...

 or simple heraldic symbol, such as a shield.
Canton: any quarter of a flag, but commonly means the upper hoist (left) quarter, such as the field of stars in the flag of the United States
Flag of the United States
The national flag of the United States of America consists of thirteen equal horizontal stripes of red alternating with white, with a blue rectangle in the canton bearing fifty small, white, five-pointed stars arranged in nine offset horizontal rows of six stars alternating with rows...

 or the Union Flag
Union Flag
The Union Flag, also known as the Union Jack, is the flag of the United Kingdom. It retains an official or semi-official status in some Commonwealth Realms; for example, it is known as the Royal Union Flag in Canada. It is also used as an official flag in some of the smaller British overseas...

 in the Australian Flag
Flag of Australia
The flag of Australia is a defaced Blue Ensign: a blue field with the Union Flag in the canton , and a large white seven-pointed star known as the Commonwealth Star in the lower hoist quarter...

Charge: a figure or symbol appearing in the field of a flag.
Emblem: a device often used as a charge on a flag. It may be heraldic in origin or modern, for example the maple leaf on the Canadian Flag
Flag of Canada
The national flag of Canada, also known as the Maple Leaf, and , is a red flag with a white square in its centre, featuring a stylized 11-pointed red maple leaf. Its adoption in 1965 marked the first time a national flag had been officially adopted in Canada to replace the Union Flag...

Field: the background of a flag; the color behind the charges.
Fimbriation: a narrow edging or border, often in white or gold, on a flag to separate two other colors. For example the white lines of the South African Flag
Flag of South Africa
The current flag of the Republic of South Africa was adopted on 27 April 1994, at the beginning of the 1994 general election, to replace the flag that had been used since 1928...

Fly: the half or edge of a flag farthest away from the flagpole. This term also sometimes refers to the horizontal length of a flag.
Hoist: the half or edge of a flag nearest to the flagpole. This term also sometimes refers to the vertical width of a flag.
Length: the span of a flag along the side at right angles to the flagpole.
Width: the span of a flag down the side parallel to the flagpole.

Techniques in flag display

  • Hoist – the act or function of raising a flag, as on a rope.
  • Lower – the act or function of taking down a flag, as on a rope.
  • Half Staff or Half Mast – a style of flag display where the flag is flown at the width of the flag from the top. Usually this is done by first hoisting the flag to the top, then lowering it the width of the flag. Similarly, when lowering a half-mast flag, you raise it to full height and then lower it.(Equally valid 'half-masting' is flying the flag at two-thirds of its normal height. This is especially applicable where the full height of the pole is not visible to most observers; for instance, where the pole is mounted on the roof of a building and the lower portion of the pole is not visible from street level.) This usually denotes distress or a show of grief, such as mourning a death. The use of 'mast' suggests naval use but typically the two terms are interchangeable.
  • Distress – flying the flag upside-down, or tying it into a wheft.


Flag illustration
An illustration is a displayed visualization form presented as a drawing, painting, photograph or other work of art that is created to elucidate or dictate sensual information by providing a visual representation graphically.- Early history :The earliest forms of illustration were prehistoric...

s generally depict flags flying from the observer's point of view from left to right, the view known as the obverse (or "front"); the other side is the reverse
Obverse and reverse
Obverse and its opposite, reverse, refer to the two flat faces of coins and some other two-sided objects, including paper money, flags , seals, medals, drawings, old master prints and other works of art, and printed fabrics. In this usage, obverse means the front face of the object and reverse...

(or "back"). There are some exceptions, notably some Islamic flags
Islamic Flags
An Islamic flag is a flag that complies with Islamic rules. Traditionally Islamic flags were of solid colour. The most favoured colours were black, white, red and green. However, other plain colours can be adopted. A bi-colour or tricolour flag can also be adopted as an Islamic flag...

 inscribed in Arabic, for which the obverse is defined as the side with the hoist to the observer's right.

Vexillological symbols

A vexillological symbol is used by vexillologists
Vexillology is the scholarly study of flags. The word is a synthesis of the Latin word vexillum, meaning 'flag', and the Greek suffix -logy, meaning 'study'. The vexillum was a particular type of flag used by Roman legions during the classical era; its name is a diminutive form of the word velum...

 to indicate certain characteristics of national flag
National flag
A national flag is a flag that symbolizes a country. The flag is flown by the government, but usually can also be flown by citizens of the country.Both public and private buildings such as schools and courthouses may fly the national flag...

s, such as where they are used, who uses them, and what they look like. The set of symbols described in this article are known as international flag identification symbols, which were devised by Whitney Smith
Whitney Smith
Whitney Smith is a professional vexillologist, i.e., scholar of flags. The term vexillology, which he coined in his 1958 article Flags of the Arab World, refers to the scholarly analysis of all aspects of flags. In 1961, Smith and colleague Gerhard Grahl cofounded The Flag Bulletin, the world's...


National flag variants by use

Some countries use a single flag design to serve as the national flag in all contexts of use; others use multiple flags that serve as the national flag, depending on context (who is flying the national flag and where). The six basic contexts of use (and potential variants of a national flag) are:
civil flag – Flown by citizens on land.
state flag – Flown on public buildings.
war flag – Flown on military buildings.
civil ensign – Flown on private vessels (fishing craft, cruise ships, yachts, etc.).
state ensign – Flown on unarmed government vessels.
war ensign – Flown on warships.

In practice, a single design may be associated with multiple such usages; for example, a single design may serve a dual role as war flag and ensign. Even with such combinations, this framework is not complete: some countries define designs for usage contexts not expressible in this scheme such as air force ensigns (distinct from war flags or war ensigns, flown as the national flag at air bases; for example, see Royal Air Force Ensign
Royal Air Force Ensign
The Royal Air Force Ensign is the official flag which is used to represent the Royal Air Force. The Ensign has a field of air force blue with the Union Flag in the canton and the Royal Air Force roundel in the middle of the fly....

) and civil air ensign
Civil air ensign
A nation's civil air ensign is its national flag which represents civil aviation in that nation. Typically, it is flown from buildings connected with the administration of civil aviation and it may also be flown by airlines of the appropriate country. A civil air ensign is the equivalent of the...


Other symbols

Other symbols are used to describe how a flag looks, such as whether it has a different design on each side, or if it is hung vertically, etc. These are the symbols in general use:
  • Normal or de jure version of flag, or obverse side
  • Design was proposed in the past, but never officially adopted
  • Design is a reconstruction, based on past observations
  • Reverse side of flag
  • Design is an acceptable variant
  • Alternative version of flag
  • De facto version of flag
  • Flag has different designs on its obverse side and its reverse side
  • Obverse side meant to be hoisted with pole to the observer's right
  • Design officially authorized to represent nation by government of that nation
  • Design used in the past, but now abandoned (this symbol is not part of Smith's original set)
  • Reverse side is mirror image of obverse side
  • Reverse side is congruent to obverse side
  • Information on reverse side is not available
  • Flag can be hung vertically by hoisting on a normal pole, then turning the pole ninety degrees
  • Flag can be hung vertically by rotating the design first
  • Vertical hoist method of flag is unknown
  • Design has no element which can be rotated
  • Flags can only be hoisted vertically
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