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Alternate uses: Flag (disambiguation)

French Tricolore flag
French Tricolore flag

A flag is a piece of cloth flown from a pole or mast, usually intended for signaling or identification. Flags were initially created for signalling (as in semaphore), and for the identification of those who displayed them, and are still used for that purpose today. Flags are also used in messaging or advertising, or for decorative purposes, though at this less formal end the distinction between a flag and a simple cloth banner is blurred. Generally, a piece of cloth is a flag if it is flown like a flag, with one side attached, though many flags are recognisable if displayed in other forms.

The study of flags is known as vexillology, from the Latin vexillum meaning flag or banner.


History of Flags

The first flag-like implement to be used by humans was the vexilloid , an emblem or small sculpture on a pole, by the Egyptians, probably prior to 1000 B.C.E. They were also developed independently by Assyrians in about 750 B.C.E., and by the Celts of Western Europe. They could be made out of wood or metal, and were sometimes adorned with ribbons or bits of fabric as decoration.

Over time, people made the realization that the adornments were the more visible elements of a vexilloid. This was hastened by the development of sea travel, which called for a means of unambiguous identification over a great distance. Simple, brightly-colored designs which moved with the wind caught the eye best. Today, flags continue to be used to signal between ships or from ship to harbor. An example is an entirely yellow flag, which means that the ship's crew is quarantined for an infectious disease.

The use of flags to signal military orders or to rally troops continued until the late 19th century. Each military unit often had a unique unit flag which was often decorated with ribbons indicating battle honors, and it was considered a great honor to capture the enemies flag and a great shame to lose one's own. The practice of carrying flags into battle ended in the late 19th century when rifle fire became accurate enough to make carrying a flag suicidal.

Another use of flags is in weather announcements. Ports and ships often fly flags indicating wind conditions at sea. A red flag with a black center square indicates a gale while two such flags indicate a hurricane. Beaches often post red, yellow or green flags to indicate safe or unsafe surf or ice conditions.

Especially before radio, ships at sea could send messages by sending letters flags up, spelling out words which could be read by the different colors and designs of each flag.

The full development of heraldry in about 1200 C.E. also brought sophistication to the development and design of flags. The oldest national flag continually in use is the aforementioned Dannebrog, which dates legendarily from 1219.

National flags

Main article: National flag

One of the most popular uses of a flag is to symbolize a nation or country. Some national flags have been particularly inspirational to other nations, countries, or subnational entities in the design of their own flags. Some prominent examples include:

Flags of Non-national entities

Flags may also be adopted by:

In short, any entity seeking to establish an identity may do so by the use of a flag.

Flags at sea

Main article: Maritime flags

Flags are particularly important at sea, where they can mean the difference between life and death, and consequently where the rules and regulations for the flying of flags are strictly enforced. A national flag flown at sea is known as an ensign. A courteous, peaceable merchant ship or yacht customarily flies its ensign (in the usual ensign position) together with the flag of whatever nation it is currently visiting at the mast (known as a courtesy flag). To fly one's ensign alone in foreign water, a foreign port or in the face of a foreign warship traditionally indicates a willingness to fight, with cannon, for the right to do so. This custom is still (2004) taken quite seriously by many naval and port authorities and is readily enforced in many parts of the world by boarding, confiscation, and other civil penalties.

In some countries yacht ensigns are different from merchant ensigns in order to signal that the yacht is not carrying cargo that requires a customs declaration. Carrying commercial cargo on a boat with a yacht ensign is smuggling in many jurisdictions.

There is a system of International maritime signal flags for each numeral and letter of the alphabet. Each flag or pennant has an additional meaning when flown individually.

Flag Design

See also Flag terminology.

Flags are usually rectangular in shape, but may be of any shape or size that is practical for flying. Named shapes include pennant (and double pennant), swallowtail, triangular or swallowtail burgee, gonfanon and oriflamme. Common designs on flags include crosses, stripes, and divisions of the surface, or field, into bands or quarters - patterns and principles mainly derived from heraldry. A heraldic coat of arms may also be flown as a banner of arms. An example is the U.S. state of Maryland, or the Republic of Kiribati. Writing is common on some flags - for example, state flags of the United States, or revolutionary flags of the Soviet Union - however, the practice is generally deprecated, because the writing is hard to read on the reverse of the flag, expensive to reproduce accurately, and sewing the same design on both sides often makes the flag too heavy to fly properly.

Unusual flag designs include the non-rectangular national flag of Nepal (vaguely in the shape of two stacked triangles) and the square flag of Switzerland. Also unusual are flags with a differing design on either side, as demonstrated by the national flag of Paraguay and state flag of Oregon in the U.S.

The Use of Flags in Sports

Flags flown on a beach.
Flags flown on a beach.

Because of their ease of signalling and identification, flags are often used in sports.

  • In American and Canadian football, referees use flags to indicate an error has been made in game play. The phrase used for such an indication is flag on the play. The flag itself is a small, weighted handkerchief, tossed on the field at the approximate point of the infraction; the intent is usually to sort out the details after the current play from scrimmage has concluded. In American football, the flag is usually yellow; in Canadian football, it is usually red.
  • In auto and motorcycle racing, flags are used to communicate with drivers. Most famously, a checkered flag of black and white indicates the end of the race, and victory for the leader. A yellow flag is used to indicate caution requiring slow speed and a red flag requires racers to immediately stop. A black flag is used to indicate penalties.
  • In Association football (soccer), assistant referees carry small flags along the touch lines. They use the flags to indicate to the referee potential infringements of the Laws or who is entitled to possession of the ball that has gone out of the field of play, or, most famously, raise the flag overhead to indicate an offside offence. Officials called touch judges use flags for similar purposes in both codes of rugby.
  • In addition, fans of almost all sports will wave flags in the stands to indicate their support for the participants. Many sports teams have their own flags, and in individual sports, fans will indicate their support for a player by waving the flag of his or her home country.

See also:


  • William G. Crampton; The World of Flags; Rand McNally; ISBN 0-528-83720-6 (hardcover, 1994).
  • Ultimate Pocket Flags of the World; Dorling Kindersley; ISBN 0-7894-2085-6; (1st American edition, hardcover, 1996).

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Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45